Analysis

Iran Still Has Room to Maneuver, but Trump Is Running Out of Diplomatic Options

Rohani's move in violation of the nuclear deal may indicate Tehran is ready for a new formula, but the true question is whether Washington is willing to change tack

Trump and Rohani.
AP / AFP

Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to a level higher than the nuclear deal permits, but without saying how high it intends to enrich it, looks like salami tactics. About 10 days ago, it increased its quantity of enriched uranium; now, it’s increasing its “quality.”

The next stage, it says, will come in another two months, when it might raise both the quantity and the enrichment level again.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 33Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastened to equate Iran’s moves with those of Nazi Germany, which occupied and annexed more and more territory while the world deemed each step “insignificant.” But the Iranian story is completely different.

>> Read more: Netanyahu is leading Trump into disaster with Iran | Opinion ■ No talks, no war: For some Washington hawks, one Iran strategy remains | Analysis 

Iran signed a nuclear deal that froze its nuclear program for at least 15 years. It honored that agreement to the letter for three years, until U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it and imposed hefty sanctions over the objections of the deal’s other signatories.

Tehran’s belated reaction is an attempt to use the only threat still available to it – violations of the deal – to force America and the three European signatories to honor their side by removing the sanctions. Thus it began its pressure campaign by sticking to the main elements of the deal while urging Europe, so far unsuccessfully, to find a way to circumvent U.S. sanctions.

But if Iran is using salami tactics, Trump has used an axe. The result is that Washington is rapidly running out of diplomatic options. Instead, it has trapped itself on a military course that’s a bone of contention both within the administration and between the administration and Congress.

Iran, in contrast, still has a lot of room to maneuver. It can increase both its quantity of enriched uranium and the level of enrichment in stages, until it reaches a 20 percent enrichment level. That level is generally considered to indicate intent to pursue nuclear weapons, but at the same time cannot constitute proof of it.

The main target of Tehran’s game is Europe, which hasn’t yet joined the U.S. sanctions and is trying to reach a consensus on opening negotiations with Iran. On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rohani spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and told him that if the U.S. suspends all the sanctions it could pave the path for new negotiations.

He didn’t say what Iran was prepared to discuss. But Tehran’s very willingness to enter negotiations is a new position. Until now, it has vehemently refused to reopen the nuclear deal.

Now, however, it has recognized the futility of this stance. And it has set freezing the sanctions – rather than canceling them – as its goal.

This also differs from its stance before the nuclear deal was signed. Then, it demanded recognition of its right to enrich uranium in any amount and to any level it pleased.

In other words, it still views the nuclear agreement as valid. It is simply demanding that the situation be restored to what it was before the U.S. withdrew from the deal.

Granted, supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s stated position is different from Rohani’s; Khamenei still opposes any negotiations with Washington. But Rohani’s proposal to Macron undoubtedly had Khamenei’s consent.

Nevertheless, Iran is treading dangerously near the brink. As long as there’s a gap between the European and U.S. positions, with Russia and China backing the former, Tehran can presume itself safe from a military attack. But it must read the diplomatic map correctly to figure out when this gap will close – or in other words, at what point Europe will also start viewing Iran’s steps as substantive violations of the nuclear deal that require it to impose its own sanctions or go to the UN Security Council to try to mobilize an international consensus on new sanctions.

Reading the diplomatic map, especially since Trump was elected, is hard for the entire world, not just Iran. But Tehran was apparently surprised by the impact of the U.S. sanctions. Last year, when Washington first withdrew from the deal, Iran still thought it could rely on major oil customers like India, South Korea, Japan and China and on European anger at the U.S..

The new economic reality hasn’t yet undermined the Iranian regime’s stability, nor is Iran on the verge of economic collapse. But its breathing room is gradually shrinking, despite the enormous financial cushion it still has in hidden stashes. This means Iran can no longer plan its moves as far in advance as before. And the salami is gradually shrinking.

At the same time, the U.S.'s options are not thrilling either. As long as Trump sticks to the most recent advice he got from his favorite journalist – that any military move could be disastrous for the United States – and Iran isn’t willing to negotiate with him, he will have to rely on the services of Europe, Russia or China to open a window for the talks that he so desires.

What Trump ought to do is use the sanctions as coin with which to launch negotiations rather than as a hammer to destroy the nuclear agreement. This would admittedly be a hard step for the arrogant president to swallow, but it might well produce the result he seeks.

The basis for negotiations would be very different than it was in the original nuclear deal. Then, Iran agreed to a package of concessions in exchange for the removal of sanctions – an “everything for everything” deal. Now, the U.S. needs to offer a gradual removal of sanctions in exchange for gradual results in the new negotiations, all without undermining the essence of the nuclear deal.

Rohani’s statement may indicate that Iran is ready for such a formula. The question is whether it has an American partner.