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Iran Threatens to Breach Nuclear Deal

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And Iran has more room to escalate. On the diplomatic front, Iran has threatened only reversible moves so far—first, in May, putting the Europeans on 60 days’ notice that it would quadruple its rate of uranium enrichment unless the deal’s other signatories could provide it with economic relief. This month, international inspectors announced that Iran was indeed ramping up nuclear fuel production. Yet this was a modest step relative to others it could have taken, like fully abandoning the deal, and clearly aimed at bargaining—what one senior administration official characterized on background recently as “fairly clumsy attempts at nuclear extortion.”

Meanwhile, the Europeans have been scrambling to find a way to preserve the deal—including by trying to construct a mechanism to do business with Iran despite U.S. sanctions. The mechanism hasn’t had much success so far (and the U.S. has threatened penalties against it). And so Iran ramped up the pressure further on Monday, saying it would breach the deal’s limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium within 10 days absent economic incentives. Even then, though, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly called on France, one of the deal’s European signatories, to “to save the deal in this very short period of time.”

On the military front, the United States has accused Iran of numerous attacks in the past few weeks, often in the face of caution or skepticism from U.S. allies. In the most recent instance last week, for example, the U.S. military released a video it said showed Iranians removing a mine from a tanker after an explosion onboard to conceal evidence of its involvement, though the Japanese owner of the tanker later cited crew members saying they saw something flying toward the boat. The administration exacerbated its credibility problem by attributing a Taliban-claimed attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan to Iran, despite experts seeing no such connection. (Pompeo told a television program Sunday that he can’t share the intelligence about that attack but is confident in the Iranian connection.)

Fog of attribution notwithstanding, tanker attacks would be consistent with Iran’s military doctrine. Tehran has very little leverage to get concessions from either the Americans or the Europeans, each of whom has made plain their desire for Iran to stay away from a nuclear weapon and halt destabilizing regional activities. The best Iran can reasonably do on its own behalf is threaten those goals, then offer to stop threatening in exchange for concessions.

Trump has claimed he seeks not regime change from Iran, but behavior change, Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote to me in an email. “Tehran, however, does not distinguish between economic and military warfare, since both will most likely result in collapse of the regime. This is why they try to disrupt the flow of oil to the global markets, hoping president Trump, who generally appears to be disinclined to entangle the United States in wars in the Middle East, realizes the cost of his ‘maximum pressure campaign’ against Tehran and changes his approach.”

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