Iran treads on shaky ground amid escalatory indications

Iran may not want to antagonise Europe, China or Russia by moving too far or too fast.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Dangerous cycle. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a 3 Khordad system, which is said to have been used to shoot down a US military drone. (Reuters)
Dangerous cycle. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a 3 Khordad system, which is said to have been used to shoot down a US military drone. (Reuters)

Iran will soon break for the first time from the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Tehran has announced it would, by June 27, exceed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) 300kg ceiling on low-enriched uranium, which it stopped exporting in May.

The challenge this poses to world powers will build if Iran takes steps to escalate its nuclear programme beyond the JCPOA. Early August will bring the expiry of a 60-day deadline set by Iranian President Hassan Rohani for Iran to resume enrichment above the JCPOA’s 3.67% limit unless offered international support against US sanctions.

After that, Iran has various options. Changes may trickle or be more dramatic. They will be in plain sight as long as Iran accepts monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“We don’t yet know what form the next escalatory steps might take,” said Peter Jenkins, former British ambassador to the IAEA. “It may be best at this stage not to speculate.”

Iran might, slowly or quickly, increase enrichment to the 20% suitable for the Tehran Research Reactor, largely for medical isotopes. It might operate centrifuges, devices for enrichment, beyond the 6,100-centrifuge limit set by the JCPOA or it might resume using more advanced centrifuges, whose use the JCPOA ruled out. There is ample scope for either to be done incrementally: Tehran ran 19,000 of the basic and 1,000 of the advanced centrifuges before the JCPOA.

Iran’s leadership apparently believes calibrated moves can increase pressure on Europe, Russia and China to offer effective assistance against the stringent US sanctions introduced since US President Donald Trump abandoned the JCPOA in May 2018. Iran’s leaders may also think a gradual renewal of the nuclear programme can assuage government critics and domestic public opinion.

However, Iran may not want to antagonise Europe, China or Russia by moving too far or too fast. China continues to buy Iranian oil as well as liquefied petroleum gas, thwarting Trump’s stated goal to reduce Iran’s energy exports to “zero.” Europe has established a special purpose vehicle, INSTEX, to facilitate trade with Iran, although this has proved ineffectual given the reluctance of banks and companies to risk punitive US action.

Prospects for diplomacy appear bleak. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out talks with the United States, whose demands of Iran, as expressed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May 2018, include ending enrichment, abandoning the missile development programme and breaking regional alliances with groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, regarded by the United States as “terrorists.”

Whether tensions lead to a US attack on Iran may hinge on a tussle in Washington, where Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser, are pictured as “hawks” trying to goad a reluctant Trump. The president told Time magazine that recent attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, blamed by the United States on Iran, were “very minor.”

The options may not look palatable for Trump or Khamenei. “I cannot see much room for further sanctions,” said Jenkins. “At the same time, a US military strike would risk Iranian destruction of Saudi and Emirati desalination plants and oil terminals and Iranian proxies wreaking havoc in the Levant, Red Sea and Iraq. Trump, Bolton and Pompeo should be capable of working out that this would not be a great outcome.”

Sir Richard Dalton, the former British ambassador to Iran, said the Europeans should hold their nerve. “As a framework for non-proliferation, the JCPOA may be doomed but Iran and its JCPOA partners have a strong interest in calibrating and limiting actions they take,” he said. “That means Iran maintaining transparency and IAEA access and staying close to the limits agreed in the JCPOA. If Iran does this, the EU should not carry out its threat to isolate Iran.”

Dalton argued Europe needed to go beyond damage limitation to seek a new security framework. This would accept Iran’s rights under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons while tackling the perceptions of countries on both sides of the Gulf about threats they face.

“There should be a fresh multilateral diplomatic effort,” he said, “to meet more of the security needs of all states in the immediate region, including non-aggression and non-interference, freedom to engage in military alliances provided they are not directed against third parties, [nuclear] non-proliferation, conventional arms arrangements, economic cooperation and exchanges on other mutual interests, including sectarian coexistence.”

Dalton said urgent action was required to avert a cycle of escalation. “Europe should in the short term put a general security framework forward as an objective, albeit one that needs to be achieved progressively,” he added. “There should be an intensive debate on how to do it.”