Tehran breaks nuclear rules in risky bid to pressure Europe
ISTANBUL - In a high-stakes game that carries the risk of a military confrontation with the United States, Iran is breaking terms of an international nuclear accord but also offering talks at the same time.
The double strategy is designed to pressure European countries while keeping the door open to a negotiated solution to the crisis.
However, it could ignite a war in the Gulf region because Iran’s adversaries are concerned that Tehran could be speeding up work on a nuclear weapon and Iranian proxies escalating their attacks.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels stepped up drone and missile assaults on cities in Saudi Arabia, a close US ally. Nine civilians were wounded July 2 in an attack on Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels said, the latest in a series of strikes on the site.
The rise in drone warfare targeting Saudi civilian airports, desalination plants and other infrastructure follows the prevalence of Houthi ballistic missiles, including some that targeted Riyadh. The United States said it stood with Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, “who rely on Iranian-made weapons and technology to carry out such attacks.”
Tensions increased when British forces seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar to prevent a possible breach of US sanctions on Iranian oil imports. An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander threatened to seize a British ship in retaliation.
US President Donald Trump, who halted US military strikes on Iran only minutes before they were to begin last month, said Tehran was “playing with fire.”
Despite Trump’s warnings, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said Iran would exceed the uranium enrichment limit it agreed in a 2015 deal with major powers, raising it “as much as necessary.”
Trump responded with a post on social media, saying: “Iran has just issued a New Warning. Rohani says that they will Enrich Uranium to ‘any amount we want’ if there is no new Nuclear Deal. Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!”
The nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), set a limit of uranium enrichment of 3.67%. That amount allows for power generation but is far below the more than 90% level required for a nuclear warhead.
Rohani’s announcement came two days after Tehran said it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than allowed under the JCPOA. Iran said the steps are a consequence of the inability of European powers to keep the JCPOA alive following the US withdrawal from the agreement last year.
Tehran also announced its intent to resume building a heavy water reactor in Arak, central Iran.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security think-thank, said such a move “would be very serious and a major impetus for the E3 to snap back sanctions but it would take Iran several years to finish the reactor and produce plutonium.”
The so-called E3 — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — is offering a payment mechanism called INSTEX to allow Iran to export goods despite US sanctions. Tehran argues INSTEX is not enough because it does not apply to oil exports, which are crucial for the Iranian economy.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif placed the ball in Europe’s court. “As soon as E3 abide by their obligations, we’ll reverse,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Zarif added that negotiations with Washington could take place if the United States showed “respect” for Iran. Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi also said talks with the United States were possible under the right conditions.
Trump has called for talks with Iran’s clerical rulers with “no preconditions.”
Direct talks between Iranian and US officials may appear unlikely, given the harsh rhetoric on both sides, but Arash Azizi, a historian and writer on Iranian affairs, said via e-mail: “All factions of the ruling regime in Iran have histories of negotiating with the US, despite their rhetoric to the contrary.”
Azizi said Washington would have to send clear signals to Tehran before Iran could agree to negotiations.
“Trump would have to give visible and open concessions that allow Tehran to enter into talks, which can also start via a back channel through Muscat or even Paris, given the special relationship between Trump and [French President Emmanuel] Macron,” Azizi wrote.
As the dispute between Iran and the United States continued, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to isolate Tehran and the failure of Western European powers to lower tensions are providing Russia with a chance to widen its influence.
Moscow, with the E3 and China, is a party to the JCPOA and wants the deal to remain in force.
The rift between the United States and its European allies over the JCPOA suits the Kremlin just fine, Robert Czulda, an Iran expert and assistant professor at the University of Lodz, Poland, argued in a recent analysis for the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“Russia’s pro-JCPOA rhetoric gives it a chance to build a platform of cooperation between Moscow and the EU, in opposition to the US,” Czulda wrote.
Azizi agreed. “Russia is a winner since Tehran will now have to depend on it ever more,” he wrote.