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Iran turns back to nuclear program a year after Trump pulled out of disarmament accord

Iran turns back to nuclear program a year after Trump pulled out of disarmament accord
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a Cabinet meeting in Tehran on May 8. (Iranian Presidency Office)

Iran’s president said for the first time Wednesday that his government will stop complying with parts of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal after the White House sent a Navy carrier task force to the region and tightened a chokehold on the country’s oil exports.

The White House announced several hours after the Iranian announcement that it was imposing additional economic sanctions to target Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum and copper industries, increasing pressure on the already battered economy.

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The dueling moves and rising tensions came one year after President Trump withdrew from the landmark nuclear disarmament pact negotiated by the Obama administration, which he called a “disastrous one-sided deal” that failed to end Iran’s “malign activity.”

“We call on the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions, change its destructive behavior, respect the rights of its people, and return in good faith to the negotiating table,” Trump said Wednesday in a White House statement.

Earlier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on national TV that Iran would stockpile surplus enriched uranium, rather than sending it abroad, and would consider restarting production of bomb-grade uranium, a far more serious threat.

Although Rouhani said Iran’s moves did not violate the 2015 accord, his announcement increased pressure on other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — to do more to save the agreement or watch it collapse.

The accord sought to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for relief from sanctions. It was approved by the United Nations Security Council, and U.N. inspectors repeatedly concluded that Iran was complying with its terms.

The five other nations have largely stuck to the agreement since Trump pulled out, but Rouhani said they gave only “lip service” while stiffer U.S. sanctions sent Iran’s economy into a tailspin.

“The Europeans asked us to be patient, and we were patient for a year,” Rouhani said. “Europeans have given good lip service and propaganda but have practically done nothing tangible for the Iranian economy.”

Analysts said U.S. allies in Europe have little choice if the decision is whether to back America, a longtime ally, or support Iran, a potential threat.

“The Europeans are boxed in,” said Ariane Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank in Washington. “If they are noncompliant with U.S. sanctions they would be in trouble, and businesses don’t want to expose themselves.”

Rouhani spoke three days after the White House national security advisor, John Bolton, said the Pentagon was diverting the Abraham Lincoln carrier task force and Air Force bombers to counter what the administration said was intelligence indicating Iranian security forces appeared to be considering attacks on U.S. forces or allies.

Speaking in London, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said the United States and Europe “will move together to ensure that Iran has no pathway for a nuclear weapon system.” He said he thought Rouhani’s warning was “intentionally ambiguous.”

U.S. and Iranian analysts described it as a warning shot to demonstrate that Tehran has options to counter Washington’s punishment.

“Iran needs leverage and bargaining chips in any future talks with the U.S. that one day will happen,” Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a former Iranian lawmaker and independent political scientist, said in Tehran.

Rouhani insisted Iran remained committed to the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but would scale back cooperation over the next 60 days while demanding new terms.

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If other signatories don’t act to protect Iran from U.S. sanctions in the next two months, he said, Iran would consider resuming higher enrichment of uranium, which is currently capped, and begin developing its Arak heavy water reactor based on plans made before the deal was signed, an indication that the accord had broken down.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in Moscow, accused the Europeans of bowing to U.S. pressure to cut off oil sales, the main source of Iran’s foreign currency.

“We had strategic patience,” Zarif said, “but unfortunately the Europeans have failed to resist the pressures of the American administration.”

The Trump administration announced the oil embargo last November, but gave six-month waivers to the eight largest importers — including China, India, Turkey, Japan and South Korea — to give them time to wean off dependence on Iranian oil.

Those waivers expired last week and the White House said they would not be renewed and that countries that continued to import oil could face U.S. sanctions. Several of the countries have cut their imports to zero, but others, including China and India, have not.

The United States has now imposed sanctions on Iran’s three top exports — oil, petrochemicals and metals. It also has sanctions on the country’s shipping and financial sectors.

The Kremlin sided with Iran and accused Washington of recklessly provoking Tehran’s actions.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran was working. The value of Iran's currency has fallen to record lows, its annual inflation rate has quadrupled and foreign investment has shrunk dramatically.

“We are making Iran’s foreign policy prohibitively expensive," Hook said at the State Department.

In addition to economic sanctions, the Treasury Department has blacklisted nearly 1,000 Iranian officials and companies and officially listed the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

Trump long had vowed to abandon the nuclear deal, which he called fatally flawed because some of its restrictions would eventually expire. He also complained that it did not stop Iran from developing ballistic missiles and supporting militant groups in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn., a research group in Washington that favored the deal, said Tehran’s response was worrisome but predictable.

“The logical consequence of Trump’s approach to punishing Iran despite its compliance … is that Iranians do not see the value of that compliance,” Kimball said in an interview.

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Iran probably is constrained in its policy decisions because the White House can crack down further if Tehran tries to revive its nuclear program — a step it still hasn’t taken.

“Iranians don't have great options that improve the predicament they find themselves in without eliciting potentially more costly backlash,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington. Times staff writer Melissa Etehad contributed from Los Angeles.

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