Iran’s decision Wednesday to ease its adherence to the 2015 international nuclear pact isn’t expected to unravel the agreement anytime soon, but sets the clock ticking on a potential split between the US and Europe and other signatories to the deal.
Tehran’s announcement was carefully calibrated, said analysts who noted that the country’s leaders repeatedly emphasized that they were not leaving the deal, seeking war or turning their back on diplomacy.
Iran’s steps come as Washington moves military firepower into the region and intensified its “maximum pressure” campaign with new sanctions Wednesday, heightening tensions and increasing the prospect of missteps and misunderstandings.
“The announcements made today are not as alarming as they could have been and signal a very careful approach from Iran,” said Henry Rome, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. That said, “the dynamic we’re entering into is far more risky than where we were over the past year,” Rome said, “because it provides ample opportunity for miscalculation and misinterpretation, intentional or otherwise.”
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that from this week forward, Iran will keep its excess enriched uranium and heavy water rather than limiting its stockpiles by selling them to other countries as agreed to under the deal – options now blocked by a recent US move to end waivers that allowed for those sales.
The Iranian leader made the announcement exactly a year to the day that President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement that was meant to provide Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Trump marked the anniversaryby announcing new sanctions targeting Iran’s industrial metals, the first sector-based punitive measures against Iran since 2013.
“Today’s action targets Iran’s revenue from the export of industrial metals — 10 percent of its export economy,” Trump said in a statement, “and puts other nations on notice that allowing Iranian steel and other metals into your ports will no longer be tolerated.”
“Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” Trump said.
He added, however, that “I look forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.”
Since the US withdrawal from the deal, Washington has reimposed all nuclear-related sanctions and added scores of other punitive measures that have effectively denied Tehran the pact’s promised benefits. Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, said Wednesday that the US “campaign of maximum pressure is just getting started. There’s a lot more to come.”
Rouhani said Wednesday that unless other signatories to the deal ease restrictions on Iran’s banking and oil sectors in the next 60 days, Tehran will take further steps toward non-compliance. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said in a statement that the country would remove caps on uranium enrichment levels and resume work on the Arak nuclear facility.
Iran’s move puts enormous pressure on other signatories to the deal – the European Union, Germany, the UK, France, Russia and China – who have consistently emphasized that Tehran has complied with the deal to date. After a year, however, Iran’s patience has worn thin.
“Iran has held back for a year and we’ve seen in the last month two unprecedented moves from the United States,” said Ryan Costello, policy director of the National Iranian American Council. One move designated Iran’s economically and politically influential Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity, the other step was to revoke waivers meant to reduce Iran’s oil exports, its main source of revenue, “to zero, essentially cutting off all Iranian oil from the markets,” Costello said.
European nations in particular now face the choice between siding with the Trump administration and walking away from the deal or complying with Tehran’s demands and risking US sanctions.
’Angry with the Europeans’
“Iran is angry with the Europeans,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “It’s calling Europe’s bluff, saying if you are committed to this agreement, show us in practical terms, not just words, that you will play ball.”
Vatanka characterized Iran’s stance as “we can’t just do everything, get nothing in return” while “Europe has been saying the US won’t let us.”
“Iran is saying that’s not good enough,” Vatanka said. “Iran needed to find a way to find and create leverage and this is what they’ve done with this announcement today.”
Costello agreed. “Europeans have delivered a lot of rhetoric on supporting the nuclear deal, but when it comes to sanctions relief the Europeans haven’t really delivered,” he said.
In London, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplayed any potential divisions between the US and its European allies and seemed to compare the threat posed by Iran to that posed by Nazi Germany.
“Not far from here are the Churchill war rooms, where a leader of this great country stared evil in the face and recognized the threat that that evil presented to that entire world. We’re working together to push back against that threat,” Pompeo said in London Wednesday.
“We’re on the same side. We’re on the side of freedom, we’re on the side of creating a nation for the Iranian people, where they can have religious freedom and they can have a democracy,” Pompeo said, standing alongside British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Hook, the special representative for Iran, painted the US approach to Europe in a less collaborative light. “Our sanctions give European nations a choice,” Hook said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “They can either have access to US markets and the US financial system or they can do business with Iran. That’s not a difficult decision given the relative size of the US market and Iran’s market.”
The European Union mission to the US said in a statement Wednesday that as coordinator of the commission that oversees the Iran nuclear deal, they are in touch with all members “about the implications of Iran’s announcement today.”
“We are concerned about the recent announcements,” the statement said, referring to the deal by its formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We have consistently said that we would remain fully committed to the JCPOA as long as Iran continues to implement its commitments. And they have done it so far. The IAEA confirmed it in 14 consecutive reports.
“We Europeans also have been sticking to our commitment too on sanctions-lifting and we are determined to pursue efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran.”
Hook said that Iran’s Wednesday announcement that it will reduce its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal “is in defiance of international norms and it is an attempt to hold the world hostage. It’s threat to renew the nuclear work is something that we are going to be examining very closely.”
’Sincere’ offers to negotiate
He added that it’s too early to speculate on the technical significance of the steps Iran will take, “until we see what, if anything, happens.”
Costello, of the National Iranian American Council, saw a message for the US in Rouhani’s announcement. “I think this sends a secondary message that there are consequences” to the US pressure campaign, Costello said. “If the US continues to push, Iran will push back.”
Victoria Coates, a National Security Council senior director on the Middle East, speaking alongside Hook on Wednesday, said that the President is committed to continuing the maximum pressure campaign “that can eventually cripple Iran’s economy if they do not change course.”
That campaign will continue “until Tehran is compelled to negotiate on terms favorable to the US,” Coates said. But she also said that “President Trump’s offers to negotiate with the Iranian regime are sincere.”
In the meantime, the US is moving a carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Strait of Hormuz after the Pentagon said “specific and credible” intelligence suggested Iranian forces were targeting US troops in Syria, and Iraq and at sea.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said the recent movement of the strike group and bombers is meant to send “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime, that any attack on US interests will be met with unrelenting force.”
Speaking at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, McKenzie did say the US is “not seeking a fight with the Iranian regime,” but is prepared “to respond to a variety of contingencies in the Middle East and around the world.”
Arms control specialists said the movements did not contravene UN resolutions, while analysts said deterrence moves were to be expected, particularly given an Iranian security official’s comments that Iran’s armed forces had detected the American aircraft carrier when it entered the Mediterranean Sea more than three weeks ago.
Given the circumstances, Iran would naturally be making preparations as well as a show of deterrence, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“They might have forces getting ready in case we enter a hot war – you see the latest information from the Pentagon about missile parts on boats – but if the Iranians are serious, they’re going to have to think about a potential war, think about ways to retaliate or deter the US and that includes US allies, as well,” Vatanka said.
With the boat movements, the Iranians are signaling their ability to push back. “They’re trying to shape everybody’s calculations as this thing is escalating,” Vatanka said.
Kelsey Davenport from the Arms Control Association in Washington said she sees no violation of UN resolutions if Iran is moving missiles by boat, but added that she didn’t know how common it was for Iran to transport missiles that way.
Davenport also noted that Iran has the capability to target US assets without moving short-range ballistic missiles to sea. Its medium-range ballistic missiles have a range of 1,200 miles, meaning that threat is already established.
Former State Department official Robert Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, said that “ballistic missiles, unlike cruise missiles, are not typically launched from surface ships. Perhaps the missiles in question are simply being moved.”
CNN’s Jamie Crawford, Nikki Carvajal, Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne contributed to this report