The U.S. State Department heaped praise Tuesday on Britain, France and Germany for their decision to launch a process to settle the nuclear dispute with Iran. In Washington’s view, such a process, as it is defined in 2015’s nuclear agreement, could eventually lead to the re-imposition of international sanctions on Iran, or at least pressure Tehran into going back to how things were before it began violating the agreement in May.
But the Americans “forgot” to mention that it was in fact President Donald Trump who began dismantling the deal by withdrawing from it. The aspiration to move Iran back to a previous situation is actually recognition of the deal’s importance as a means of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
In this context, it is worth looking at Israeli intelligence’s assessment that Iran will have enough enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear bomb by the end of the year, and would need about two years to build a missile to carry it “if Iran decides to do so.” This assessment also notes that if Trump had kept the U.S. in the pact, Iran would have taken at least 10 years to begin manufacturing weapons-grade enriched uranium; that is, a period of time that would have allowed other agreements with Iran to be reached, perhaps even on the production of ballistic missiles.
Now that a diplomatic process has been launched, the five powers that are signatories to the agreement will have 30 days – which can be extended if headway is made – to reach understandings with Iran. If talks fail, the signatories, together or separately, will be able to ask the UN Security Council to re-impose international sanctions on Iran.
The negotiation scenarios range from an Iranian refusal to hold talks before U.S. sanctions are lifted, thus putting an end to the diplomatic process, to Iranian willingness to begin talks and stop uranium enrichment for a limited period in order to show its intention to reach an agreement (and thus delay for a long period the intention to turn to the Security Council).
When Iran recently announced its fifth step in stepping away from the nuclear agreement, it made clear that from now on it would be free to enrich uranium to the quantity and quality required “for its needs.” It did not say clearly whether it intended to enrich the uranium for purposes of research and development.
Tehran did, however, threaten that it could also enrich uranium to 20 percent, considered the lower threshold of enrichment for military purposes (which require uranium enrichment of more than 90 percent). But it did not officially state the level and quantity of enrichment that it seeks. These statements could signal that Iran is still using the threat of enrichment for diplomatic leverage to achieve its goal of lifting American sanctions.
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The lifting of sanctions is essential for Iran because although Europe did not join them, they restrict European companies and prevent them from doing business with Iran, which would open them up to U.S. boycott and penalties.
This is also the reason that the European Union, which is holding to the agreement, has so far gotten around the sanctions, which could release Iran, even partially, from economic siege.
The key question is whether Iran will withdraw from the ultimate demand it has presented – that only the lifting of sanctions will bring it to the negotiating table with the signatories to the agreement, including the United States. Iran has apparently already concluded that its efforts to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe have failed. The announcement by European countries that they intend to begin a process of conflict resolution, even if their intention is to motivate Iran to negotiate, reconnects the United States to Europe.
The series of violations initiated by Iran did not produce the results it had hoped for. It now faces a double dilemma – strategic and political. From the strategic perspective, Iran must decide whether it can deal with full European sanctions and a return to the severe international sanctions that were imposed on it before the agreement, given its fragile economic situation (although its economy has still not collapsed). Is development of a nuclear weapon an essential goal, and is the continued development of ballistic missiles a military necessity?
From the political perspective, Iran recognizes the impact of sanctions on civil unrest that is not abating, and even if the regime is sure that it can continue to repress protests, it will also have to pay with real money to meet its people’s demands. Publicly, Iran’s leadership seems in accord over the need to “stand strong” against international pressure and continue its “resistance economy” to deal with the sanctions – and at the moment there are no influential elements within the regime that oppose this line, dictated by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran does have a financial pillow that allows it to fund its ongoing actions, including those outside the country – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But it has already announced budget cuts in its defense ministry and the army this year (but not for the Revolutionary Guards, including its elite Quds Force), and it will also demand cuts to subsidies and development budgets.
But Iran is not the only party that needs to make its calculations. The United States has fully exhausted the weapon of sanctions without bringing Iran down. The military option is not on the table, at least not according to President Trump’s pronouncements, and it seems that he too will be happy if the Europeans are able to pull his irons out of the fire.
The Europeans, who won most of the contracts Iran awarded after the nuclear agreement came into force, want to fulfill them. To achieve this goal, they will have to convince Trump – who would like to arrive at talks with Iran – to show enough flexibility to encourage Iran to enter talks, and propose a plan that would maintain Tehran’s dignity and at least meet some of its economic demands regarding sanctions. To obtain Iran’s consent to changes or secondary agreements, there will be no choice but for the original agreement to continue to serve as a “source of understandings” for any change, so that Iran can claim that it did not give in to pressure.
The problem will then be with Trump, who will likely seek a pact that bears his name and make clear that it is a “new agreement.” These are volatile obstacles that could kill the talks. The good news is that all parties are entering this arena with less leverage for pressure than they had before the nuclear pact was signed.