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Pushing Limits of Nuke Deal, Iran Willfully Plays With Fire to Score Diplomatic Points

While the U.S. has no real plan ahead, Tehran's announcement on increased uranium enrichment shows it intends to force the EU to convince it to stay in 2015 agreement

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranian President Hassan Rohani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant in January, 2015.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant in January, 2015. Credit: AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced on Monday that in 10 days, Iran will surpass the amount of enriched uranium it’s allowed to possess under the 2015 nuclear agreement.

The deal limits Iran to 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to a level of 3.67 percent, plus 130 tons of heavy water. Germany, the United Kingdom and France warned Iran not to violate the deal. Washington termed the announcement “nuclear extortion.”

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Tensions between American and Iran are already high because of attacks on two oil tankers off the coast of Oman. Those attacks have sparked a diplomatic dispute between the European Union and the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Iran is definitely behind the attacks, as has Israel. But this certainty has run into a wall of European skepticism.

The Europeans want decisive proof, and they don’t consider pictures of a mine apparently being removed from the side of a ship by Iranian forces sufficient. Evidently, however, neither U.S. nor Israeli intelligence has unequivocal proof; if they did, they would presumably be shouting it from the rooftops.

The lack of proof puts the U.S. government in the embarrassing position of having to persuade its allies and enemies alike to believe its intelligence services. Those intelligence services have repeatedly declared Iran fully compliant with the nuclear deal.

Iran added another significant threat to the diplomatic bonfire by announcing its intent to increase the amount of enriched uranium and heavy water it produces. Kamalvandi even said Iran could enrich uranium to a level of 20 percent, which would bring it much closer to the 90 percent enrichment needed for a nuclear weapon.

Iran knows that doing so would be considered a significant violation of the nuclear deal, one that would force even Europe, Russia and China to treat it as a violator, with all the attendant negative implications. At the same time, Iran has refrained from saying it intends to quit the deal. Its public announcement of its planned violation indicates that for now, it’s mainly trying to force the European Union to take steps to persuade Tehran to remain in the deal.

Over the past year, Iran has conducted intensive negotiations with European leaders, but it considers the results unsatisfactory. France, the U.K. and Germany did propose a financial mechanism to circumvent U.S. sanctions. But major corporations have withdrawn from the Iranian market; big oil importers like Japan, South Korea and Turkey have stopped buying Iranian oil; and China, Tehran’s largest customer, reduced the amount of oil it bought last month.

This week, the EU agreed on an informal timetable for implementing the financial mechanism, which won’t require the use of dollars. But the details, including what kind of products it can be used for, in what quantities and how they will be paid for, haven’t yet been resolved.

Now, Iran has tightened the screws by announcing that in another 10 days, it will start enriching more uranium. The question is whether EU countries can finalize the new trade mechanism within this timeframe, and whether the final product will satisfy Iran’s demands.

America has no real plan of action for how to respond if Iran violates the deal. Washington apparently exhausted all its diplomatic options when it withdrew from the agreement, imposed suffocating sanctions on Iran and canceled all the waivers it gave to oil-importing countries (except Iraq).

U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent statements about his willingness to hold direct negotiations with Iran, like the message he sent via Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Tehran on the day a Japanese tanker was attacked, have been rejected by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

If Iran carries out its threat, the next diplomatic effort may be in the UN Security Council, where Washington would likely encounter Russian and Chinese vetoes. European countries also seem unlikely to support an aggressive resolution against Iran, since America violated the agreement first, by withdrawing from it in May 2018.

Trump and Israel had hoped a massive dose of sanctions would force Iran to fold. Now, they’re likely to find themselves in an international bind. If America opts for military action against Iran, it will do so alone, with no international coalition. Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said Riyadh doesn’t want a war in the Gulf.

Iran has thus impaled Washington on the horns of a dilemma, thereby exposing the nakedness of Trump’s decision to quit the nuclear deal. This time, the issue isn’t a secret Iranian plot to enrich uranium and develop a nuclear bomb, but a public diplomatic move based on a signed agreement that has legal legitimacy. This requires the international community, and especially the United States, to formulate an effective, determined, practicable policy to tighten implementation of a deal that was blown open by America itself.

The public nature of Iran’s policy was also evident in a statement by Mohammad Bagheri, its military chief of staff. On Monday, Bagheri said that if Iran had wanted to prevent traffic through the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, it would have done so in broad daylight and not hidden behind anonymous attacks.

This announcement wasn’t meant solely to deny responsibility for the attacks Washington has blamed on it, but also to make clear that Tehran, despite previous statements, still doesn’t see blocking the Straits of Hormuz as a feasible way of achieving its goals. Nevertheless, the possibility of such an action isn’t off the table.

The main question is whether Iran wants to not just leave the nuclear deal, but also to resume its military nuclear program. This is a question intelligence agencies worldwide have grappled with for more than two decades, and it’s what ultimately led to the signing of the nuclear agreement.

In the pessimists’ view, Iran agreed to postpone its nuclear program for about 15 years so it could resume it when the agreement expires. In the optimists’ view, Iran signed the deal because the agreement gave it most of what it wanted.

Not only did the deal create a potential for economic development that would provide a stable basis for the regime’s continued existence, but Iran’s status as a legitimate and trustworthy partner for international agreements has soared to a level unseen for decades. Iran is now engaged in a delicate game to preserve this status by making threats. And those threats have already gained it a supportive coalition comprised of Europe, Russia and China.

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