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DUBAI — European leaders are scrambling to save the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which Tehran says it will continue to breach unless it gets protections from American economic sanctions.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday that there was still room for diplomacy, saying the deal "isn't dead yet."
"Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb," Hunt told reporters in Brussels. "There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive." He said that the parties to the deal would meet to discuss next steps, and added that while the U.S. was a critical ally, he disagreed with Washington's current approach to Iran.
"We are looking to find a way to preserve the nuclear deal which we think is the best way of keeping the Middle East as a whole nuclear weapon free."
Iran is threatening to return to its nuclear development status before the enactment of the 2015 deal signed with the U.S. and other major world powers unless Europe can guarantee its trade and economic protections originally agreed to during the accord, Iranian nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said Monday.
Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and meant to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program, the deal has been on life support since the Donald Trump administration withdrew from it in May of last year and reimposed heavy sanctions on Tehran, crippling its oil sector and large parts of its economy.
Tehran has already given the country's nuclear agency the green light to breach its internationally-agreed stockpile limits on low-enriched uranium, a step that technically can bring Iran closer to having a nuclear bomb. Iran also says it's begun to exceed its limit on enriching uranium, the element can serve as fissile material in a nuclear weapon.
Tensions have skyrocketed between Tehran and Washington in recent months, with Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone and Trump administration officials blaming the Islamic Republic for attacks on commercial tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, charges the Iranians deny. In June, Trump claimed to have called off an imminent military strike on Iranian targets just 10 minutes before launching the attack.
It's Iran's further potential steps that really scare nuclear experts, for instance upping uranium enrichment to 20% — the level it had before the deal was brokered — which in early 2015 made Iran's breakout time to weapons-grade material about three months, scientists believed. A number of scientists predict that current breakout time is about one year, though the ability to fit a bomb onto a device and deliver it is still further off, they say.
Experts interviewed by CNBC say the most worrisome next steps are twofold: Iran's threats to exceed its JCPOA enrichment cap of 3.67%, the amount allowed for civilian energy production, and the potential reversal of the modernization of its Arak heavy water research reactor, which under the deal was being altered to dismantle its ability to develop nuclear weapons.
Trump reimposed heavy economic penalties, most significantly on Iran's massive oil sector, last year in response to what his administration calls "malign activity" in the Middle East including support for terrorist proxies like Hezbollah and ballistic missile testing. In terms of abiding by the deal's requirements, however, international inspection agencies say Iran was in compliance.
In May, Trump's administration ended the granting of waivers to the remaining importers of Iranian oil with the aim of slashing the country's crude exports to zero. Iran's economy is in severe recession and its inflation is expected to exceed 40% this year.
While the other signatories to the nuclear deal — France, Germany and the U.K. as well as Russia and China — have tried to keep the agreement alive, Tehran says that unless they can shield it from the punishing effect of the American sanctions and revive trade, particularly in oil, Iran will continue to renege on its JCPOA obligations.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in early July that Iran would reverse exceeding its stockpile limits "once European signatories to the nuclear deal meet their obligations." But engaging in that trade would mean falling foul of harsh U.S. secondary sanctions.
The Europeans have endeavored to come up with a mechanism to trade with Iran that avoids using dollars. But the success of this mechanism, called INSTEX, is dubious and so far, it's not enough for the Iranians.