On Wednesday, Donald Trump warned Iran that if they persisted in nuclear provocations, it might “come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!”
As we joked at the time, it wasn’t immediately clear what scale Trump was using to evaluate the relative strength of historical instances of people being bitten, nor was it clear what, exactly, he meant by “bite”.
Jokes aside, Trump was obviously reminding Tehran that military action isn’t off the table after Hassan Rouhani told Europe the following:
If you don’t meet all your commitments according to the timetable and plans, the Islamic Republic will restore the Arak reactor to its previous condition. Our level of enrichment will no longer be at 3.67%. We put aside this commitment and will increase enrichment as we please.
The path Iran planned to take in the course of rolling back its commitments under the nuclear accord was laid out on June 17 by a spokesman for the country’s atomic energy agency in remarks delivered at the Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility. On June 28, European leaders failed to impress Iranian negotiators at a meeting in Vienna, where diplomats gathered in a last-ditch effort to convince Tehran not to violate the nuclear accord Trump abandoned in 2018. Three days later, Iran said it breached a limit on stockpiles of enriched uranium.
On Sunday, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, delivered a series of remarks in Tehran outlining the path forward (or backward, depending on how you want to look at things).
Iran has, in fact, breached the uranium enrichment cap set under the 2015 nuclear deal. The country will, as indicated previously, start enriching beyond 3.67%. Although he said Iran “has more time” to consider actions at the Arak reactor, Araghchi said the facility will be restored if the other parties to the deal do not meet the terms of the agreement.
Araghchi went on to emphasize that diplomatic channels with Europe are not closed, but said the US can only be a part of talks if the Trump administration returns to the accord. Obviously, Trump isn’t going to do that given that it would mark a humiliating backtrack on his efforts to dismantle one of Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements. That is, of course, a silly reason to throw caution to the wind when it comes to the safety of humanity, but then again, so was exiting the deal in the first place.
Iran also indicated that the terms of the deal are not up for renegotiation and that Tehran will pursue every possible avenue to evade US sanctions. Europe’s efforts to assist in that regard with the establishment of Instex, a special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate trade with Tehran, have been deemed insufficient by the Iranians (the SPV isn’t able to facilitate large crude transactions) and counterproductive (if not illegal) by the Trump administration.
It’s not yet clear how the European powers plan to defuse (figuratively and literally) this situation. Emmanuel Macron on Saturday told Rouhani that France is worried about possible consequences if Iran rolls back its commitments. “The president recalled his deep concern in the face of the risk of a new weakening of the 2015 nuclear accord, and the consequences that would necessarily follow”, a statement from the French presidency reads.
Tensions between Tehran and London flared recently after a tanker bound for Syria was seized off Gibraltar. A day later, former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei, suggested Iran respond. “If England does not release the Iranian oil tanker [our duty] is to respond and seize one English oil tanker”, he said.
As ever, Trump is the wildcard. The administration is still wholly unwilling to acknowledge the glaring irony inherent in demanding that the international community compel Iran to cease nuclear provocations, when it was Trump who unilaterally scrapped the landmark agreement designed specifically to ensure that Tehran would not obtain a bomb.
Benjamin Netanyahu is similarly predisposed to pretending he has no idea why all of this is happening, despite having played a major role in convincing Trump to leave the deal (e.g., the exceedingly ridiculous “Iran lied” Powerpoint presentation).
“This is a very, very dangerous step”, Netanyahu said Sunday, before asking Europe to impose sanctions. “I call on my friends, the heads of France, Britain and Germany — you signed this deal and you said that as soon as they take this step, severe sanctions will be imposed — that was the Security Council resolution. Where are you?”
Of course, if you’re Europe, you’re thinking something along the lines of: “Well, when we signed the deal, we didn’t think Washington was going to pull out of it even when Iran was complying with the letter of the accord”.
So, the world will now warily eye the White House. Trump famously called off planned strikes on radar and missile batteries late last month, after the IRGC shot down an unmanned surveillance drone. The president cited “proportionality“.
Subsequently, the US sanctioned Khamenei, a largely symbolic step that prompted Rouhani to declare that the White House is “afflicted by mental retardation”. Trump responded, warning Rouhani that the US would “obliterate” Iran.
There is little doubt that John Bolton is agitating for military action. Mike Pompeo is likely right there with him.