Jul 9, 2019

As Iran seeks negotiating leverage, risks of miscalculation multiply

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iran's latest escalation — exceeding a key limitation of the 2015 nuclear agreement — continues its calculated, 2-pronged strategy to ratchet up pressure on the U.S.

The big picture: In the past 2 months, Iran or its proxies have allegedly attacked 6 oil tankers, shot down 2 U.S. drones and struck Saudi oil infrastructure. Meanwhile, Iran has taken a step-by-step approach to violating its commitments under the nuclear deal, provoking international condemnation and raising the odds of confrontation.

Details: Iran’s nuclear and regional actions have 3 goals:

  1. Increase costs for the U.S., to deter further pressure or attack by demonstrating willingness to hit back.
  2. Receive economic concessions from the remaining signatories to the nuclear deal (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the EU), such as purchases of Iranian oil.
  3. Build leverage for future talks, even if Trump is reelected but especially if a Democrat succeeds him.

Between the lines: Iran’s steps have been calibrated to avoid the immediate collapse of the nuclear agreement or a military response from the U.S. or Israel.

  • The attacks in the Gulf did not result in loss of life, and Iran’s nuclear steps are all reversible. Tehran is building leverage, not a bomb.

But, but, but: Despite Iran’s deliberate approach, the danger of miscalculation is high.

  • As Iran racks up nuclear deal violations, it risks pushing away its European friends — not necessarily into the arms of the Trump administration, but toward the conclusion that the nuclear deal is not worth saving.
  • As Tehran turns up the temperature in the region, the greatest risk is the killing of a U.S. soldier or diplomat. Even a president who campaigned on ending U.S. wars in the Middle East would be hard-pressed not to respond militarily.

Henry Rome is an Iran analyst at Eurasia Group.

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Iran nuclear deal crisis talks held amid U.S.-Tehran tension

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (2nd L) after talks in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Diplomats from Iran, Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the European Union recommitted Sunday to saving Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal after "constructive" talks in Vienna, a senior Iranian official said, according to AP.

Why it matters: The talks come at a time of heightened tension between the West and Iran, after the U.S. withdrew from the deal and hit Tehran with sanctions. Hours before the talks, the U.S. and Israel said they tested a missile defense system in Alaska. The goal is to intercept long-range missiles from Iran, Barak Ravid writes for Axios.

What they're saying: Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi told reporters after that while not every issue was resolved, those present were "determined to save this deal," per AP.

The big picture: The United Nations' nuclear watchdog confirmed this month that Iran has followed through on its threat to enrich uranium beyond the purity limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal.

What's next: There was a general agreement at Sunday's talks to organize a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers soon, though no date had been set, according to AP.

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Iran says it seized foreign oil tanker in Strait of Hormuz

Oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian state TV announced Thursday that the country's Revolutionary Guard seized a foreign tanker with 12 crew members onboard in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, accusing the ship of smuggling fuel, per the AP.

The big picture: While the Iranian report did not identify which country the ship belonged to, a U.S. official told the AP that it was likely a small, Panamanian-flagged tanker that operated around the United Arab Emirates and had turned off its tracking equipment on Sunday.

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U.S. sanctions on Iran are becoming an end, not a means

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration's decision to put Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s mellifluous foreign minister, on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list makes clear that the means of pressure and sanctions have increasingly become the end goal of the U.S.' Iran policy.

The big picture: When President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last May, he insisted he could negotiate a much better agreement. More than a year later, however, the U.S. is no closer to such talks, dangers across the Middle East have escalated and the man who would have led Iran's negotiations has been sidelined — at least from the Trump administration's point of view.

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