Iran said Tuesday that it was prepared to quickly restart uranium enrichment — the process needed to make nuclear bombs — if President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal leads to a total collapse of the Obama-era accord.
The threat from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, issued barely an hour after Mr. Trump revealed his decision at the White House, came amid rising concern that the U.S. pullout from the deal would strengthen the hand of Tehran’s hard-liners and lead to more aggressive policies in Syria and elsewhere across the Middle East, increasing the prospect of a direct clash with Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region.
As Mr. Trump outlined his decision and major allies and adversaries took in the news, the biggest variable may be how Iran reacts, with various factions angling for power and the economy in need of the relief that the nuclear deal was supposed to bring. Options range from trying to keep the deal together with the agreement’s other partners to dropping the policy of engagement and racing to acquire a nuclear bomb.
Supporters of Mr. Trump’s move downplayed the worst-case scenarios. They said Tehran knows that any provocative actions could jeopardize the chance of salvaging what is left of the nuclear deal. But critics warned that the developments might bring down Mr. Rouhani, a prime supporter of the deal, and trigger a hard-liner takeover in Tehran.
Israel, which has warned that it will not hesitate to target Tehran if Iran-backed proxies launch rockets toward Israeli territory from inside Syria, appeared to be bracing for the worst on Tuesday night. It ordered air defenses on high alert and prepared bomb shelters for those living in the Golan Heights on the Syrian border.
There were signs that a hard-liner shift may already be taking hold in Iran. Mr. Rouhani’s unexpectedly sharp statement on the possibility of nuclear activity “in the next few weeks” was seen as a way to head off conservative critics who had long opposed cutting a deal with Washington. It was also seen as a way to keep Iran’s options open while it surveys how other powers react to Washington’s decision.
“I have also ordered [Iran’s atomic energy agency] to go ahead with adequate preparations to resume enrichment at the industrial level without any limit …,” Mr. Rouhani said in his televised address. “Everything depends on our national interests.”
But the Iranian president also said on state television that the nuclear deal could survive without U.S. participation. He said he would send Iran’s foreign minister to negotiate with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — the five other countries that remain in the accord — to see if it can be salvaged.
“If at the end of this short period we’ve concluded that we are able to achieve our demands in the deal, the deal will survive,” said Mr. Rouhani.
Mr. Trump vowed to immediately reimpose sanctions that were in place before the agreement but allowed 90-day to 180-day grace periods for businesses from the nations remaining in the accord to wind down their engagements with Iranian banks. The prospect that the Treasury would impose secondary sanctions on European or Chinese countries doing business with Iran could be another major source of tension in the coming weeks.
With EU countries, China and Russia committed to the deal and to working around reimposed U.S. sanctions, some analysts say the Islamic republic is going to proceed with caution despite the tough talk in Tehran.
“The most likely scenario,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, is that the Iranians will avoid doing “anything provocative” if they are serious about driving “a wedge between Europe and the United States.”
“The worst thing they could do is something provocative militarily,” Mr. Goldberg told reporters on a conference call Tuesday, predicting that would backfire badly and convince the Europeans that they should join Mr. Trump in withdrawing from the nuclear deal.
Mr. Goldberg said Iran will also pay a heavy price if it engages in military or terrorist action against another regional actor, including Saudi Arabia or Israel.
“Attacking Israel will promote a pretty heavy response from the Israeli air force,” he said, adding that such a development would only worsen Tehran’s difficult economic situation.
“What’s lost in conversation,” he said, is that Iran’s currency, the rial, has been in free fall in recent months while officials in Tehran have been drawing down the country’s foreign reserves. “Despite any saber-rattling they do,” he said, officials in Tehran know they are going to need to re-enter into negotiation with Washington to get sanctions relief and save their economy.”
Several top Iranian leaders took a much harder line than Mr. Rouhani.
Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, whom many regard as a conservative ally of Mr. Rouhani, told the Iranian Fars News Agency that the United States understands only the language of force.
Trump administration critics say the president and his advisers may have miscalculated how a U.S. withdrawal would play in Tehran. Mr. Trump muddied the water by condemning the legitimacy of the Islamic republic in his address and then saying he was still ready to negotiate a better nuclear deal with the regime.
The U.S. withdrawal “will hand a huge cudgel to the hard-liners in Iran and justify everything they’ve been saying about not being able to trust the United States,” said Antony Blinken, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration when it was negotiating the nuclear deal.
“For [Iranians] who have argued that they want to restart the nuclear program, this will give them a push to do so.”
Others warned that Iran’s hard-liners, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have the ability to respond “asymmetrically” to the U.S. move through Tehran’s proxies and allies in hot spots across the Middle East such as Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf.
A report by Patrick Clawson, the head of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted Iran’s “long history of sponsoring terrorist attacks to influence U.S. policy, such as through the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing, the 1996 attack on U.S. forces residing at Khobar Towers, or the 2015 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by blowing up a Washington, D.C., restaurant.”
“Iran has provided advanced explosive devices to insurgents in Iraq for use against U.S. forces, and Tehran is reportedly cooperating with Taliban insurgents battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” Mr. Clawson wrote. “Iran has threatened shipping in the Persian Gulf and has provided Yemeni Houthi rebels with advanced missiles to use against shipping in the Red Sea as well as targets in Saudi Arabia, including the Riyadh airport.
“In light of this track record,” he added, “the United States would be prudent to prepare for a variety of potential Iranian asymmetric attacks in the months after the reimposition of sanctions.”
U.S. allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, applauded Mr. Trump’s move. They said Tehran was already working to destabilize the region through actions financed in part by the revenue it had built up since the nuclear deal went into effect and economic sanctions were eased.
Saudi Arabia, which regards Iran as its main regional rival, came out strongly in support of Mr. Trump’s move. It said Tehran has used its funds since sanctions were lifted in 2015 to “increase its belligerence in the region,” according to a report by the Saudi-based Arab News.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.