A Dangerous Game of Nuclear Brinkmanship

By threatening to breach the nuclear deal, Tehran hopes to scare Europe into prodding the United States back to the negotiating table. It may not work.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Colum Lynch
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses a High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament during the 68th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 26, 2013.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses a High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament during the 68th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 26, 2013. Mike Segar/AFP/Getty Images

By pledging to stockpile uranium and violate key parts of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran is hoping to force Europe to take drastic action to keep the beleaguered accord alive—but instead risks driving its few remaining defenders to exasperation.

On Monday, Iran reaffirmed previous threats to stop complying with some crucial provisions in the nuclear deal. Iranian atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said the country would surpass, within 10 days, the amounts of low-enriched uranium it was allowed to stockpile under the agreement, and he raised the possibility of further enriching uranium closer to the level needed to make weapons.

The announcement, confirming threats made by President Hassan Rouhani last month, is seen as a way to prod European countries that have supported the deal into delivering on their promises to offer some economic relief for Iran and to help mediate a broader reconciliation with Washington.

“I think until now the Europeans have not done their part and they’ve wasted a lot of time,” Kamalvandi said during the Monday press conference, according to CNN. “They have given us a lot of good words but not deeds.”

Some analysts described the announcement as a carefully calibrated provocation. “The Iranians believe that so long as Europe feels that what is taking place is an economic crisis, they will be limited in their response to the economic side,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iran expert and founder of the media company Bourse & Bazaar.

Now, he suggested, the debate in Tehran has shifted to pushing to make it a security crisis, not an economic one, in order to pressure the remaining parties to the accord—the Europeans, plus Russia and China—to prod Washington back to the negotiating table.

“Now Iran is toying with its commitments, perhaps to create a security crisis, to change the contours of where this sits in the diplomatic agenda,” he said. For reasons of domestic politics, Batmanghelidj said, the Iranians can resume wide-ranging negotiations with the United States only if they are seen to be driving the process, rather than remaining captives of it.

But the Europeans have little to offer Iran in terms of sanctions relief or influence in Washington. Europe has kept the Iranian nuclear deal on life support for the past two years, first by drawing out a U.S. decision to walk away from the deal and then by engaging in talks aimed at assuring Iran that it will do what it can to ease the sting of sanctions. The Trump administration, however, has only taken a harder line against Tehran and has shown no sign that it will return to the pact.

“The Europeans have played a tough hand quite well,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who advised the U.S. Defense Department on Iran policy from 2009 to 2012. “There is not much the Europeans can do [to address Iran’s sanctions concerns]. European governments cannot get their companies to invest in Iran because they don’t want to risk American sanctions.”

Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the United States, told Foreign Policy that this is not the first time Iran has threatened to break with the nuclear agreement.

The latest move, he cautioned, is “very incremental. It is more of a signal that their patience is exhausted but not a brutal shift.”

Still, Iran’s decision to fully abide by the terms of the nuclear deal was unsustainable, particularly as the United States enjoyed the benefits of seeing the Iranians comply with a pact that Washington had abandoned.

“It couldn’t last politically,” Araud said. “Eventually we knew something would happen.”

Araud expressed little confidence that a key European financial arrangement called the special purpose vehicle—designed to bypass U.S. sanctions—would give European companies the confidence to do business with Iran.

“To be frank, it won’t work,” he said. When European companies are given the choice between doing business with the United States and Iran, “they don’t hesitate. They are terrified by the American sanctions.”

Iran’s uranium escalation—coming just after a spate of attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf that U.S. and U.K. officials blame on Iran—puts Europe in an awkward spot. Since the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the international agreement in May 2018, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have been able to point to Iran’s ongoing compliance with the nuclear deal to argue for its preservation.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, is essentially still arguing that. At a press conference Monday, Mogherini said that the technical reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are the metric by which to judge Iran’s compliance with its commitments, more than mere statements from Iranian officials.

“So far, Iran has been compliant with its nuclear commitment as we had expected it to be,” she said. “If the IAEA assessments and reports will change, then we will assess the situation further.”

Britain reacted more harshly to Iran’s notification that it would soon breach its agreed-on limits. “Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, we would then look at all options available to us,” said a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron voiced regret over the Iranian announcement and urged Tehran to be “patient and responsible,” according to Agence France-Presse. But he pledged to “do everything with our partners to dissuade Iran” from breaching the uranium enrichment ceiling.

“It is damaging to the interests of the Iranians themselves and also to the international community,” Macron said.

France and Germany have sought to lower diplomatic tensions between the United States and Iran, following attacks against oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz that Washington has attributed to Tehran.

Macron declined to point the finger at Tehran.

The French leader “also noted that so far Iran has complied with its commitments, as confirmed by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency],” France’s  U.N. ambassador François Delattre, told Foreign Policy.

“This is not the end of the [Iran nuclear deal],” Delattre added. “The priority is now to avoid any form of escalation.”

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also urged caution in assigning blame. “We have to be very careful,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—an acerbic critic of the deal, which he argued would do little to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions—said Monday that Iran should face additional U.N. sanctions for violating its commitments, even though those commitments were predicated on the United States keeping its end of the bargain.

So what does Iran hope to achieve by deliberately upping the stakes and potentially alienating the few countries that have spent a year trying to keep the moribund deal alive?

After the Trump administration withdrew and reimposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran, Rouhani had counseled strategic patience, hoping that the EU and other member states would find a way to deliver some of the deal’s promised economic benefits. But despite sporadic efforts, including an attempt to create a so-called special purpose vehicle to facilitate trade between Europe and Iran, those efforts have largely floundered. Meanwhile, tighter U.S. sanctions have poleaxed Iran’s exports of crude oil, one of its main sources of revenue, hammering the economy and undermining Rouhani.

Iran’s latest move doesn’t necessarily doom the deal, though it’s in intensive care. Technically, Iran’s announcement that it will surpass its limit of 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in its stockpile is at least partly motivated by a U.S. decision to end Iran’s ability to ship uranium out of the country. While Iran could simply produce less and stay under the cap, losing the agreed-on mechanism to ship uranium out of the country automatically makes it harder to comply with the terms of the accord. And that slender reed might be enough for the IAEA to give Iran a pass, some experts say.

“Even if the deal is dead at some technical level, a door remains open for diplomacy,” Batmanghelidj said. The Trump administration has whiplashed between increased sanctions and threats of military action and offers to talk to Iran. But after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal and the sustained maximum pressure campaign, Iran’s leaders have been unwilling to go back to the table under U.S. duress.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch