Tensions between the United States and Iran continue to intensify. The Iranian government marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the multilateral agreement that capped its nuclear program by announcing that it would no longer comply with elements of the deal, a move that prompted Washington to impose new sanctions. This tit-for-tat exchange followed the dispatch of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group to the region following reports that Iran or its proxies were preparing to attack U.S. interests in the area. All parties must step up efforts to de-escalate tensions as the prospects for conflict rise.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has worked since taking office to kill the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the 2015 multinational agreement that constrained Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement and then began to steadily turn the screws on the Tehran government, putting sanctions on its economy to force comprehensive changes in virtually all aspects of Iranian foreign policy. The U.S. seeks to push Iranian oil exports, the foundation of its economy, to zero; thus far, they have fallen to 700,000 barrels a day, considerably less than the 1 million to 1.5 million barrels needed to sustain its economy.
Nevertheless, Iran has honored its commitments under the deal despite the U.S. withdrawal and the pressure campaign. Earlier this week, however, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that if his country did not get relief from sanctions within 60 days, his government would resume enrichment of uranium to a level higher than that allowed by the JCPOA. That would undo a, if not the, key provision of the deal.
The threat is directed not at the U.S. It targets Europe primarily, but also Russia, China and other countries that do not support Washington’s decision. It aims to get them to break with the U.S. and support the original deal. Europe tried to develop a scheme that would allow companies that want to trade with Tehran to avoid U.S. sanctions. It has largely failed, with most businesses deciding that U.S. anger outweighs potential profits in Iran. Now the hope is that Russia, China and perhaps India, each of which is a major consumer of Iranian oil and whose governments are inclined to resist U.S. unilateral sanctions, will pick up the slack.
EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini and France, Germany and Britain — the three European nations in the deal — responded with a joint statement in which they “strongly urge Iran to continue to implement its commitments under the JCPOA in full as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps.” They added that “we reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.”
Rouhani said that his government remained committed to the nuclear deal. “We will not start breaching commitments and waging any war,” he declared. “But we will not give in to bullying either.” Most observers credit Rouhani for seeking a middle ground that will spur negotiations, not kill the deal.
The U.S. is not so inclined. It replied to the move within hours, ordering still more sanctions on exports of Iranian iron, steel, aluminum and copper — a sector that accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s export revenue. Trump then tweeted that he still looks forward to a meeting with Iranian leaders one day to work out an agreement, but “Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct.”
That 60-day deadline may not be the most important factor, however. After receiving intelligence reports that allegedly warned of possible attacks by Iran or its proxies on U.S. targets, Washington dispatched an aircraft carrier strike force, bombers and other assets to the region to deter any attempts. Previously, U.S. officials had concluded that Tehran was prepared to wait out the Trump administration, avoiding provocations in the hope that he would lose the 2020 election and a new president would seek a better relationship. It is not clear what prompted the new U.S. analysis, prompting fears that some in the U.S. administration are spoiling for a fight and a chance to promote regime change in Tehran. The immediate danger now is an accident or miscalculation with so many forces in the area.
Japan has limited room for maneuver in this situation. It has reduced its own imports of Iranian oil after obtaining a waiver when sanctions were first imposed and is now following the situation closely. “We hope to use our traditionally friendly relations with Iran to solve problems through dialogue and achieve peace and stability in the region,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. He pointedly noted that Tehran’s “decision is not to withdraw from the nuclear agreement,” and urged it to continue to play a constructive role. That should go for all current or former members of the deal.