Jul 8, 2019

Iran creeps outside nuclear boundaries, into the dark

Iran has followed through on its threat to enrich uranium beyond the purity limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal, the UN's nuclear watchdog confirmed today.

Why it matters: Iran is attempting to loosen its sanctions chokehold by demonstrating to the U.S. that there are costs to "maximum pressure," and to the deal's other signatories that, absent a stronger economic lifeline to Tehran, they could soon be facing a nuclear crisis.

  • Iran's steps toward increased nuclear enrichment so far have been limited and reversible, but the regime says more will come in 60-day increments.
  • "While any escalation is a gamble, Iranian leaders appear ready to resume the game of 'chicken' that defined the country's relations with the West from 2006 to 2015," Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies writes for Axios Expert Voices.
  • "This could spiral out of control quite quickly depending on U.S. actions," Wendy Sherman, who served as the top U.S. negotiator on the 2015 deal, told reporters on a briefing call today. "I think this will be a step-by-step process, but one which could lead us to military action, which would be not only dangerous but disastrous."

The big picture: Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group, who recently met with Iranian officials, says the plan in Tehran after President Trump pulled out of the deal was to "hunker down and wait."

  • A year later... sanctions are hitting harder than expected, the Europeans have failed to deliver much economic breathing room and it's looking risky to bet on a Trump loss in 2020.
  • Iranian leaders believe Trump doesn't want war, and they hope pressure on the nuclear front will convince him to dial back sanctions and abandon his maximalist demands. Breaching the deal also provides them with cards for any future negotiations.
  • “It's both a very unyielding, uncompromising stance — 'we're not going to be bullied, we're not going to negotiate with a gun to our head' — but it's also a notion that if the right conditions exist, they would be prepared to talk," Malley says of the Iranian position.

The European signatories want to deter further Iranian escalation while keeping the teetering deal from collapsing entirely.

  • "They don’t believe the maximum pressure strategy is working, and they don’t think anybody would gain from war," Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran, said on the call.

What to watch: More significant breaches of the deal could make the European position untenable, and even lead to the re-imposition of sanctions. Each step also raises the chances of a military strike from the U.S. or Israel.

Go deeper: Iran's nuclear escalation raises stakes for U.S. and Europe

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Iran's uranium threats aim to push U.S. back into nuclear deal

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

By continuing to breach caps imposed on its nuclear program, Iran is seeking to refocus Washington's attention on the nuclear issue and steer the Trump administration toward an approach more like those of his predecessors, Presidents Bush and Obama.

Why it matters: With these incremental, “reversible” transgressions of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran may try to force the U.S. to settle for what President Trump has termed a “bad deal,” rather than risk further nuclear or regional escalation.

Go deeperArrowJul 8, 2019

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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Keep ReadingArrowJul 29, 2019

Iran's nuclear escalation raises stakes for U.S. and Europe

Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi and government spokesman Ali Rabiei at a press conference in Tehran on July 7. Photo: Iranian Presidency/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's announcement that it's stepping up uranium enrichment levels to 5% follows its breach of the 2015 nuclear deal's stockpile limits and marks its latest escalatory gambit to secure economic relief from Europe, sanctions reductions from the U.S., or both.

Why it matters: For a year after the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran stuck to the agreement, hoping its compliance would be reciprocated by other signatories' initiatives. With Europe's special trade mechanism slow to come together, Tehran is stepping up enrichment to raise the costs of European delay and American escalation. Yet each new measure increases the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran.

Go deeperArrowJul 8, 2019