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Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi and government spokesman Ali Rabiei at a press conference in Tehran on July 7. Photo: Iranian Presidency/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's announcement that it's stepping up uranium enrichment levels to 5% follows its breach of the 2015 nuclear deal's stockpile limits and marks its latest escalatory gambit to secure economic relief from Europe, sanctions reductions from the U.S., or both.

Why it matters: For a year after the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran stuck to the agreement, hoping its compliance would be reciprocated by other signatories' initiatives. With Europe's special trade mechanism slow to come together, Tehran is stepping up enrichment to raise the costs of European delay and American escalation. Yet each new measure increases the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran.

Where it stands: Breaching the 300 kilogram limit on low-enriched uranium earlier this month was a fairly modest, reversible first step; increasing enrichment levels beyond the 3.67% allowed under the deal begins to chip away at the deal's non-proliferation gains. But the move is still more of a warning sign than a meaningful step toward a bomb.

What to watch: There are 3 likely scenarios.

  1. Fearful of a growing crisis, Europe seeks to mediate between Washington and Tehran. In a July 6 phone call with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the prospects of resuming nuclear talks. That would almost certainly require Iran's return to compliance with the deal and a U.S. commitment to some sanctions relief, though the latter seems unlikely.
  2. Should that fail, Europe could condemn Iran's latest move while treating it as an act of diplomatic brinkmanship rather than a non-proliferation crisis. In turn, it could expedite work on financial channels to appease Iran and keep the agreement from fully unraveling.
  3. Dissatisfied with European and the U.S. responses, Iran breaches more sensitive parts of the deal, such as enriching to 20% or limiting access by international nuclear inspectors. Europe could then initiate the JCPOA's dispute resolution mechanism for non-compliance, eventually leading to the reimposition of sanctions against Iran. The breaches also could trigger a U.S. or Israeli military operation against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The bottom line: The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA did not kill the deal, but new sanctions have made it difficult for anyone else to save the accord. As the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign continues, it leaves fewer and fewer off-ramps from potential confrontations.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, where Ali Vaez directs the Iran Project.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Economy & Business

The billionaire balloon

Data: World Inequality Report 2022; Chart: Axios Visuals

The super-rich are getting stupid rich: New data out today shows the share of global wealth held by the richest slice of humanity swelled by almost a full percentage point during the pandemic.

Driving the news: The top 0.01% of individuals now hold about 11% of the world's wealth, compared to just over 10% in 2020, according to the "World Inequality Report 2022," written by Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
1 hour ago - Health

Omicron gives a shot to boosters

Expand chart
Data: CDC; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Vaccination rates have ticked higher since the discovery of the Omicron variant, CDC data shows.

By the numbers: The seven-day average for vaccinations in the U.S. reached about 1.8 million on Monday, up from an average of about 1.3 million a month ago.

Scoop: Over 200 papers quietly sue Big Tech

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Newspapers all over the country have been quietly filing antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook for the past year, alleging the two firms monopolized the digital ad market for revenue that would otherwise go to local news. 

Why it matters: What started as a small-town effort to take a stand against Big Tech has turned into a national movement, with over 200 newspapers involved across dozens of states.