Crisis over the Nuclear Deal

June 17, 2019

On July 8, Iran started enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, a breach of the 2015 nuclear accord. The deal allows enrichment up to 3.67 percent, which is sufficient to fuel a peaceful nuclear reactor. It was Tehran’s second breach –and second challenge to the international community to save the nuclear accord and provide the economic relief Iran was promised. "We told the Europeans that if more practical, mature and complete measures were taken, Iran's reduction (to its) commitments could be reversed. Otherwise, we will continue," said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi. The move exacerbated tensions in the Persian Gulf triggered by attacks on foreign oil tankers and a U.S. drone.  

On July 1, Iran first breached the nuclear deal by exceeding limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Tehran is only allowed to store 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium under the deal, negotiated by six major world powers. It is supposed to sell or exchange any surplus. But on May 3, 2019, the United States vowed to sanction any country or company involved in transferring enriched uranium out of Iran, leaving Tehran with few alternatives. In retaliation, Tehran announced it would no longer honor the limit on its stockpile; it subsequently accelerated the rate of production fourfold. It also vowed to continue production until the outside world, especially the Europeans, provided the economic relief promised in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a benefit for compliance.


In a statement on July 1, the White House vowed to continue “maximum pressure” on Iran. “We must restore the longstanding nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran.” Iran is “playing with fire,” Trump told reporters. Pompeo noted, however, that the Trump administration is still interested in a diplomatic resolution. “The United States is committed to negotiating a new and comprehensive deal with the Iranian regime to resolve its threats to international peace and security,” he said. The following is a chronology of the nuclear crisis since May 2019.

The following is a chronology of the nuclear crisis since May 2019. 

May 3 – The State Department outlined a new list of sanctionable actions related to Iran’s nuclear program. Washington warned that “assistance to expand Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant beyond the existing reactor unit will be exposed to sanctions.” Additionally, “any involvement in transferring enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for natural uranium will now be exposed to sanctions.”  

The United States, however, permitted certain ongoing nonproliferation projects to continue “for a renewable duration of 90 days.” For example, the Arak reactor was being redesigned to ensure that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. 

May 8 – President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would stop complying with parts of the 2015 nuclear deal. In a televised speech to his cabinet, Rouhani said Iran would resume stockpiling excess uranium and heavy water used in its nuclear reactors. Rouhani warned that Iran would remove caps on uranium enrichment and resume work at the Arak nuclear facility if Iran’s oil and banking sectors are not protected from U.S. sanctions within 60 days. Rouhani expressed his impatience with the remaining parties to the JCPOA – Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. “We have given deadlines to JCPOA member states several times,” he said. "In simpler language, we felt that there was a need for surgery and the one-year-old painkillers were not enough; today's action is a surgical procedure to save the JCPOA, not to end it.”  

In a statement, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council criticized the international community for not meaningfully responding to U.S. efforts to undermine the JCPOA, enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. “Unfortunately, the goodwill and wise self-restraint of the Iranian people have remained unanswered, and no operational mechanisms have been set up to compensate for U.S. sanctions except for the issuance of political statements.” 

In a joint statement, the E.U. foreign policy chief and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom reiterated their support for the JCPOA but also urged Iran to “implement its commitments under the JCPoA in full as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps.” 


May 20 – Iran quadrupled its uranium enrichment production capacity, which moved up the timeline under which it would surpass the JCPOA stockpile limit.  

June 11 – U.S. Ambassador Jackie Wolcott claimed that Iran was in breach of the JCPOA after a U.N. nuclear watchdog report found that it had installed 33 advanced centrifuges. The agreement allows Iran to test 30. “The United States calls on Iran to return to compliance without delay. We understand the JCPOA Joint Commission is treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves, and we urge the JCPOA participants to address this issue as soon as possible,” she told the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But Wolcott also said Washington was open to talks with Tehran toward reaching a more comprehensive agreement.  

June 15 – President Rouhani reiterated his warning that Iran will  “terminate the implementation of some of its obligations” under the JCPOA unless other signatories show “positive signals.” Iran “cannot stick to this agreement unilaterally,” he told Chinese, Russian and other Asian leaders at Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). 

June 17 – A spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency announced that Iran will surpass the JCPOA’s low-enriched uranium stockpile limit on June 27. Behrouz Kamalvandi accused European countries of “killing time” rather than moving to ensure Iran would derive significant economic benefits from the nuclear deal. “If this condition continues, there will be no deal” anymore. He also warned that Iran could enrich uranium up to 20 percent. The nuclear deal limited Iran to enriching to 3.67 percent, enough for power plants and peaceful research purposes. Enriching up to 20 percent could be a proliferation concern because uranium can be further enriched to over 90 percent, the level needed for weapons.  

June 25 – Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Iran “will forcefully take the second step of reducing its commitments” to the nuclear deal on July 7. He added that Tehran’s “patience” should not be confused with “weakness.” 

