Washington: President Donald Trump has long wanted the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to fall apart.
He got one step closer to that on Wednesday, when Iran warned European nations it’s ready to quit the accord in 60 days if it doesn’t start seeing greater economic benefits from the agreement.
American officials didn’t gloat over Iran’s announcement, but the move appeared to play into their hands. Officials in the UK and Germany, two partners in the nuclear deal, were immediately pressed on whether they would side with Washington or Tehran if the Iranian threat to stop observing limits on uranium enrichment is carried out.
“It’s going to force the Europeans to make a decision about how far they’re willing to go to back the Iranians,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group.
“It turns Iran into the offending actor and shifts the focus from what was the US has been doing. There will have to be a reckoning.”
The US sought to keep up the pressure - and undermine European efforts to sustain the deal - by announcing fresh sanctions on Wednesday targeting Iran’s copper, iron, steel and aluminum sectors and saying still more restrictions could be coming. While Iran could be bluffing, the US action make it even harder for European leaders to meet Tehran’s two-month deadline.
Standing alongside US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in London on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK still sees the agreement as the best way to keep the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear weapon.
“There will of course be consequences” if Iran breaks its commitments, Hunt said. “As long as Iran keeps its commitments, so will the UK”
Yet privately, European diplomats who have long strained to keep the deal alive despite American pressure fret that the back and forth playing out now will result in the death of the agreement.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told a meeting of lawmakers on Wednesday that he expects Iran to withdraw from the accord, according to a person who was present and asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.
Speaking to reporters in London, Pompeo said he wants to see what President Hassan Rouhani’s government actually does after the 60-day period expires.
But he later issued a statement accusing Tehran of making “a blatant attempt to hold the world hostage” and vowed to continue Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
That campaign helped shrink Iran’s economy by about 4 per cent last year, and may fuel a 6 per cent decline in GDP this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, prompting the government to scale back its military spending as oil sales fall.
That’s a foreign policy win from the White House’s perspective.
At the same time, US rhetoric and military moves have alarmed many nations, some of which see parallels with the buildup to the 2003 war in Iraq.
Over the weekend, the White House said it was expediting the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the Middle East in response to what it called “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.
The deployment wasn’t just posturing, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told senators on Wednesday, saying there was an urgent threat from Tehran.
“We sent some messages on Friday to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognise the threat and we were postured to respond to the threat,” General Joseph Dunford said at a Senate hearing.
“Our focus over the weekend was to deter.”
American officials say they remain open to talks with the Iranian government and aren’t seeking regime change.
Trump issued a statement Wednesday saying that, despite the latest round of sanctions, he looks forward to “someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement” and “give Iran the future it deserves.”
Pompeo has been less sanguine.
In a podcast interview with Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, Pompeo said he doubts Rouhani’s government can bring about the political changes the US is demanding, such as an end to support for Al Houthi rebels in Yemen and the designated terrorist group Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon.
“I think what can change is the people can change the government,” Pompeo said.
“I don’t see Rouhani changing, Zarif changing. They are who they are,” he added, referring to Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif.