(Persia Digest) - Hours after the White House claimed illogically that there was “little doubt” that Tehran had violated its nuclear accord even before it existed, Mohammad Javad Zarif summed up Iran’s exasperation in a word.
“Seriously?” the foreign minister asked on Twitter this week.
FT writes that his frustration was not unreasonable. In the year after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 pact and imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, the Islamic republic complied with the accord. This was despite the US president crushing Iran’s hopes that it would reap the economic dividend it was promised when it agreed to curb its atomic activities.
It has taken Iran 12 months to push back. Mr Zarif on Monday said Iran had exceeded the 300kg threshold on its stockpile of enriched uranium — its first breach of limits set in the accord.
The deal is not yet dead. Iran’s actions are reversible and Tehran’s moves appear calibrated to raise the stakes without killing the agreement. But the deal’s fragility is clear to all.
Tehran’s response was predictable. Iran has for weeks warned that if the deal’s remaining signatories — Germany, France, the UK, China and Russia — failed to take concrete steps to cushion the economic impact of the US sanctions it would accelerate its nuclear programme.
The threats were intended to raise pressure on the European states to fulfil pledges made a year ago that they would establish a mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran. The so-called E3 did announce last week that a special purpose vehicle designed to enable transactions with the republic, Instex, was finally operational — months after its launch.
Iranian officials acknowledged progress, but added that the initiative, which holds just a few million euros in initial capital, did not meet the republic’s needs as its oil exports collapsed and its economy plunged into recession.
Iran’s stance is clear: why comply with an agreement when it receives none of the promised benefits?
The saga underlines the E3’s dilemma as a result of Mr Trump’s actions. On the one hand, they must condemn the Iranian breach; on the other they want to prevent the accord’s total collapse and are desperate to get Instex functioning.
“No one wants to walk away from the deal at this time; not the Iranians, the Europeans, the Chinese or the Russians — it’s a complex game of brinkmanship,” said a European diplomat.
The danger, however, is that Tehran pushes too hard and accelerates its nuclear activity to the point that Europeans feel they have no choice but to trigger a process that would lead to the reimposition of UN sanctions. The most important diplomatic channel between Iran and the west would be shut down.
“We would have almost no off-ramps left to a confrontation,” said Jon Wolfsthal, director of the non-governmental Nuclear Crisis Group.
Mr Wolfsthal, a former senior Obama administration official, said that if the increases in enriched uranium were incremental, it did not necessarily put Iran any closer to being able to build a bomb in less than a year. Preventing that was the core aim of the accord.
Under the deal, Iran reduced its enriched uranium stockpile by 98 per cent from about 9,000 kgs. The IAEA, the nuclear watchdog, continues to conduct unimpeded the most stringent inspection regime Iran has faced. It would be more concerning if Iran were to stop co-operating with the agency, Mr Wolfsthal said.
“This is a political crisis, not a military crisis and not a nuclear crisis,” he added. “The real problem is that it’s not clear what the US wants . . . Trump has said as long as they don’t have a nuclear weapon ‘we’re good’. Well, they don’t have a nuclear weapon and they can’t have one under the JCPOA [nuclear deal].”
Yet even as the accord is pushed to the brink of collapse, Trump administration officials insist they are not to blame.
Brian Hook, the US envoy on Iran, said last week: “It isn’t our deal. There’s nothing ironic. The president doesn’t leave his own deals, he left a deal by President Obama.”