July 1 – Iran breached the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal by exceeding limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Tehran is only allowed to store 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium under the deal, negotiated by six major world powers. It is supposed to sell or exchange any surplus. "We told the Europeans that if more practical, mature and complete measures were taken, Iran's reduction (to its) commitments could be reversed. Otherwise, we will continue," said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

In a statement, the White House said "it was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level." "There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.  We must restore the longstanding nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran."

July 2 The foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Britain said they were “extremely concerned” by Iran’s decision to breach the 2015 nuclear deal. “We regret this decision by Iran, which calls into question an essential instrument of nuclear non-proliferation,” they said in a joint statement with the EU High Representative to Iran. 

July 3 – President Hassan Rouhani threatened to increase Iran’s enriched uranium levels to “any amount we want” if European countries do not find a way to sidestep U.S. sanctions by July 7. “Our level of enrichment will no longer be 3.67. We will put this commitment aside by whatever amount we feel like, by whatever amount is our necessity, our need. We will take this above 3.67,” said Rouhani on July 3. 

In a tweet, President Trump accused Iran of violating the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States before his presidency despite an IAEA report in May 2019 that found Iran in full compliance. 

In fact, the nuclear deal did not involve payment. After the deal, the Obama Administration settled a longstanding case by transferring $1.7 billion in cash, funds that dated back to a U.S. arms sale to Iran during the monarchy. The war materiel, worth $400 million, had never been delivered. The additional $1.3 billion was interest accrued over four decades. The United States also did not pay Iran $150 billion. The United States and European countries instead released a total of $100 billion in long-frozen Iranian assets.


July 6 – In a telephone conversation, French President Emmanuel Macron and President Rouhani agreed to explore ways to resume dialogue involving the parties to the nuclear deal. Macron “reiterated his deep concern over the danger of further weakening,” according to the French foreign ministry.  

July 7 –  Iran announced that it would begin enriching uranium past the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal. “Within hours, the technical tasks will be done and enrichment above 3.67 percent will begin. We predict that the IAEA measurements early tomorrow morning will show that we have gone beyond 3.67 percent,” said Iran nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi. President Rouhani had given European countries until July 7 to provide sanctions relief. 

President Trump issued a stern warning to Tehran after announcing its decision to breach the nuclear deal. Iran better be careful because you enrich for one reason and I won't tell you what the reason is. But it's no good they better be careful.” 

The German Federal Foreign Office said it was “extremely concerned” with Tehran’s decision to increase enrichment. “We strongly urge Iran to stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its commitments under the JCPoA, including the production of low enriched uranium beyond the respective JCPoA stockpile limit.” 

The U.K. Foreign Office also condemned Iran's breach of the nuclear deal. “While the UK remains fully committed to the deal, Iran must immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations. We are coordinating with other JCPoA participants regarding the next steps under the terms of the deal, including a Joint Commission," said a U.K. Foreign Office spokesman.

July 8 – Iran began enriching uranium past the 3.67 percent mark specified by the 2015 nuclear agreement.  The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that it was enriching uranium at 4.5 percent. The IAEA confirmed the breach after an inspection. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi warned that Iran’s next step will be “harder, more steadfast and somehow stunning” if European countries do not find a way to bypass U.S. sanctions.  

July 10 – The United Sates accused Iran of committing “nuclear extortion” during an emergency meeting of the IAEA in Vienna. “There is no credible reason for Iran to expand its nuclear program, and there is no way to read this as anything other than a crude and transparent attempt to extort payments from the international community,” said U.S. Ambassador to the International Organizations in Vienna.  

President Trump vowed that the United States would respond with additional sanctions against Tehran. 


July 14 – President Hassan Rouhani said Iran was ready to hold discussions with the United States if the Trump administration agreed to end crippling sanctions and return to the 2015 nuclear deal. “We have always believed in talks ... if they lift sanctions, end the imposed economic pressure and return to the deal, we are ready to hold talks with America today, right now and anywhere,” said Rouhani on state television.   

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected Rouhani’s offer. “President Trump will obviously make the final decision. But this is a path that the previous administration had gone down and it led to the (Iran nuclear deal) which this administration, President Trump and I both believe was a disaster,” he said.   

France, Britain, and Germany released a joint statement calling for dialogue to resume between all signatories of the JCPOA. The European powers warned that the 2015 nuclear deal could collapse if tensions in the Persian Gulf continued to escalate. “We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to look for ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue,” the joint statement said.  

July 15 – E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the signatory parties to the JCPOA believed that Iran’s breach of the deal was not “significant.” He claimed the parties did not want to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism that would allow them to impose sanctions against Tehran. “For the time being, none of the parties to the agreement has signaled their intention to invoke this article, which means that none of them for the moment -- for the time being with the current data we have had in particular from the IAEA -- that the non-compliance is considered to be significant," Mogherini said. 

