Iran’s slow-burn nuclear strategy: Wait out Trump and get new deal from his successor

Posted at 10:30 AM, Jul 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-07 12:30:33-04

Iran’s second pledge to breach the terms of the landmark nuclear deal was light on detail, but heavier in consequence.

And it pretty much encapsulated the mood music of the Persian Gulf right now: a move that permits great, inflammatory rhetoric, but changes little in practice.

Tehran declared Sunday that it would enrich uranium past the limit of 3.67% set by the deal. In the past few months Iran had suggested that this might mean 3.7%, while on Saturday they mentioned as much as 5%. But it conspicuously left out any number from the announcement Sunday.

It was the sequel to last week’s declaration that they would enrich more low-grade uranium past the stockpile limit of 300kg (660 pounds) set out by the deal.

That earlier move was purely symbolic: there’s little you can do with tons of 3.67% enriched uranium bar power an older pressurized water reactor for a little while, and it has no use for a bomb at all. Enriching uranium to 3.7% is equally as useless, and 5% isn’t much help either.

Iranian officials hinted strongly, however, that they would not enrich uranium for the use of the Tehran research reactor, which requires 20% enrichment. (It was, curiously, supplied by the US to the then-Shah of Iran in 1967. How times can change).

This is an alarm-bell figure: 20% enables swift enrichment to the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon. Yet only 5% enrichment is required for the Bushehr civilian power reactor, for which Russia originally supplied the fuel. Iran has subsequently strongly suggested that they would go for 5%.

So why not just announce 5%?

Firstly, it would burden the Iranian government with this figure in the future. It both makes the threat sound hollow as it is only 1.3% above the current limit, and it specifies a more clear violation of the deal.

Much better for the hardliners to let the new levels of enrichment seem vague: they can seem more strident in their defiance, while also avoiding doing anything in public that the European signatories can complain about.

Much of this posturing is about pressuring the three European nations into helping alleviate the sanctions reimposed by the US after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear accord intended to limit Iran’s civilian nuclear program and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

Iran wants to force the European nations into creating a mechanism by which they can ease the impact of the US blockade, even though it’s highly unlikely Europe can do this. European firms don’t want to risk losing business in the US by doing a deal with Iran and in turn violating US sanctions.

But Iran’s vagueness comes at a cost. It permits the nation’s critics to speculate wildly. Within minutes of the Iranian announcement, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the enrichment was for the pursuit of “atomic bombs.”

There’s no evidence to that effect, and Iran has always insisted its nuclear program is peaceful. But the absence of a public declaration of the level to which the Iranians will purify means the void can be filled with suspicion. You can anticipate further negative assessments from Washington.

So where do we go from here?

Iran has turned up the volume briefly on the mood music and then pressed the pause button. It says its next step will come in 60 days. That means this escalation is staggeringly slow, and makes clear that Tehran is really hoping to wait out Trump’s presidency and patch the deal back together with his successor.

The European figurehead, French President Emmanuel Macron, said Sunday following a long phone call with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani the day before, that Iran must return to the text of the deal. This won’t happen and the US will refuse to alleviate sanctions, while the Europeans will be unable to provide any relief either.

But that leaves us with all parties in the same deadlock, as if stuck in an elevator in which all they can do is shout over loud, heavy metal music, while the temperature slowly rises.

It’s clear that neither the US nor Iran seek a war, but both are influenced by hardliners who could easily stumble into one.

Sunday’s violation is just another symptom of that. While the region needs calm, all it gets is puffed-out chests.