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The Future Of The Iran Nuclear Deal


Much of the U.N.-Iran crisis we have seen playing out in recent days still centers around the 2015 nuclear deal. We're going to take a look now at whether that deal is, indeed, doomed. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of it two years ago, re-imposed sanctions that it lifted. In turn, Iran started to break parts of the deal. European partners in the deal are caught in the middle. They want to save the deal but gave Iran a warning this past week on Wednesday. NPR's Peter Kenyon looks at where it stands.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Nonproliferation experts are wondering if the end is near for a complicated piece of diplomacy that saw Iran significantly cut back on its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the signs aren't good.

JAMES ACTON: Well, the deal is not dead yet. But I think, realistically, it's not likely to survive very much longer.

KENYON: Acton says he's been pessimistic about the deal's future ever since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018, saying Iran needed to negotiate a much tougher and longer-lasting agreement. Acton says after that, it was only a matter of time before Iran stopped abiding by its commitments, as well. Now, he says, the Iranian attacks on U.S. military personnel at bases in Iraq, and especially the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, have pushed things even closer to the breaking point.

ACTON: I think over the long term, that assassination probably will speed up the demise of the deal by further straining U.S.-Iranian relations and creating incentives in - within Iran for it to pull out of its remaining commitments.

KENYON: Other nonproliferation experts are taking a slightly more optimistic view. Laura Rockwood, longtime nuclear safeguards official with the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, now directs the group Open Nuclear Network in Vienna. She says, rhetoric aside, what Iran has actually done to date doesn't add up to a sprint to acquire nuclear weapons.

First, she says, Iran is still cooperating with IAEA inspectors. Second, Iran has also not threatened to pull out of another important agreement, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Rockwood says her cautious optimism could change if Tehran starts enriching to a higher level of purity - say, to 20% or more.

LAURA ROCKWOOD: If Iran were to enrich uranium above 20%, which is considered high-enriched uranium - probably not high enough or weapons-grade, but it's more than what they need - that would send a very bad signal.

KENYON: At stake is a deal designed to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for at least a decade. Rockwood says most of Iran's violations can still be reversed fairly easily. What would really set alarm bells ringing would be a move to stop allowing the inspectors to see what's going on at Iran's nuclear sites.

ROCKWOOD: Incredibly important - it's fundamental. If they were to choose to not cooperate with the IAEA, this would send an extremely bad message.

KENYON: The latest pressure on the deal came Wednesday from Europe. Britain, France and Germany announced they're invoking the deal's dispute resolution mechanism, which amounts to a formal accusation that Iran's breaching the agreement. That prompted Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during his first Friday prayer sermon in eight years, to blast those European countries as enemies of Iran.


SUPREME LEADER ALI KHAMENEI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: "Today, everyone knows it clearly," he said. "After waiting for one year," Khamenei added, "it became clear that they, the Europeans, are actually servants of the U.S. - servants of the U.S." He repeated it for emphasis.

The European move could lead to more sanctions on Iran, which is what the U.S. wants. Meanwhile, the German defense minister has confirmed that the White House threatened its European allies with punitive trade tariffs if they didn't formally accuse Iran of violating the nuclear deal. Now they've done so, and they're waiting for Iran's response.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.