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Iran Won't Honor Its Commitment To Limit Uranium Enrichment

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So amid the funeral processions for Soleimani, Iran has also made an announcement. It says it will suspend compliance with key parts of a nuclear agreement. What are the implications of that?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, Richard Johnson served in the State Department working on Iran nuclear issues. He was there as the nuclear deal took shape under President Obama and continued in the State Department until he left as President Trump withdrew from the deal. Mr. Johnson, welcome to our studios.

RICHARD JOHNSON: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So Iran says they're suspending compliance with the nuclear deal. What does that word, suspending, mean?

JOHNSON: Well, Iran's announcement is very interesting because they say they're going to not be upheld to the operational areas of the nuclear deal. This is primarily focused on uranium enrichment.

But Foreign Minister Javad Zarif actually clarified on Twitter that they're not actually leaving, formally, the JCPOA, which means that things like the very intense and extraordinary verification measures that are part of the deal will still remain in place. And every indication we have is that Iran intends to continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is actually good news because even if Iran continues to expand its enrichment activities, the international community will have some insight as to what it's doing. And if it tries to break out towards a nuclear bomb, we will have forewarning.

INSKEEP: So a measured response, but they are saying, we're going to stop following the instructions for the amount of uranium we can enrich, and of course, that's the stuff that would become, potentially, the fuel for a nuclear weapon. How concerning is that?

JOHNSON: It's very concerning. As you may recall, in the nuclear deal itself, we talked about this idea of breakout timeline - how much time it would take for Iran to get at least material for one nuclear bomb. In the nuclear deal, that set that timeline at about one year. Now with the steps that Iran has started to take, beginning back in May, actually - this is the fifth - as they would say, the fifth and final step that they are taking - that timeline has probably shrunk down to maybe nine, 10 or 11 months.

That's still a good amount of time to give the international community warning. But as they continue to take this step, we will get closer and closer to them having enough material for a weapon if they chose to go there.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask if there is somewhere in here a potential trigger for a war that everybody on each side says they do not want? Because even as the Trump administration withdrew from the deal, they've continued to say to Iran - better follow that deal; better not be enriching uranium. Is there anything that President Trump or other U.S. officials have said that amount to a redline - that if Iran went too far, it would trigger a U.S. strike?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that if Iran were to literally break out of the deal - that is, to divert material to facilities that have previously not been declared - that would be a major concern. Again, what's interesting is it seems that Iran is staying within this peaceful case. They did not announce, for example, that they wanted to reconstitute a plutonium production reactor at Arak that they had actually taken apart under the deal. And this is a facility that Israel was extremely concerned about.

And so I think you have to watch and see what they actually do as opposed to what they say. We will know actually probably in a few days if they take additional steps because the IAEA will be able to monitor that and make a report to the international community.

INSKEEP: Where do the Europeans stand in all of this, European powers that have wanted the deal to be preserved?

JOHNSON: The Europeans are in a really tough spot. They want to save this deal. They see it as a major diplomatic achievement. But there's not really much that they can do. By reimposing the sanctions that were lifted in the Obama administration, the Trump administration basically said, make a choice - either do business with Iran or do business with the United States. You can kind of figure out where they're going to go with that.

INSKEEP: Mr. Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Richard Johnson, formerly of the U.S. State Department, now with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.