Iran announced over the weekend that it would begin to enrich uranium above the level allowed by the multilateral nuclear deal that it signed in 2015. It is a disturbing development, but one that must be put in context: The cap on enrichment is far below the amount needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Just as important, Tehran is responding to U.S. withdrawal from an agreement that it was honoring and Washington’s subsequent attempts to increase pressure on it in ways that violate the deal. Tehran and Washington are competing to control the narrative, get the attention of the other government and return to negotiations.
When the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal between the five members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, the European Union and Iran, in May 2016, the U.S. complaint was not that Tehran was violating the agreement — there was agreement that Tehran was abiding by its terms — but rather that the deal itself was a bad one. The U.S. government thought that it could force Iran to return to the negotiating table to conclude a more sweeping agreement.
Washington faced three problems as it started down that path. First, it ignored the years of talks that preceded the 2015 agreement, a negotiating history that suggested that this was the best deal to be got. Second, the Trump administration’s demands are unclear, but to the extent they have been articulated, they look a lot like calls for regime change in Tehran. Third, U.S. dissatisfaction with the JCPOA was not shared by other signatories and Washington struggled with getting other parties to join it in a sanctions regime that would make Tehran return to talks — and would, not coincidentally, violate the JCPOA itself.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Washington and Tehran have both attempted to win over other governments. The U.S. has made it clear that there cannot be business as usual with America and Iran; Businesses must choose between the two and because the U.S. market is much larger, they are pulling out of Iran. Japan has also been struggling with this dilemma, and Japanese companies have opted to withdraw from Iran rather than risk Washington’s ire.
Meanwhile, Tehran is signaling that U.S. attempts to undermine the JCPOA threaten to have steep costs: regional instability and the prospect of Iranian nuclear proliferation. The provocations of the last few weeks are warnings to other governments of the consequences of ignoring Iran and its concerns. Sunday’s announcement that Iran would begin to enrich uranium beyond the cap of 3.67 percent is another attempt to increase pressure on Europe.
The enrichment decision was met by warnings from U.S. President Donald Trump that “Iran better be careful,” and from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the move would “lead to further isolation and sanctions.” A British Foreign Office spokesperson warned that Iran “must immediately stop and reverse all activities inconsistent with its obligations.”
The enrichment decision follows reports one week ago that Iran breached the 300-kg limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium. The Iranian government insists that it does not harbor nuclear ambitions, but it has warned that it will cut back its compliance with the JCPOA in 60-day intervals until Europe complies with its part of the agreement. “All such steps are reversible” if European nations comply, however, explained Iran’s Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
This game of brinkmanship is alarming. The risk of an accident or miscalculation is real and the animosities that dominate regional relations would fan the flames of any incident. Just as troubling is the potential impact of a crisis on global energy supplies. It is estimated that the Persian Gulf region produces nearly a third of global oil and 20 percent of the global oil supply flows through the Strait of Hormuz. Impede that flow and the international economy would suffer greatly.
At the end of the Group of 20 summit last month in Osaka, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered again to help facilitate communications between Washington and Tehran. His previous diplomatic foray — during a visit to Iran last month — had little impact and ended as explosions rocked ships in the Persian Gulf. Well-intentioned though the prime minister may be, the truth is that no one can act as an intermediary for Trump. Only he can speak for the U.S. government and only he knows what he wants.