Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Iranians Will Tolerate Hardship but Not Capitulation

| May 13, 2019

Tehran’s recent nuclear policy announcements were driven by the inescapable constraints of domestic politics.

On the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the landmark nuclear deal, Iran announced that it would cease to implement some of its commitments under the accord. Because the United States has banned Iran from exporting heavy water and low enriched uranium (LEU), Iran will henceforth stop adhering to the accord’s limits on accumulating these materials: 130 metric tons in the case of heavy water and 300 kilograms of LEU (202.8 kg of uranium content). In addition, unless the other parties to the deal restore Iran’s lost oil sales and access to the international banking system, after 60 days it will cease implementing other provisions, by exceeding the 3.67 percent limit on uranium enrichment and returning to the pre-deal design of its mothballed Arak heavy water reactor.

In reaction to a series of escalatory measures by the U.S. government, Iranian leaders faced tough choices: how to most effectively respond to increasing “maximum pressure” from Washington. But the question is why now and in these specific ways?

There is an argument floating around among supporters of the deal in the United States and Europethat Iran should continue its strategic patience and practice restraint and compliance with the deal. The underlying rationale is twofold: first, to basically wait out the Trump administration in hopes that if a Democrat wins in 2020, the United States could rejoin the nuclear deal. Second, despite the fact that Iran is not reaping economic windfalls, there are some diplomatic benefits in remaining in the agreement. But if Iran violates the deal, Europeans would have to impose further sanctions, and diplomatic relations would deteriorate. This argument fails to appreciate the domestic pressure the Iranian government is facing. In reality, Tehran’s calculations do not revolve around U.S. politics. These days, domestic political considerations are paramount.

Since the Trump administration withdrew from the deal last year, there has been an intense political debate in Tehran regarding compliance with the deal. The remaining parties to the agreement—the Europeans, Russia, and China—have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to the agreement, and according to reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran has adhered to the deal.

As reimposed sanctions intensified, and hopes faded away that the remaining parties could help make up the losses, Iran’s government has been pushed not only by the hard-line voices but more recently even by the reformists to take action and break the stalemate. In addition to abandoning certain nuclear constraints, options have included taking measures to disrupt oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz or utilizing proxy forces to threaten U.S. forces or allies in Iraq and Syria.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rouhi, Mahsa.“Iranians Will Tolerate Hardship but Not Capitulation.” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2019.