Iran plays into Trump's hands with threat to quit nuclear accord

American officials say they remain open to talks with the Iranian government and are not seeking regime change.
American officials say they remain open to talks with the Iranian government and are not seeking regime change.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Donald Trump has long wanted the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to fall apart. He got one step closer to that on Wednesday (May 8), when Iran warned European nations that it is ready to quit the accord in 60 days if it does not start seeing greater economic benefits from the agreement.

American officials did not gloat over Iran's announcement, but the move appeared to play into their hands.

Officials in Britain and Germany, two partners in the nuclear deal, were immediately pressed on whether they would side with Washington or Teheran if the Iranian threat to stop observing limits on uranium enrichment is carried out.

"It's going to force the Europeans to make a decision about how far they're willing to go to back the Iranians," said Mr Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group. "It turns Iran into the offending actor and shifts the focus from what was the US has been doing. There will have to be a reckoning."

The US sought to keep up the pressure - and undermine European efforts to sustain the deal - by announcing fresh sanctions on Wednesday targeting Iran's copper, iron, steel and aluminium sectors and saying still more restrictions could be coming.

While Iran could be bluffing, the US action make it even harder for European leaders to meet Teheran's two-month deadline.

Standing alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in London on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain still sees the agreement as the best way to keep the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear weapon.

 
 

"There will of course be consequences" if Iran breaks its commitments, Mr Hunt said. "As long as Iran keeps its commitments, so will the UK."

Yet privately, European diplomats who have long strained to keep the deal alive despite American pressure fret that the back and forth playing out now will result in the death of the agreement.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told a meeting of lawmakers on Wednesday that he expects Iran to withdraw from the accord, according to a person who was present and asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.

Speaking to reporters in London, Mr Pompeo said he wants to see what President Hassan Rouhani's government actually does after the 60-day period expires. But he later issued a statement accusing Teheran of making "a blatant attempt to hold the world hostage" and vowed to continue Washington's maximum-pressure campaign.

That campaign helped shrink Iran's economy by about 4 per cent last year, and may fuel a 6 per cent decline in gross domestic product this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, prompting the government to scale back its military spending as oil sales fall.

That was a foreign policy win from the White House's perspective.

At the same time, US rhetoric and military moves have alarmed many nations, some of which see parallels with the buildup to the 2003 war in Iraq. Over the weekend, the White House said it was expediting the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the Middle East in response to what it called "troubling and escalatory indications and warnings" from Iran.

The deployment was not just posturing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told senators on Wednesday, saying that there was an urgent threat from Teheran.

"We sent some messages on Friday to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognise the threat and we were postured to respond to the threat," General Joseph Dunford said at a Senate hearing. "Our focus over the weekend was to deter."

American officials say they remain open to talks with the Iranian government and are not seeking regime change.

 
 

Mr Trump issued a statement on Wednesday saying that, despite the latest round of sanctions, he looks forward to "someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement" and "give Iran the future it deserves".

Mr Pompeo has been less sanguine. In a podcast interview with Mr Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, Mr Pompeo said he doubts President Rouhani's government can bring about the political changes that the US is demanding, such as an end to support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the designated terrorist group Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon.

"I think what can change is the people can change the government," Mr Pompeo said. "I don't see Rouhani changing, Zarif changing. They are who they are," he added, referring to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif.

Yet, US sanctions from Cuba and Venezuela to Syria and Russia have repeatedly failed to force changes in behaviour or dislodge governments opposed to Washington. And some analysts warned that Iran has surely thought through the consequences of a potential withdrawal.

"It is crucial that we not underestimate the Iranians," said Mr Kamran Bokhari, director at the Centre for Global Policy and a non-resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation.

There are other risks to Mr Trump's approach as well, especially after he campaigned for the presidency on promises to extract the US from endless Middle East conflicts. The president and his team may be stoking tensions publicly without really intending to start a war.

Yet higher tensions raise the risk of an accident, misunderstanding or relatively minor incident leading to a bigger conflagration.

"If they dump JCPOA, they lose Europe and then it's a question of how severely escalating tensions with Iran are managed," Mr Michael Stephens, a researcher for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said of Iran's decision-making, referring to the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

"The question is how we stop the drift towards conflict."