Iran on 5 January took the final step in reducing its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), removing the last operational restriction on the development of its nuclear programme.
This followed the US killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January.
A government statement by reducing its commitments, Iran discards the last main component of its operational limitations in the JCPOA: the "limit on the number of centrifuges”.
Iran no longer faces any operational restrictions, including enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development.
Iran's nuclear programme will now be developed solely based on its technical needs. However, cooperation with the International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA) will continue as before. “If the sanctions are lifted and Iran benefits from its interests enshrined in the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic is ready to return to its commitments," the statement said.
In May 2018, US President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the July 2015 JCPOA between the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) and Iran, reached after 12 years of negotiations, and reimposed stringent sanctions on Iran.
In retaliation for the US withdrawal, Tehran had previously reduced its commitments under the JCPOA three times in line with Articles 26 and 36 of the agreement consistently stressing that these steps would be reversed as soon as Europe implemented practical ways to shield mutual trade from the US sanctions. In particular, this refers to the EU financial mechanism for trade with Iran to bypass US sanctions known as the INSTEX, which has yet to be activated.
Five steps as Iran ends commitments under nuclear deal
As a first step, Iran increased its enriched uranium stockpile to beyond the 300kg set by the JCPOA as well as its stocks of heavy water.
As the second step, uranium was enriched to purity rates beyond the JCPOA limit of 3.76%.
In the third phase, after Europe missed a 60-day deadline to meet Iran’s demands and fulfil their JCPOA commitments, Iran started up advanced centrifuges. It activated 20 IR-4 and 20 IR-6 centrifuges for research and development purposes.
Finally, in November, Iran began injecting gas into centrifuges at the Fordow plant (under IAEA supervision) as part of its fourth step away from the JCPOA.
International reaction to Iran's
On 6 January, the European signatories to the JCPOA (France, the UK and Germany) called on Iran to refrain from any violent action. They urged Iran to go back to respecting JCPOA arrangements.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed Iran's dissatisfaction with the attitude of Germany and the UK, following a series of phone calls, noting that Europe's lack of understanding on regional developments was a grave strategic mistake. He criticised their failure to comply with their JCPOA commitment and said implementing those commitments was the only way forward. European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also expressed regret over Iran’s decision. At the same time, Moscow called on all the partners “to stay within the JCPOA course and create conditions for resuming its stable implementation”. AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi said: “Europe wants the JCPOA to survive. The JCPOA is of security importance to them, but whether this demand is commensurate with their ability [to resist US pressures] is a different issue.
At the end of December, Salehi had inaugurated the first phase of installing equipment in the secondary circuit of Iran's 40MW Arak heavy-water reactor.
All the equipment was designed and made by the Iranian experts.
Under the JCPOA, Iran had agreed to redesign the Arak research reactor, to limit its potential output of plutonium. The work was to be done over five years by Iran, China, and the USA. When the USA withdrew from the agreement, the UK took its place.
In July Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani hinted that the reactor modifications would be reversed if the other signatories to the deal failed to meet their commitments under the accord. The current status of the Arak reactor is unclear.
In a statement, earlier in December, France, Germany and the UK had welcomed the decision by six other European countries to join INSTEX, while reaffirming their readiness to consider all mechanisms in the JCPOA, including the dispute resolution mechanism, to resolve the issues related to Iran’s implementation of its JCPOA commitments. There had also been mention of the snapback or trigger mechanism incorporated in the JCPOA, which allows previous United Nations sanctions to be reimposed on Iran without a vote in the Security Council. However, INSTEX remains unimplemented, and Iran insists that using the trigger mechanism would be illegal as long as Europe fails to fulfil its obligations under the nuclear deal.