Analysis

Iran Dialing Back on Nuclear Deal Could Be First Step Toward Armed Conflict With West

Tehran will have a hard time amassing a united European front against economic sanctions, but Washington doesn’t seem to have a strategy to manage the crisis

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, May 8, 2019.
Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rohani described his country’s decision to reduce its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal as “diplomacy with a new language and a new logic.” He said Tehran wasn’t abandoning the agreement with the world powers, while the “path we have chosen today is not the path of war, it is the path of diplomacy.” But this new language could be interpreted in the West as the first step of escalation toward a military conflict with Iran.

At this stage, reducing a commitment to the deal means not selling excess enriched uranium and heavy water that Iran produces under the agreement. Tehran is permitted to possess around 330 kilograms (728 pounds) of enriched uranium at 3.67 percent, which is designated for producing electricity. (Before Iran signed the deal, it held more than 22,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.)

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To meet the deal’s conditions, Tehran must sell or deliver the excess uranium and heavy water to other countries. Iran is expected to soon send a technical document to the five remaining signatories (since the United States withdrew) in which it will detail its plans for the excess uranium, the amounts, and what if any further steps it will take.

Its decision Wednesday is a substantial strategic turnabout in Iranian policy. Iran had carefully fulfilled all its obligations despite the U.S. withdrawal exactly a year ago. Tehran is apparently trying to force the European powers in the deal to complete implementation of the financial mechanism designed to help Iran bypass the American sanctions, to elicit a change in European policy that would pressure Washington or at least deepen the breach between Europe and the U.S. administration.

Iran is also relying on clauses in the deal letting it take steps if one party withdraws. Such a decision, however, could boomerang, hurting Iran’s interests because the Americans could use it as proof that Tehran is not only violating the agreement gradually for diplomatic gain but also intends to fully withdraw and revive its nuclear program for military purposes.

France’s announcement that Iran’s move could push Europe toward joining the U.S.-led sanctions indicates that Tehran will have a hard time amassing a united European front against the sanctions. Still, the road to military confrontation remains long. Europe is divided over the sanctions, while Russia and China haven’t made their positions clear on Tehran’s move, though China has reduced its oil purchases from Iran in response to American pressure.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani at a news conference in Baghdad, March 11, 2019.
Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

China’s position also depends on trade talks with the United States. Russia’s position derives from its efforts to be a regional player against the United States. Both powers have investment plans for Iran worth billions of dollars, which are helping prop up Iran economically. These major interests could insulate Tehran from a military confrontation if Russia makes clear that any attack on Iran would trigger a Russian response.

The Iranian move stems from the domestic disputes and bitter rivalries; on one side is Rohani and his supporters in the government and parliament. On the other is the conservative elite, which includes Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. The war of words between Rohani and the Guard has lasted years since he accused the Guard of controlling most branches of the economy, failing to pay taxes and wasting public funds.

The president’s rivals, meanwhile, blame his government for mismanagement and damaging the regime and “principles of the revolution” because he hasn’t delivered on the economic prosperity that was supposed to accompany the nuclear deal. The mass demonstrations, the strikes and finally Iran’s flood disasters in March put Rohani in the court of public opinion. Politically, he has been forced to reshuffle his cabinet.

However, the nature of the Iranian regime, with Khamenei ultimately responsible for events, has tied the supreme leader to these failures, prompting him to try to divert some of the fire. Thus he replaced Mohammad Ali Jafari with Hossein Salami as head of the Revolutionary Guard last month, a year before Jafari’s term was to end. The appointment of Salami, who’s more hawkish toward the United States and Israel, occurred shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to include the Guard on the U.S. terror list. He’s supposed to telegraph an aggressive message against Washington’s decision.

At the same time, the Revolutionary Guard chief is also responsible for the nuclear program, and it seems he was influential in the decision to lower Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal. This step further restricts Rohani’s political maneuverability. The president and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may remain the spokesmen of the new policy, but the backing they received at the start of the nuclear talks and the credit they received for sealing it have evaporated. It’s doubtful whether there’s anyone in Iran who could balance the ambitions of the new Revolutionary Guard chief and the need to carefully manage diplomatic brinkmanship.

The problem is that the U.S. administration also has a cabal of hawkish decision-makers, the toughest Washington has known, headed by Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They never took a course on delicate diplomacy. Meanwhile, they aren’t offering a realistic strategy besides sanctions and threats, not only to manage the current crisis but also for the stage when Iran decides to escalate.