- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The U.S. confronted Iran on the world stage Wednesday and threatened even more crushing economic sanctions if Tehran doesn’t halt its uranium enrichment program, but the Trump administration also found itself on the defensive at home and abroad over how it has handled the escalating crisis.

Administration officials used an emergency meeting Wednesday of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to demand an end to Iran’s “nuclear extortion.” They said Tehran’s leadership is breaking the limits of an Obama-era deal in order to force European nations to provide economic relief.

Hours earlier, Pentagon leaders said they were crafting a plan to halt Iranian attacks on commercial oil vessels and wanted to build a coalition to keep Tehran in check.

Although Iran’s announcement that it was breaking through the nuclear deal’s limits was the immediate justification for the meeting, Iran and other powers that signed the deal argued, in effect, that President Trump started the crisis. Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the multinational accord last year and reimposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the accord.

Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov said in Vienna that Washington could not reject the deal and expect Iran to scrupulously implement all of its provisions.

“Although for some reason they only refer to Tehran, in fact the United States, which is refusing to fulfill its own obligations under the nuclear deal, lost any right to demand this from others,” Mr. Ulyanov said.

The dual tracks of diplomacy and military preparation underscore the height of tensions between the U.S. and Iran and how Mr. Trump wants to keep open the door to negotiations while ramping up pressure on Tehran.

The IAEA delegates met on the heels of Iran’s announcement that it is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, far past the 3.67% limit laid out in the 2015 nuclear pact, and is moving incrementally closer to a “breakout date” to develop a nuclear weapon.

Iran also has far exceeded the uranium stockpile threshold laid out in that agreement. American officials said Tehran is trying to back the U.S. into a corner, along with its European allies that are desperate to preserve the 2015 deal.

“We are committed to denying Iran the benefits it seeks from these most recent provocations,” said Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA. “It is imperative that this misbehavior not be rewarded. For if it is, Iran’s demands and provocations will only escalate.”

Trump tweets

Even as the meeting unfolded, Mr. Trump was raising the stakes. He announced via Twitter that he believed, despite the findings of U.N. inspectors, that Tehran has long been violating the deal and signaled that he is ready to expand the financial crackdown that already has pushed Iran’s economy to the breaking point.

“Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially,” Mr. Trump tweeted. He offered no specifics.

China, Russia and U.S. allies in Europe have refused to follow the Trump administration’s lead and are holding out hope that the original agreement can be saved.

Iran’s provocative actions of late — including its uranium enrichment, alleged attacks on commercial oil ships and the downing of a U.S. drone — appear to be designed to force the international community to pick sides and, in particular, to find a way around the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S.

French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a lead role in trying to save the deal. He has spoken with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Mr. Trump in recent days and dispatched his top diplomatic aide, Emmanuel Bonne, to Tehran on Wednesday for talks with Iran’s senior security official, Ali Shamkhani.

Mr. Shamkhani told Mr. Bonne that the decision to increase enrichment is “unchangeable,” and he criticized European countries for their “lack of will” in providing relief from U.S. sanctions, Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.

Iranian officials maintain that the U.S. sanctions are tantamount to an act of war and are crushing innocent Iranian citizens.

“Due to costly and predictable consequences of sanctions, they should be seen as weapons of warfare and means of aggression,” said Kazem Gharib Abadi, Iran’s representative to the IAEA. “Economic sanctions are, in fact, collective punishment of the ordinary people, contrary to the objectives and purposes of human rights, and should be considered as crimes against humanity.”

In Washington, some lawmakers continue to warn that the administration, led by White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, is inching toward a war with Iran that has little support among voters or on Capitol Hill.

“War right now is not necessary,” Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters. “We know war with Iran would be bloody and young Americans in the communities we represent would pay the highest price.”

The Pentagon this week announced its own plan to limit Iranian aggression in the region.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters late Tuesday that the U.S. is seeking coalition partners in an effort dissuade Iranian attacks. The details of the plan remain murky, but officials said the U.S. would provide surveillance and intelligence-gathering assets.

“We’re getting ready now to move out,” Gen. Dunford said. “We have a pretty clear concept of what we want to do.

“This will be scalable, so with a small number of contributors we can have a small mission and we’ll expand that as the number of nations that are willing to participate identify themselves,” he said.

The U.S. military would not escort commercial ships through the dangerous waters off Iran’s coast, though officials suggested that other nations ultimately could provide their own escort ships.

⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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