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'Brinkmanship and escalation': Iran set to breach cap on uranium stockpile

European nations and potentially US set to respond if Tehran follows through with threat to violate key part of nuclear deal
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has said pulling out of some commitments under the nuclear deal was a 'minimum' measure that Tehran could adopt (AFP)

Iran appears on the brink of breaking through the limits imposed on its nuclear enrichment programme by the 2015 nuclear deal, following its warning that it would stop complying with the accord unless world powers acted to protect it against the Trump administration's devastating economic sanctions.

The Reuters news agency reported on Thursday that diplomats said new data from UN nuclear inspectors showed that Iran was still slightly short of the maximum amount of enriched uranium it is allowed to have under the nuclear deal, but it was on course to reach that limit at the weekend.

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Tehran had warned on 17 June that it would exceed the 300kg cap stipulated by the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in ten days, which falls on Thursday. 

Two of the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters, said Iran was producing at a rate of around 1 kg a day, meaning it could go over the line soon after a meeting of senior officials from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China to discuss the nuclear deal in Vienna on Friday.

Tehran had originally announced in May its intention to stop complying with parts of the nuclear accord, unless world powers moved within 60 days to protect its interests against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The 60-day deadline expires on 8 July.

It had issued the warning on the first anniversary of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

The announcement was met with US sanctions against Iran’s metals industry - including iron, steel, copper and aluminium - which accounts for “10 percent of its export economy,” according to US President Donald Trump.

"There is still time for the Europeans,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), told a televised news conference on 17 June when Iran announced the ten-day countdown. 

“But the Europeans have expressed indirectly their inability to act. They should not think that after 60 days, they will have another 60-day opportunity."  

Britain, France and Germany have sent Iran an official warning that non-compliance with the nuclear agreement, not least the enrichment of uranium to higher levels than the JCPOA limit of 3.67 percent, will have serious consequences. 

Carrots and sticks

While the snapback of European sanctions against Iran might be on the cards as an option of last resort, the EU will likely try to persuade Tehran back into compliance with a combination of carrots and sticks. 

A recent decision by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to extend Iran’s deadline for implementing international regulations against terrorism financing and money laundering signifies such a cautious approach.

A timeline of US-Iran tensions

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Tensions have skyrocketed between the Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump announced last May that he was pulling out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

Here's a timeline of key events that have led to, and marked, the recent escalation:

8 May 2018: US President Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Under that agreement, the Iranian government agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Trump also says Washington will reimpose "the highest levels of economic sanctions" on Tehran.

5 November 2018: The US reimposes sanctions on Iran's oil, banking and transport sectors. At the same time, Trump says he wants to gradually impose sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, citing concerns about upsetting energy markets and causing global price spikes.

8 April: The Trump administration blacklists Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The move marks the first time Washington has formally labelled another country's military a terrorist group.

30 April: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signs a bill into law that declares all US troops in the Middle East as terrorists, and defines the US as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

2 May: The US stops issuing waivers to countries that import oil from Iran. Those waivers had allowed certain states, including Turkey, China, Japan, India and South Korea, to keep buying Iranian oil, despite American sanctions - and provided a lifeline for Tehran.

6 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton announces that the Trump administration is deploying an aircraft carrier, as well as ships and bombers, to the Gulf. The move was meant to send a "clear and unmistakable message" to the Iranian government, Bolton said, amid intelligence reports that Tehran was planning attacks against American troops in the region.

7 May: Iran says it plans to withdraw from parts of the 2015 nuclear agreement with major world powers. The move comes one year after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal.

8 May: The Trump administration announces a new round of economic sanctions that will target Iran's metals trade - iron, steel, aluminium and copper, specifically.

9 May: As the drums of war began to beat louder in certain circles in Washington, Trump tells reporters that he "would like to see them [Iran] call me" - a sign the US president is perhaps seeking to de-escalate the situation.

12 May: The United Arab Emirates says four oil tankers were damaged in "acts of sabotage" off the coast of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE did not assign blame for the incident, but said it would launch an investigation into what happened.

13 May: Mike Pompeo makes a surprise visit to Brussels, where he seeks to get European leaders on board with Washington's "maximum pressure" strategy against Tehran. The US secretary of state gets a lukewarm reception, however, with the European Union's foreign policy chief instead urging the US to show "maximum restraint".

14 May: Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says the country will not go to war with the US. "Neither we nor they - who know war will not be in their interest - are after war," Khamenei says.