July 18 – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to immediately accept more intrusive international inspections of Tehran’s nuclear facilities if the United States agreed to lift sanctions. He told a group of reporters that Iran’s parliament would fast track the Additional Protocol of the IAEA that would allow extensive monitoring of its nuclear program. “If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set,” Zarif said. "He has said that he will take any measure to Congress – fine. Lift the sanctions and you’ll have the Additional Protocol sooner than 2023.” The 2015 nuclear deal originally required Iran's parliament to ratify the clause by October 2023.  

July 28 – The remaining signatories of the JCPOABritain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iranmet in Vienna to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal. "The atmosphere was constructive. Discussions were good. I cannot say that we resolved everything, I can say there are lots of commitments," said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi.  

Fu Cong, the representative of the Chinese delegation, said that all parties “strongly opposed” the U.S. decision to leave the deal and impose unilateral sanctions on Tehran.  The Europeans urged Iran to fully comply with the nuclear deal, and all parties agreed to hold a higher-level meeting with foreign ministers in the future. No date was announced at the summit. 

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, announced Tehran would restart activities at the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. Salehi added that Iran had enriched 24,000 kilograms of uranium since 2015. The nuclear deal restricted Iran to a 300-kilogram stockpile. 

July 31 – Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that Iran would “take the next step” in cutting commitments to the JCPOA if Europe failed to shield Tehran from U.S. sanctions. Zarif added that European countries should guarantee the sale of Iranian oil.  

The U.S. State Department renewed five sanctions waivers permitting foreign firms to work on Iran’s civil nuclear program without penalties. The waivers, which were renewed for an additional 90 days, specifically permitted European, Russian, and Chinese companies to continue civil nuclear projects at Iranian nuclear facilities.  

Aug. 12 – Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal. “It wasn't the best deal for everybody because you cannot have the perfect deal. There is no perfect deal," he said. "And if President Trump is given correct advice, he will be able to basically accept the reality that this is the best deal possible and we can move forward." 

Aug. 19 – Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said it was a mistake for Iran to sign the 2015 nuclear deal. He added that the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign would not force concessions from Tehran. "The sanctions campaign is not for negotiation, it's for making us surrender," said Shamkhani. "As long as this approach is taken by the United States, Iran will never ever seek negotiations."

Aug. 22 – Iran said it was ready to negotiate with France over proposals to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal. French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris was willing to reduce sanctions or develop a compensation mechanism if Iran agreed to return to the deal. “There are proposals on the table, both from the French and the Iranian side, and we are going to work on those proposals tomorrow,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.  

Aug. 30 – An IAEA report revealed that Iran had further breached the 2015 nuclear deal by increasing its stock of enriched uranium and refining it to a greater purity. The assessment said Iran had accumulated 241.6 kg of enriched uranium and was enriching at up to 4.5 percent, up from 202.8-kg at 3.67 percent in a IAEA report from July. 

Sept. 2 – Iran threatened to further reduce its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal by Sept. 6 if the European Union did not find a way to ease U.S. sanctions. Tehran said it would take measures such as resuming uranium enrichment at 20 percent, which it said it could do within one to two days. “The third step has been designed and will be stronger than the first and second steps to create balance between Iran’s rights and commitments to the JCPOA,” said foreign ministry’s spokesman Abbas Mousavi.  

Sept. 4  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Tehran would give Europe another two months to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal before it took further steps to reduce its commitments. Iran originally set the deadline as Sept. 6.  

Rouhani said Iran would begin developing centrifuges for faster uranium enrichment at nuclear power plants. “From Friday, we will witness research and development on different kinds of centrifuges and new centrifuges and also whatever is needed for enriching uranium in an accelerated way,” Rouhani said. “All limitations on our Research and Development will be lifted on Friday.” 

Sept. 6 – Iran’s foreign ministry announced that it would no longer adhere to the JCPOA’s limitations on nuclear research and development. 

Sept. 7 – Iran announced that it had begun using an array of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and an array of 20 IR-4 centrifuges to enrich uranium. The IR-6 and IR-4 centrifuges are 10 and five times, respectively, as fast as the IR-1s. Under the JCPOA, Iran was only allowed to use 5,060 IR-1s. 

Sept. 8 – Two diplomatic sources told Reuters that the IAEA found uranium traces at a site that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu alleged was a “secret atomic warehouse.” The uranium was not highly enriched but called Tehran’s transparency into question. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton demanded a report as soon as possible.


Sept. 9 – Prime Minister Netanyahu alleged that Iran conducted experiments relating to nuclear weapons development at a site near the city of Abadeh. “When Iran realized that we uncovered the site, here’s what they did,” he said in televised remarks, showing a photograph of the site from a month later. “They destroyed the site. They just wiped it out.”

On Twitter, Foreign Minister Zarif accused Netanyahu of lying and posted a picture of a newspaper story discussing Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal in Dimona.