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Iran’s latest move confirms failure of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy

Posted By on September 9, 2019 @ 15:00

On Saturday, Iran announced [1] that it had begun feeding uranium gas into a cascade of 20 IR-6 centrifuges and a second cascade of 20 IR-4 centrifuges, both of which provide Tehran with a significantly faster enrichment capability than its older IR-1 model. This move came less than a week after the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed [2] that Iran had breached limits on the size of its uranium stockpile and the level to which it can enrich uranium. Tehran was quickly condemned for breaching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying [3] the announcement wasn’t a surprise, as ‘[t]he Iranians are going to pursue what the Iranians have always intended to pursue’.

Iran is technically allowed to feed uranium into cascades of IR-6 centrifuges under the JCPOA, which permits [4] testing of the IR-6 centrifuge in configurations of up to 20 centrifuges within the first eight years of the agreement. The main issue is that Iran has skipped straight to feeding uranium into a 20-centrifuge cascade rather using than an intermediate cascade of 10 centrifuges, shortcutting the JCPOA’s timelines for centrifuge research and development and also providing the means to expedite higher levels of enrichment.

This move by Tehran is significant, but not because it represents an egregious breach of the JCPOA or because it confirms Iran’s perfidy [5], as Washington suggests. Like the earlier modest breaches of JCPOA caps on uranium stockpiles and enrichment thresholds, this one is largely symbolic and is a sign that Iran is increasingly seeing the JCPOA as a dead letter in the face of US sanctions.

Tehran’s impatience became evident [6] in early September when it rejected a French offer of a €14 billion (A$22.5 billion) oil credit line intended to mitigate the impact of US sanctions and to keep Tehran in the JCPOA. Iran indicated it would return to full compliance with the deal ‘only if [it] is allowed to sell its oil and use the income earned by oil exports without any limitation’. An influential hardliner in Tehran accused [7] the JCPOA’s European signatories of failing to honour their commitments because they continue to apply US sanctions. The European Union’s INSTEX [8] mechanism for facilitating trade with Iran was also slammed as little more than an oil for food and medicine program comparable to the arrangement that was forced on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the Gulf War.

The White House likely sees recent events not only as a vindication of its scepticism of Iran’s nuclear intentions, but as evidence that its campaign of ‘maximum pressure [9]’ is bearing fruit. Washington’s true end game for Iran remains opaque, and the White House appears to be pursuing a set of objectives that range from battering [5] Iran’s economy with sanctions to force Tehran to a negotiating table that doesn’t actually exist, through to regime change [10]. But the reality of how increasingly punitive sanctions are affecting Iran falls well short of Washington’s expectations that Tehran will either soon cave in or face its own version of an Arab Spring.

Sanctions have clearly failed to stir up unrest in Iran. Protest activity has actually decreased [11] from an average of 800 protest events per month in 2018 to fewer than 300 per month in the first half of 2019. Ironically, the drop has been attributed in part to the increasing likelihood of a military confrontation between Iran and the US, which has contributed to ‘internal cohesion among a public that frequently shows a readiness to rally behind the regime against threats of military attack or challenges to Iran’s territorial integrity’.

The sanctions have also failed to curb Tehran’s support for regional terrorist groups and have had little impact [9] on the ability of Tehran’s proxies to operate in Syria and elsewhere. Likewise, there are indications that Hezbollah is not as reliant on Iranian funding [12] as previously believed. And despite the clear economic impact of the sanctions, Tehran has recently increased its funding of Hamas [13] from an estimated US$70 million per year to US$30 million per month.

In a further blow to the already questionable utility of US sanctions as a lever for change, China and Iran have recently formalised [14] the details of Belt and Road Initiative projects that will see China invest up to US$280 billion in developing Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemicals sectors, with further investment in transportation and manufacturing infrastructure. This investment will effectively provide Iran with an economic lifeline. Intriguingly, the partnership also includes provisions for up to 5,000 Chinese security personnel to be based in Iran to ‘protect Chinese projects’, dramatically raising the stakes of any future military strikes against Iranian facilities.

And herein lies the destructive irony of Washington’s failing Iran strategy—it has effectively killed off the JCPOA (which remains the most effective available mechanism for ensuring that Tehran’s nuclear activities are transparent and accountable), while simultaneously failing to force Iran to either go back to the negotiating table or cease its support for its proxies across the Middle East. Washington’s position has also created additional strategic uncertainty across the Middle East and has increased the prospect of a new military conflict in the region. Israel appears particularly emboldened [15] and in recent weeks has expanded its air campaign against Iranian assets in Syria and Iraq.

Within Iran, the failure of the JCPOA will clearly come at a cost to the more moderate factions that have continued to support greater transparency of the country’s nuclear activities and have also been potentially amenable to the idea of its being a more responsible actor in the Middle East. Most worryingly, Tehran will have also digested the lessons from Washington’s treatment of a nuclear-armed North Korea and will likely be thinking more seriously about the long-term strategic value of nuclear deterrence.

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URLs in this post:

[1] announced: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/iran-now-operating-advanced-centrifuges-in-breach-of-nuclear-pact/2019/09/07/68ae6988-d0ae-11e9-a620-0a91656d7db6_story.html?noredirect=on

[2] confirmed: http://isis-online.org/uploads/iaea-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_report_30Aug2019.pdf

[3] saying: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/09/07/iran-advanced-centrifuges-nuclear-deal-1484447

[4] permits: http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/irans-long-term-centrifuge-enrichment-plan-providing-needed-transparency/8

[5] confirms Iran’s perfidy: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/magazine/iran-strike-israel-america.html

[6] evident: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190905-iran-rejects-15-billion-dollar-european-loan-in-exchange-for-commitment-to-nuclear-deal/

[7] accused: https://www.euronews.com/2019/09/05/iran-hardliner-to-euronews-eu-not-fulfilling-its-commitments-under-nuclear-deal

[8] INSTEX: https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-the-eu-iran-payment-vehicle-instex/a-47306401

[9] maximum pressure: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-flaw-in-trumps-maximum-pressure-campaign-toward-iran/2019/08/29/df7f310c-c9c2-11e9-a4f3-c081a126de70_story.html?noredirect=on

[10] regime change: https://lobelog.com/revisiting-regime-change-in-iran/

[11] decreased: https://www.inss.org.il/publication/the-economic-crisis-and-the-protest-movement-in-iran-one-year-after-the-renewal-of-sanctions/

[12] not as reliant on Iranian funding: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/285612/hezbollah-isnt-broke

[13] funding of Hamas: https://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-agrees-to-increase-hamas-funding-to-30-million-per-month-report/

[14] formalised: https://www.petroleum-economist.com/articles/politics-economics/middle-east/2019/china-and-iran-flesh-out-strategic-partnership

[15] emboldened: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-hype-over-possible-us-iran-talks-obscured-something-much-more-ominous/2019/08/27/7b9e0b1a-c8e4-11e9-a4f3-c081a126de70_story.html

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