15 May: Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, says the country is committed to "de-escalation" with Iran, while refusing to assign blame for the 12 May "sabotage" of the oil tankers.

That same day, the US orders non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, citing fears of an imminent attack by Iranian-backed proxies in that country.

19 May: A Katyusha rocket is fired into Baghdad's Green Zone, an area that houses government offices and foreign diplomatic missions, including the US embassy in Iraq.

21 May: A previously unknown Iraqi group claims responsibility for the rocket fired into the Green Zone. The Operations of Martyr Ali Mansour says the attack is retaliation for Trump's decision to pardon a soldier who killed an Iraqi detainee in 2009.

In Washington that same day, US lawmakers are briefed by members of the Trump administration about its claims that Iran poses a threat to the country. Several members of Congress tell reporters they left the meetings unconvinced.

24 May: Washington announces plans to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to counter Iranian threats, a decision Iran blasted as "extremely dangerous".

28 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton says the attack on four vessels off the Emirati coast was caused by "naval mines almost certainly from Iran".

30 May-1 June: Saudi Arabia hosts a summit in Mecca to discuss recent tensions with Iran. On the eve of the talks, Riyadh blasts what it called Iranian "interference" in the region and demanded "firmness" over attacks in the Gulf.

7 June: The US imposes sanctions on Iran's largest petrochemicals holding group, accusing Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company of providing financial support to an engineering firm with ties to the IRGC.

13 June: Two oil tankers suffer damage after an unspecified attack in the Gulf of Oman. Hours after the incident, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo points the finger at Iran, without providing evidence to back up his claim.

Iran immediately denies it was involved in the attacks, accusing Washington of seeking to derail diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation.

14 June: The head of the United Nations calls for an independent investigation into the incidents in the Gulf of Oman.

Earlier in the day, US Central Command releases a video that it says shows Iranian IRGC members removing an unexploded mine from one of the damaged ships. That comes after Trump himself says the incident has Iran "written all over it".

Meanwhile, the owner of the Japanese vessel says crew members reported seeing objects flying towards them - which would appear to refute the US's version of events. "The crew told us something came flying at the ship and they found a hole," the owner says. "Then some crew witnessed the second shot."

17 June: The US will send roughly 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announces.

20 June: Iran says it shot down a US military drone entering Iranian airspace near the Straits of Hormuz. A US official confirms that a drone was shot down but says it was in international airspace.

21 June: US President Donald Trump says he ordered and then aborted a military strike on Iran roughly 10 minutes before the operation took place.

Fighter jets were in the air to strike multiple Iranian military installations in response to Iran's shooting down of an unmanned US drone a day earlier, according to US media reports.

Trump says he called off the strike after US generals reportedly told him the attack would kill 150 Iranians. The US operation was "not proportionate", the US president says.

24 June: The US imposes a new round of sanctions on Iran, this time targeting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

25 June: Trump threatens Iran with "obliteration" if the country were to strike American targets. His comments come after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House "mentally retarded" and vowed that Tehran would not back down from US sanctions. 

Also on Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweets an article written by John Bolton in 2017, which outlines how the US should back out of the nuclear deal and detailing why the Iranians would not want to negotiate once the US withdraws.

28 June: The US Senate votes down an amendment that sought to bar Trump from being able to declare war on Iran without authorisation from Congress.

4 July: A supertanker suspected of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions is detained in Gibraltar. Senior Iranian officials deny claims the tanker was headed to Syria. 

5 July: A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander suggests that Iran should seize a British oil tanker if the Iranian vessel detained off Gibraltar is not released immediately.

9 July: General Joseph Dunford, a top US general, announces plans to set up a coalition of allied countries willing to patrol key waterways in the Gulf region. 

Dunford says the US military would provide command ships and surveillance technology, while its allies would escort ships and patrol the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.

11 July: British officials say three Iranian boats attempted to "impede the passage" of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, forcing a UK warship to intervene. Iran denies the accusation

Meanwhile, Gibraltar police announce the arrest of the captain and chief officer of the Iranian supertanker on suspicion that the ship had breached EU sanctions on Syria on 4 July. 

Police also seize documents and electronic devices from the ship, which remains in custody. 

12 July: US lawmakers approve a measure that would force President Donald Trump to seek congressional approval before ordering military strikes against Iran.

16 July: Iran says it has ruled out entering into negotiations over its ballistic missile programme, directly contradicting statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier that same day.

18 July: US President Donald Trump says American warship USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping channel in the Gulf.

