Tehran raises stakes in nuclear row by escalating threats, making offers for talks

Rohani announced that Iran would violate another limit of the nuclear accord, the third such step within months, even though Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Lifting more limits. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) and the head of Iran’s nuclear technology organisation Ali Akbar Salehi  in Tehran, last April. (AFP)
Lifting more limits. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) and the head of Iran’s nuclear technology organisation Ali Akbar Salehi in Tehran, last April. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Iran’s double strategy of threats and talks in the nuclear dispute with the United States is facing a moment of truth as Washington sticks to its “maximum pressure” campaign and Europe voices irritation with Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s government employed carrots and sticks to convince the international community to action against US sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy.

Tehran released seven crew members from the detained British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in a goodwill gesture, talked with France about a plan worked out by Paris to help Iran to overcome the consequences of US sanctions and gave European powers two more months to save the 2015 international nuclear deal.

Rohani, however, also announced that Iran would violate another limit of the nuclear accord, the third such step within months, even though Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons.

Rohani said Iran would begin developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium, which can produce fuel for power plants or for atomic bombs. The successful development of more advanced centrifuges would enable Tehran to produce material for a potential nuclear bomb several times faster.

Earlier this year Iran went beyond the limit for the stockpile of enriched uranium it is allowed to keep and drove enrichment beyond the terms set by the 2015 agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The United States has not only refused to ease sanctions against Iran but introduced additional ones to choke the smuggling of Iranian oil. Washington also offered a reward of up to $15 million for information that disrupts the financial operations of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite paramilitary and espionage arm, al-Quds Force.

The moves came amid speculation about a possible meeting between Rohani and US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this month.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the Iranian steps were designed to keep the pressure on the Europeans without crossing a line that would antagonise France and other European powers.

As an example, Fathollah-Nejad said Europeans were concerned that Iran’s third step in breaching the JCPOA could be an increase of uranium enrichment to 20% purity or more, a threshold that could speed up the production of weapons-grade uranium considerably. Such a decision could have led to a collapse of the JCPOA and European efforts to save the accord, leaving the Iranians with nothing.

“By contemplating the possibility of a 20% enrichment, they managed to instil a sense of urgency among Europeans for them to provide Iran with economic dividends, while increasing their bargaining leverage for possible talks with the US, which helped produce the French initiative,” Fathollah-Nejad said by telephone, referring to the Iranians.

“If the French initiative succeeds, they will surely dismiss their 20% option,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

The Trump administration, which abandoned the nuclear deal with Iran last year, appeared to tolerate European efforts to keep the treaty alive by providing a financial lifeline to Iran in exchange for a return to the provisions of the accord.

At the core of the French plan is a proposal to save the pact by offering Iran about $15 billion in credit lines until the end of the year if Tehran returns to full compliance. Trump suggested a solution along those lines after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron at the recent G7 summit but it remained unclear whether the United States would allow European banks to handle the credits without coming under US sanctions.

The European Union is concerned that the delicate diplomatic dance by France, which is acting as the European mediator, could fail because of Iran’s new breaches of the JCPOA.

Speaking after Iran sent a letter to EU top foreign policy official Federica Mogherini detailing its latest cut to the terms of the JCPOA, EU Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said that “we note with great concern that announcement made by Iran in the letter.”

She reiterated the European Union’s demand that Iran “reverse all activities that are inconsistent with its commitments” under the nuclear deal.

A French diplomatic source voiced regret at Iran’s planned centrifuge development. “It’s not helpful,” the unidentified source told Reuters. “We knew it wouldn’t be… a bed of roses,” he said, adding France would keep looking for a solution despite the cool US reception.

Although Iran’s approach has not led to a softening of the US position, Trump said talks with Tehran remain possible. While the US president said he would not lift sanctions, he left the door open to a possible meeting with Rohani at the United Nations, saying: “Anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem.”

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper also said it appeared Iran was inching towards a position that could make talks possible.

In a rare public dispute with the Trump administration, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest allies in the Middle East, urged world powers not to open dialogue with Iran.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran. This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” Netanyahu said.

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