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Can Iran’s Shrewd Diplomacy Avert War With Washington?

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On Sunday, July 7, Iran declared that it was beginning to enrich uranium above the limit specified by the multilateral nuclear deal it signed in 2015 in exchange for US sanctions relief. It was the second statement Iran had made in as many weeks to alert the international community that it was breaching the requirements of what President Trump repeatedly described as the “worst possible deal” and which the United States had pulled out of the previous year. Iran’s first announcement made clear that it was exceeding the agreed stockpile level of the lowest grade of enriched uranium—a claim quickly confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In both cases, Iran gave weeks of warning, appealing to European leaders to deflect the new US sanctions currently strangling its economy. Tehran claimed it could reverse the decision easily and was taking these steps to save the 2015 deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).

Iran’s carefully constructed choreography in the face of economic asphyxiation at home and a US military buildup on its borders has so far been a study in strategically considered policy decisions, delivered in the measured language of international relations. What’s more, Tehran has not simply stayed within the constraints of the deal but has lived up to its spirit as well. Indeed, the much-maligned nuclear deal has turned out to be a very flexible instrument, designed to accommodate signatories that are deeply suspicious of each other; paragraph 36, cited frequently by Iran, allows noncompliance to be met with remedial measures by any signatory state. This does not mean all will end well, or that Iran’s consistency will be recognized—or indeed, responded to in a constructive or coherent manner.  

For a full year, since May 2018, when Washington declared it would no longer be party to the deal, Iran was the only signatory that remained in full compliance—with the possible exception of oil-rich Russia, which likewise is under US sanctions, and for the moment, peripheral to the action. (China has shilly-shallied, as it has sought to use its Iranian oil imports as a bargaining chip in its fraught trade negotiations with the United States; recently it upped those imports after a significant drop in May, a sign more of Beijing’s attempts to pressure Washington than of compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.) The European signatories (France, Britain, and Germany), unable to get around the American financial lock on Iran and thus guarantee that their companies could do business with Iran without suffering US retaliation, in effect re-imposed sanctions, rendering the Europeans noncompliant.

As the French oil giant Total and several of the European airlines, among a raft of other big companies, pulled out of Iran, Britain, France, and Germany attempted to establish a work-around financial mechanism called INSTEX, though it has not succeeded in providing financing beyond basic goods like food and medicine, which aren’t affected by the sanctions. The Iranian leaders’ disinclination to be goaded by the United States and flounce out of the deal came as a surprise to decision-makers in Washington, who see Iran as an erratic and malevolent force. But from the outset, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Iran’s designers of the JCPOA, had bet their careers on getting hard-line Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to back the deal, and they were not going to let the United States stymie that achievement.

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