Top Iranian officials deny the report, however, with Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi saying Iran did not lose "any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else".

“They will rely on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess whether Iran has de facto violated the nuclear deal or not,” Aniseh Bassiri, an expert on Iranian-European relations at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told Middle East Eye. 

“This could mean that they might wait until the next report is due in August, while in the meantime continue the shuttle diplomacy with Tehran in an attempt to convince them to reverse their decision.”

Growing differences between Europe and Iran will, however, make it easier for the United States and its regional allies to advance the “maximum pressure” agenda and inch closer towards mobilising a global coalition of the willing to make Tehran change course, even though Russia and China have expressed opposition to US sanctions against Iran.

“I think that the European states will have to react,” Patricia Lewis, Research Director for International Security at Chatham House, told MEE.

“They have held to the JCPOA, but if Iran moves away from it and starts to increase its enriched stocks, it will be hard within the European parliaments to resist calls for joining US sanctions.”

Khamenei sanctioned

In an unprecedented move that carried more political than economic significance, on Monday the Trump administration sanctioned the Iranian head of state, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the financial network under his control, following the Revolutionary Guards’ high-stakes downing of US reconnaissance drone near the Strait of Hormuz.   

“The likely response from the Trump administration is additional sanctions as well as a threat of military force,” Nicholas L Miller, professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of US Nonproliferation Policy, told MEE.   
 
“The stated goal of the administration is to ramp up pressure until Iran agrees to a new nuclear deal that includes greater, more long-lasting restrictions, as well as changes to Iran's behaviour in many other areas. 

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"But given Tehran’s resistance to these demands, it is likely that hardliners in the administration, such as [National Security Advisor John] Bolton and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, are thinking of other ways to address the problem: namely through regime collapse brought on by sanctions, or through the use of military force if Iran breaks out of JCPOA restrictions,” explained Miller.
 
An equally alarming scenario for Iran is the reopening of its nuclear dossier at the UN Security Council (UNSC), where permanent members might reach a consensus, absent a veto by Russia or China, to categorise Iran’s nuclear non-compliance as a “threat to” or “breach of” peace, and thus punish it under Chapter VII of the UN charter. 

The unique risk of treating the case under Chapter VII, which lays out conditions on the use of force, lies in its potential to be used by hawks in the Trump administration and US Congress as a legal cover to legitimise military action against Iran.
 
“First of all, what Tehran intends to do is not ‘violation’ of the nuclear deal, but in fact invocation of JCPOA articles 26 and 36, which allow it to take appropriate measures in response to other signatories’ failure to honour their end of the bargain,” Diako Hosseini, Director of the World Studies Programme at Iran’s presidential Center for Strategic Studies, told MEE.
 
“Anyway, if the case is referred to the UN Security Council, Tehran will immediately exit the nuclear accord. This is the state’s decision at the highest political levels,” he added.
 
In its 8 May statement on the retaliatory reduction of nuclear commitments, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) stressed that reopening the dossier at the UNSC will be met with a “firm and rapid reaction”. 

A few days later, AEOI spokesman Kamalvandi warned that in the event of a UNSC referral, Tehran will not only scrap the nuclear deal altogether, but might also take “other measures” - which have been widely interpreted as possible withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

US 'surgical' or 'tactical' strikes

Given the sharply escalated tensions between the Iran and the US, Washington’s response at this stage, if it comes to pass, will likely be “surgical” or “tactical” strikes against critical nuclear facilities in Iran. 
 
“Tehran will not initiate war against any nation, but it will not recognise limited attacks by the US or any other aggressor either," said Hosseini.

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Rather, Iran’s retaliation against any military offensive will be unlimited in terms of lethal intensity and geographical scope.

“In other words, the United States should brace for war from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, and from North Africa to South Asia before attacking Iran”. 
 
This relentless spiral of escalation has arguably put Tehran and Washington on a collision course, as consistently intensifying US pressure on Iran is making an “off-ramp” option to avert a major confrontation in the future increasingly difficult, unless diplomacy is given a meaningful chance.
 
“In an ideal world, the United States would stop imposing additional sanctions and consider lifting or suspending others in order to convince Iran to stay within JCPOA limits and cease military provocations,” Miller said. 
 
“It could then serve as a stepping stone to a broader dialogue. However, this seems quite unlikely, as it would require the Trump administration to abandon its maximalist demands of Iran, which have been a core element of its foreign policy. 

"Unfortunately, the path we are on now appears to be towards more brinkmanship and escalation”. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.