Iran is prepping to overstep the bounds of the 2015 nuclear pact in just 10 days, its nuclear agency announced Monday, setting the stage for a high-risk crisis with world powers.
“From today, the countdown has begun, and by June 27, our uranium production will have surpassed 300 kilograms,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, addressing reporters at the Arak heavy water nuclear complex.
The US Department of Defense hours later said it would deploy 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East “to address air, naval, and ground-based threats”.
The Iranian move is a calculated gamble by authorities in Tehran, who have watched world powers from Ankara to Delhi fall largely into line with crippling American sanctions. While European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) created a workaround via a special purpose vehicle for trade, major European companies like Total have long since pulled out, unwilling to risk the wrath of the US Treasury.
“The idea is to create a more serious security crisis. This will not only induce a more serious diplomatic response from Europe, Russia, and China to drag the US back to the negotiating table,” said Esfandyar Batmanghalidj, founder of the news site Bourse and Bazaar, which is pro-trade between Iran and Europe.
Should the gambit result in fresh diplomacy in the coming days, “the optics are better” than the prospect of forced capitulation after a slow economic strangulation.
“Best case scenario is that Trump wakes up and realizes a nuclear crisis is unfolding,” Batmanghalidj told Asia Times. The president, who was elected on the promise of getting out of Middle Eastern wars, could choose to force the issue of talks himself.
The worst-case scenario is that Iran is forced to escalate further.
Iran’s announcement comes with risks, both with its chief foe, Washington, and the Europeans who have been trying to salvage the deal.
“Worst-case scenario is that the US refuses to join whatever diplomatic talks are brokered, forcing Iran to keep escalating until such a time that the international community decides Iran has taken things too far,” said Batmanghalidj.
Tanker attacks may be designed as a warning to Gulf monarchies and not an attack on global commerce, but these could also alienate foreign powers Iran needs on its side.
Should Iran take things too far in this critical shipping lane, Batmanghalidj says, resistance to military solutions among US allies could dissipate.
Already, Brussels has said it would not accept any ultimatum from Tehran when the latter last month threatened to back away from components of the nuclear agreement within 60 days should fellow signatories fail to fulfill promised benefits.
Iran’s Middle East allies are similarly nervous about potential regional fallout and risks to shipping.
Iraq’s Oil Ministry spokesman told AFP on Monday that his country was looking at contingency plans in case Gulf tensions deteriorated to the point of major interruption.
“There is no replacement for the southern port [of Basra] and our other alternatives are limited. It’s a source of anxiety for the global oil market,” the agency quoted Assem Jihad as saying.
Kamalvandi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran noted he was still waiting for a final decision from top officials before taking measures to reduce Iran’s commitments to the JCPOA, signaling a desire to avert a crisis.
“The Europeans still have time,” he said, noting that Iran had already waited a year for a solution.
US tactics backfire
Ironically, Trump’s own cabinet’s tactics could be working in Iran’s favor.
In recent days, top European diplomats have exhibited an unwillingness to go along with the US administration in its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
In the wake of Thursday’s Gulf of Oman tanker attacks, and the release by the US Central Command of footage that allegedly incriminates the Iranians, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas responded by saying, “The video is not enough” to assign blame.
Brett McGurk, former US envoy to the global coalition against ISIS under both the Obama and Trump administrations, says this skepticism is the predictable result of the latter’s lack of coordination with allies.
“The US seems to have embarked on its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign with few allies and little forethought as to unintended consequences or how to respond if key assumptions – e.g., that Iran will implode or succumb and enter talks on US terms – prove false,” he tweeted.
McGurk suggests the US is now in no position to rally its allies to take action over attacks on shipping and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf waterway from where a significant volume of the world’s oil flows.
“In my view, targeting tankers in [international] waterways warrants a rallied international response with military measures to deter future incidents. If Washington had developed a policy with allies, it could rally the world to isolate Iran and reinforce economic with diplomatic pressure.” At this point, he asserts, it cannot.
US Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, said the idea the maximum pressure campaign would force Iran to capitulate was “naive,” while attacks on international shipping were “eminently foreseeable.”
“The problem is we are struggling even in the midst of this solid evidence to persuade our allies to join us in any kind of a response,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation. The situation, he said, shows how isolated the United States has become.