Expect the Trump administration not to be too happy with this announcement.
Iran has officially broken part of its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal — following through on its months-long threat and further raising tensions with the United States.
In May, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would stockpile more low-enriched uranium than the 660 pounds the nuclear accord allows. The following month, a top Iranian nuclear official said Rouhani’s wasn’t an empty threat and that Tehran would blow past the limit within 10 days.
While it took a little longer than that, Iran has finally done what it said it’d do.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday saying that his country had surpassed the ceiling. Fredrik Dahl, the chief spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, confirmed Iran’s claim to me and added that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano told the group’s board of governors about the development.
The worst may be yet to come. The enrichment level of the uranium Iran has now — 3.67 percent — isn’t high enough to make a nuclear bomb. But Tehran vows to increase enrichment to weapons-grade level by July 7, which would significantly escalate the months-long standoff between the US and Iran by potentially putting the latter closer to getting a nuclear weapon (though Iran has never officially said it wants one).
There may be a way out of this mess, though. Zarif told IRNA that “if Europeans do what they have to do, our measures are reversible,” referring to Tehran’s efforts to get European nations to trade with Iran despite US sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal last year.
But if that doesn’t happen — and it’s unlikely, since the US would penalize European countries for doing so — then Iran may soon be on the path to having a much more dangerous nuclear program than in recent years.
Why Iran’s strategy to end US-led sanctions could fail
Iran may be a relatively powerful country in the Middle East, but its options for pushing back against the US and its European allies are few. Its two best options are to cease compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement and to threaten to disrupt the global energy trade.
Both of those moves are extremely dicey, especially the second one. Disrupting the world’s flow of oil would garner the fury of the United States and other nations dependent on energy traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial maritime passage aggressively patrolled by Iran through which a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 percent of the world’s oil production flows.
Likely because the sanctions have put a major dent in Iran’s economy, Tehran has chosen to employ the risky, two-pronged strategy. With Monday’s announcement, Iran has executed option one, and option two is seemingly underway as well.
In May, four oil tankers were damaged near the Strait of Hormuz. Two of them belonged to Saudi Arabia and one belonged to the United Arab Emirates, both staunch enemies of Iran and friends to the US. (The fourth was owned by a Norwegian company.)
UN ambassadors from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Norway said two weeks ago that the damages came after a country used divers to place mines on the large ships. The diplomats didn’t specifically name Iran as the culprit, but the US had already blamed Tehran for the sabotage, a charge Iran denies.
And last month, two oil tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman — just east of the Strait of Hormuz — caught fire and sustained significant damage, leading the US Navy and other nearby ships to respond immediately. The Trump administration also said Iran was responsible for using limpet mines on at least one vessel (Iran also denies this).
Iran did fess up to shooting down a US military drone, though, a move that almost led Trump to bomb Iran.
If all of this sounds aggressive, it’s because it is. But there’s a reason Iran is choosing to act like this. “If Iran is not willing to take sanctions and suffer, and if it’s not willing to compromise and capitulate, then it needs to do something to change the situation,” Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me in June.
These tactics are all part of Iran’s playbook. “This is more or less consistent with Iran’s behavior over the last 15 years,” Ostovar said. “Really since 2005, Iran has shown a number of times that it is willing to push back against international pressure or foreign pressure. It’s willing to push back against the US by engaging in aggressive or assertive behavior that could risk triggering the conflict with the United States.”
There’s one good reason to suspect Iran’s play will fail, though: The blackmail approach assumes that the United States, led by Iran hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will back down from the challenge and agree to diplomacy.
If they don’t, then a US-Iran tit-for-tat may be all the world sees in the foreseeable future — and that could have catastrophic consequences.