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Iran Says It Exceeded Enriched Uranium Cap

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are following news today that Iran has violated a central tenet of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran's foreign minister announced it today that the country has exceeded limits for low-enriched uranium that were set in that agreement. Nuclear inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, say they are trying to verify that this is indeed the case.

Joining us now is Corey Hinderstein of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She previously served in the Department of Energy under the Obama administration leading the Iran task force. And she worked on the 2015 nuclear deal. Thanks so much for being with us.

COREY HINDERSTEIN: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: If this is true that Iran has exceeded this limit, what does it mean for the future of the agreement?

HINDERSTEIN: I think the future of the agreement is in danger right now. And of course we want to wait and make sure that the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are able to confirm the number of enriched uranium stockpile. But if they have indeed exceeded the 300 kilograms, then what we're seeing is a very calculated and deliberate step by Iran to escalate the pressure on Europe and the other members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - the JCPOA Iran deal - to try to make good on the economic commitments that they made in exchange for the nuclear commitments that Iran took.

MARTIN: So explain that dynamic. The United States under President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, a very controversial move. That left the other signatories to the deal - the U.K., European nations, Russia and China - how does Iran think that by violating this fundamental part of the Iran nuclear deal that they're going to compel those remaining signatories to provide greater financial benefit to them?

HINDERSTEIN: Well, what Iran has done, if they have exceeded this 300 kilogram limit for enriched uranium, is that they have taken a very specific step that is central to the commitments under the Iran deal. In other words, they haven't just nibbled at something around the edges. But they've gone straight to the heart of the deal, where this number was part of a calculation that was designed to make sure that Iran would always - for the first 10 years of the nuclear deal be - at least a year away from being able to have that uranium that could be at the center of a nuclear weapon.

If they have gone straight to this commitment after - it should be said - making some threats that they would do so, then what they've done is to put the other members of the deal in a position where they either have to take action or they have to see this slow erosion of Iran's breakout timeline and have them get closer to the ability to make a nuclear weapon if they so choose.

MARTIN: Would the action by those remaining signatories be necessarily to Iran's benefit? I mean, do you think they would acquiesce, or would they actually take some kind of punitive measure against Iran?

HINDERSTEIN: Well, they're in a very difficult position right now. And they have some options. They could just walk away. They could say, look, we made commitments based on what Iran was going to do. Iran has violated that. And so even though they've been willing to kind of wait it out and see if they can continue to keep the deal breathing while the Trump administration has stepped away, they might say we can't do this anymore because Iran has now taken a key step away from the deal as well.

They also could say, look, let's start the dispute mechanism process. After all, this is an agreement that envisioned that there could be difficulties, that there could be disagreements about implementation, that there could be some conflicts. And there is a process to go forward now. So it's not something where they have to just decide tomorrow that they're dropping the hammer.

But they could say, all right, Iran, you've stepped over it - stepped over this line. Let's now start this dispute mechanism. And you have a chance to step back. And one of the things that Iran has done with this particular action is something that the foreign minister, Zarif, said today, which is this is a reversible step.

So if the members of the deal find something economically related that could give some benefit back to Iran that they found acceptable, they could easily walk back, and we would not, frankly, have lost a lot.

MARTIN: So clearly it is a negotiating tactic. I mean, substantively, does this mean Iran is actually closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon?

HINDERSTEIN: On a factual level, yes. We're talking about closer, but it doesn't mean that they can do it tomorrow. This 300 kilograms, when combined with the level of enrichment - which is now also something that we will want to watch to see if they increase that level of enrichment - and the amount of enrichment capacity, the number of machines that they have installed, those three things together tell us how close they are. So anytime you cross any of those lines, the number just starts ticking down slowly.

MARTIN: Corey Hinderstein of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Thanks for your time.

HINDERSTEIN: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this report, we say that Corey Hinderstein served in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. It would be more accurate to say she was at DOE from January 2014 to November 2017, which includes much of President Trump’s first year in office.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 2, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we say that Corey Hinderstein served in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. It would be more accurate to say she was at DOE from January 2014 to November 2017, which also includes much of President Trump's first year in office.