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As soon as tomorrow, Iran could announce that its uranium stockpiles have exceeded limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel looks at what it means to cross that line.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The Iran deal is full of numbers and figures, but its purpose is simple - to slow down Iran's nuclear program. Before the deal, it was within a few weeks of making enough material to build a nuclear bomb if it wanted to. The deal pushed that timeline back to about a year, but that was then. In 2018, President Trump pulled out of the deal.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime.
BRUMFIEL: And without the economic benefits Iran was promised, it has begun going back on parts of the agreement. For example, the deal made Iran get rid of lots of low-enriched uranium which can be refined into much more dangerous bomb-grade uranium. After signing up to the deal, Iran had a cap on low-enriched uranium - 300 kilograms.
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BEHROUZ KAMALVANDI: We will exceed the 300-kilogram limit.
BRUMFIEL: That was the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran last week. He says Iran will cross the line on Thursday. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security says from a technical perspective, it's not that big a deal. Low-enriched uranium can't be turned directly into a weapon.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: They're going to have to produce around a ton or a thousand kilograms before you start to really get nervous.
BRUMFIEL: But the 300-kilogram limit is one of those key numbers in the agreement.
ALBRIGHT: It's a major bridge for them to go across.
BRUMFIEL: Corey Hinderstein is with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She was a U.S. official overseeing parts of the deal until 2017. She agrees. Technically it's not that important. But politically it matters.
COREY HINDERSTEIN: With the threat now that Iran might start violating some of the core principles of the deal, this deal that's been on life support might be dead.
BRUMFIEL: She says a big part of the reason Iran is reneging goes back to those sanctions the U.S. reimposed last year. They punish businesses who work with Iran even if they're outside the U.S.
HINDERSTEIN: So we've seen large companies that had intended to do business with Iran and provide that economic benefit that was keeping Iran complying with their nuclear commitments - we've seen those companies have to step back and say, we can't afford to lose the U.S. market.
BRUMFIEL: Without investment from companies in places like Europe, China and Russia, Iran's economy is tanking. Iran is threatening to cross more lines in coming weeks unless another party to the deal, Europe, can come through with some economic relief. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is with the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K. She says European negotiators are racing to complete a package of humanitarian aid by early July.
ANISEH BASSIRI TABRIZI: They are working towards that end goal to showcase to the Iranians that they're actually working in practical terms to address some of these issues.
BRUMFIEL: If the U.S. doesn't object to the aid delivery, that may open the possibility of more economic relief flowing to Iran. But Tabrizi says it remains to be seen whether Europe's help will be enough.
TABRIZI: Iran has made it clear that it needs also to be able to continue to export its oil.
BRUMFIEL: For now, Iran continues to push the limits, and with each line that it crosses, the nuclear deal is fading. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.
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