Iran seeks to pressure Europe through ‘nuclear extortion’
ISTANBUL - The international accord to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is unravelling as European powers question whether the pact can be saved following new violations by Tehran.
The development could cost Iran vital support from Europe in its confrontation with the United States and comes as public unrest in Lebanon and Iraq challenges Iran’s proxy-based strategy to widen its influence in the Middle East.
Iran said it had resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear plant, stepping further from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers after the United States pulled out of it last year.
The pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), bans the production of nuclear material at Fordow, a highly sensitive site that Iran hid from UN non-proliferation inspectors until its exposure in 2009. However, with feedstock gas entering centrifuges, the facility, built inside a mountain to withstand air strikes, will move from the permitted status of research plant to an active nuclear site.
Adding to the rising tensions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN agency, said Iran detained one of its nuclear inspectors at another site and prevented her from leaving the country. Iran held the IAEA inspector and seized her travel documents in what appeared to be the first incident of its kind since the 2015 nuclear deal.
European powers have struggled to save the JCPOA since the United States withdrew from the pact last year and embarked on a policy of “maximum pressure” to force Tehran to accept stricter limits for its nuclear programme. Tehran says efforts by France, Germany and the United Kingdom to keep trade routes open despite US sanctions have been insufficient. Iran’s oil exports have fallen at least 80% because of the sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani, co-architect of the JCPOA, stressed that Tehran’s breaches could be reversed if Washington scrapped sanctions and returned to the accord. He gave European powers until January to find ways for Tehran to sell oil despite US sanctions.
However, an EU spokeswoman said it was becoming “increasingly difficult” to save the JCPOA. An unnamed EU official told Agence France-Presse that Iran’s “provocative” actions could still be taken back “but the longer they [the Iranians] push it, this reversibility is going to disappear.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has headed mediation efforts to get Iran and the United States to agree to a solution, also voiced frustration. He said Iran’s latest actions were a “profound shift” from the nuclear deal. “I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA,” he said.
Without continued European backing for the agreement, the JCPOA would collapse. The United States says the agreement is not strong enough to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggressive regional policies in the Middle East and is calling on its European partners to join Washington’s hard-line stance.
“Iran’s expansion of proliferation-sensitive activities raises concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of a rapid nuclear breakout,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “It is now time for all nations to reject this regime’s nuclear extortion and take serious steps to increase pressure.”
Farhang Jahanpour, a British academic of Iranian descent, said it was understandable that Iran was exasperated by the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and Europe’s inability to make sure that Tehran gets some of the economic advantages promised under the deal.
“However, having said all that, I believe that it would have been advisable if Iran has not violated the requirements of the deal because doing so has deprived her of maintaining [the] moral high ground and being on the right side of the debate,” Jahanpour said via e-mail.
“Iran has said that it does not intend to develop nuclear weapons,” Jahanpour added. “So presumably the aim of these measures is to persuade the United States to return to the deal and to put pressure on the EU to provide some economic relief to Iran.”
For Iran, “perhaps the best option is to do as much trade as it can with the Eastern bloc and try to see if [US President Donald] Trump will win a second term or not,” he wrote.
The possibility of US compromises remains low because there are no signs that Iran is willing to step back from JCPOA violations or limit its regional ambitions. A major study by London think-tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said Iran was expanding its proxy and asymmetrical warfare strategy in a regional power struggle against US-backed countries such as Saudi Arabia.
“While the conventional military balance remains heavily in favour of the US and its allies, Iran has tipped the balance of effective force in the Middle East to its advantage by developing a sovereign capability to conduct warfare through third parties,” IISS Director-General and Chief Executive John Chipman wrote on the institute’s website.
“Tehran has lost faith in negotiations following the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal but has found a way to win in war,” Chipman said. “Weak states and divided societies are easy prey for Iranian influence. In Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Iran has pursued non-state partnerships opportunistically.”
Iran’s strategy has come under pressure lately. Protests in Lebanon and Iraq have been motivated by local grievances and mainly directed at political elites but they also posed a challenge to Iran, which closely backs both governments as well as powerful armed groups in each country.