Mixed reactions in Washington to escalation in US-Iran showdown
WASHINGTON - One year after US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, US pressure and Iranian manoeuvres have led to a showdown in the Arabian Gulf.
The United States sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier group and US Air Force bombers to the region in response to what it said were threats to its troops in Iraq from Iran. The White House said the Abraham Lincoln had been en route since early April.
In response, on May 8, Iran threatened to work towards weapons-grade enrichment of its uranium stockpile if the European signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement do not help overcome the effects of the US sanctions within 60 days.
Trump imposed sanctions on Iranian industrial metal export revenues and demanded that the Iranian government “fundamentally” change its behaviour.
“Under the Iran nuclear deal, Iran was free to engage in and sponsor terrorist networks, develop its missile force, foment regional conflicts, unjustly detain United States citizens and brutalise its own people, all while maintaining a robust nuclear infrastructure — not to mention, as we now know, its extensive nuclear weapons archive,” Trump said May 8 in a White House statement.
He said the sanctions would affect Iranian revenue from industrial metals exports, which total about 10% the country’s exports, and put other countries “on notice that allowing Iranian steel and other metals into your ports will no longer be tolerated.”
The European Union said in a statement that while it remained “fully committed” to the nuclear deal, it rejected “any ultimatums” and expected Iran to adhere to the agreement.
The statement said legitimate trade would continue to be conducted through INSTEX, an agreement that allows non-monetary trade with Iran. The statement also asked countries not part of the deal not to take actions that “impede the remaining parties’ ability to fully perform their commitments.”
Iran said it was angered by the lack of support from Europe, even as it said it followed the terms of the nuclear deal, the Fars News Agency, Iran’s semi-official news source, reported and said it would take measures to “reciprocate.” This includes dropping components of the nuclear deal if Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia did not provide sanctions relief within two months.
Iran stopped selling excess uranium and heavy water May 8, as required by the deal after the United States ended a programme that allowed Iran to exchange enriched uranium for unrefined yellowcake uranium with Russia. It said that if no deal was in place in 60 days, it would increase its uranium enrichment past the threshold needed for a nuclear power plant and potentially to that needed for a weapon.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he saw this as a threat.
“The Iranian regime’s announcement today that it intends to expand its nuclear programme is in defiance of international norms and a blatant attempt to hold the world hostage,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Its threat to renew nuclear work that could shorten the time to develop a nuclear weapon underscores the continuing challenge the Iranian regime poses to peace and security worldwide.”
Pompeo said the United States would use maximum pressure until Iran “abandons its destabilising ambitions.”
Pompeo said he went to Iraq May 7 to reassure Baghdad that the United States supported Iraq as a “sovereign, independent nation” and said the United States would continue to support Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf state allies. The United States provided energy alternatives so Iraq would not have to rely on Iran while Iranian oil trade is sanctioned, Pompeo said.
Pompeo said designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation did not contribute to the threat to US troops in Iraq.
The Daily Beast, a Washington publication, reported May 8 that “multiple sources” said the United States was “overreacting” to the threat. The sources did not dispute that the commander of al-Quds Force, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, told proxy forces in Iraq to prepare for a battle with the United States soon, the Daily Beast reported, but the risk was low level. The response, they said, is meant to be a show of force to the proxy units.
While Europe and the United States are going about the relationship with Iran in different ways, with Europe meeting its end of the nuclear deal, Pompeo said the Europeans are united with the United States in dealing with the Iranian threat.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said May 8 during a news briefing with Pompeo that there would be consequences if Iran broke the nuclear agreement.
“Secretary Pompeo and I are at one in agreeing that it will be a massive step back for that region if it became nuclearised,” Hunt said. “So we urge the Iranians to think very long and hard before they break that deal. It is in no one’s interest. It is certainly not in their interest because the moment they go nuclear, their neighbours will as well.”
US Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that Iran’s response is a sign that it is desperate and that the pressure campaign is working.
“The regime’s comments on partial compliance are a non-starter — either you’re in or you’re out,” Risch said. “Our own withdrawal from the [nuclear agreement] late last year has created an opportunity to pursue a solution that addresses the totality of Iran’s bad behaviour and provides true security to the US and our allies.
“The Iran deal was flawed because it failed to address other aspects of the Iran regime’s destabilising behaviour — to include the pursuit of ballistic missiles and the regime’s support to terrorism throughout the Middle East. The regime is now faced with a sharp choice between its current malign activity and behaving as a responsible member of the international community.”
Not everyone in the United States was happy about the administration’s campaign.
US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that “Iran’s moves to restart their nuclear programme are a direct consequence of the Trump administration withdrawing from the Iran deal and Trump’s blind, meandering escalatory Iranian policy.”
Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post stating that the United States is “barrelling towards another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East based on faulty and misleading logic.”
“The Trump administration has presented the false narratives that Iran is not meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal and that it is somehow partially responsible for the rise of the Islamic State in Syria,” they wrote.