Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Source: Bloomberg)

Iran Set to Scale Back Nuclear Commitments as U.S. Tensions Rise

(Bloomberg) -- Iran signaled Monday that it may scale back some commitments made as part of the 2015 nuclear deal in response to tightening U.S. sanctions, a move that could escalate tensions after the Trump administration deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf.

Iran does not plan to follow Trump in abandoning the accord, which curbed its nuclear program in return for an end to some sanctions, but is set to make minor and general reductions to some of its commitments, an Iranian official involved with its implementation was cited as saying by the state-run Iranian Students News Agency.

President Hassan Rouhani is expected to make the announcement via state media on Wednesday and roll out the steps, the official said. The plans have been communicated informally to European Union officials, the official added without giving details.

The Wall Street Journal cited European diplomats as saying that Iran may step up research into centrifuges that could produce highly enriched uranium faster. It wasn’t clear if such a measure would represent a clear breach of the deal or be largely symbolic in its significance.

The nuclear accord, reached in 2015 after years of painstaking multi-lateral negotiations, put strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for an easing of years of sanctions.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord a year ago, reimposed measures against Iran and has made confronting the Islamic Republic a cornerstone of his foreign policy, designating its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity and sending the USS Abraham Lincoln and a bomber force to the Gulf as a warning.

The Trump administration ratcheted up economic pressure early this month by letting waivers allowing eight governments to import Iranian oil expire. It has said its goal is to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero, part of a bid to force Tehran to change its policy in the Middle East, including its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah, which the U.S. and some other nations consider a terrorist group.

European signatories of the nuclear deal have stuck with it and pledged to find ways to ease the impact of U.S. measures and ensure Iran gets some benefit from continuing to meet its commitments. Those efforts have proved inconclusive so far, however.

Representatives of the European Union, the French, German and British governments and Iran are scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Brussels to discuss their joint efforts and how to make operational a special purpose vehicle set up by the Europeans to facilitate trade with the country, according to an official from the bloc.

The official cited the need for mechanisms to be put in place for the EU-based Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges -- or Instex -- and its Iranian counterpart. It was not clear whether Iran’s plans to scale back on some of its commitments under the nuclear accord would be discussed or how they might affect European policy.

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