- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2019

Tensions between Washington and Tehran reached a new level Monday as Iranian officials said they had significantly boosted their uranium enrichment production capacity less than a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Trump exchanged belligerent threats and jabs over Twitter.

A day after Mr. Trump warned against new moves by Tehran, Iranian state media reported that the production of uranium would be enriched to the limit set by the 2015 international nuclear deal. Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the accord last year while reinstating harsh economic sanctions on Tehran.

The move does not technically violate the 2015 deal, but Iran has warned that the other signatories — China, Russia and leading European powers — that it will no longer be bound by curbs on its nuclear programs if they do not find a way around the crushing U.S. economic sanctions.

The announced 3.67% enrichment limit makes the uranium viable for a power plant but not enough for an atomic weapon, according to The Associated Press. The production effort does put Iran on course to surpass the stockpile limitations set in the Obama-era agreement.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has kept adversaries and allies off balance with his mixed messages on Iran. He told reporters Monday night as he left for a rally in Pennsylvania, “I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything, but we have no indication that they will.”

As he has before, Mr. Trump mixed tough talk with offers of direct negotiations if Iran wants to escape the punishing U.S. sanctions.

“If they call, we would certainly negotiate. That’s going to be up to them,” Mr. Trump said. “I’d only want them to call if they’re ready. If they’re not ready, they don’t have to bother.”

Fears of open conflict have been soaring after a string of incidents in recent days, including the mysterious sabotage of tankers in the Persian Gulf, a missile launched near the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone, leaked U.S. plans of a possible major deployment to the region, and the imposition of more U.S. sanctions on Iran’s critical energy and metals sectors.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told journalists in Geneva that Iran should not underestimate Mr. Trump’s seriousness. “If American interests are attacked, they will retaliate,” he said.

“We want the situation to de-escalate because this is a part of the world where things can get triggered accidentally,” Mr. Hunt said.

Iran said the U.S. has undermined the agreement and has set a July 7 deadline for European nations to propose new terms. If they fail, Tehran warned, it will enrich uranium at a level closer to what is needed for a nuclear weapon.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency, told two semi-official Iranian news outlets that the United Nations had been informed of Tehran’s move but that the onus was on other parties to save the nuclear accord.

“It won’t be long until we pass the 300-kilogram limit of low enriched uranium,” Mr. Kamalvandi said. “So it’s better for the other side to do what is necessary to be done.”

Heated rhetoric

The diplomatic battle over social media already has escalated to unnerving heights.

Mr. Trump warned in a Sunday tweet that “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Mr. Zarif immediately countered by declaring that “economic terrorism & genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran.’”

Citing Mr. Trump’s doubts about past U.S. military interventions in the region, Mr. Zarif added, “Never threaten an Iranian. Try respect — it works!”

The United Nations encouraged both sides “to lower the rhetoric and lower the threshold of action as well.”

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday, “We are concerned about the rising rhetoric. … Any developments, whether they are actions on the ground or whether they are rhetoric, can always be misinterpreted and can only heighten the risk of a volatile region becoming even more volatile.”

In Washington, support for the administration’s case against Iran — and the intelligence evidence behind it — has broken down at times along partisan lines.

After a morning briefing with White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, defended the administration’s actions and said there was evidence that Iran “over the last several weeks … has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”

“If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated, we must deliver an overwhelming military response,” Mr. Graham tweeted.

The briefing was issued less than a day after Iraqi military officials confirmed that a Katyusha rocket landed near the parade grounds inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital. Eyewitnesses said a second rocket also landed inside the zone, according to news reports.

State Department officials acknowledged that no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks but said Washington would hold Tehran accountable should its proxies — including Shiite militias in Iraq with long ties to Tehran — be deemed responsible for the strike.

Frustration on the Hill

U.S. lawmakers have grown frustrated with the administration over a lack of consultation regarding the tension. Although certain members of the Senate and House armed services committees have received classified information about the matter and a full Senate briefing is expected Tuesday, House leaders continue to call for all of Congress to be fully informed.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat, said Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, and others backing the administration’s case have gone far beyond what the intelligence suggests.

A representative for Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times that the congressman “believes there’s no new intelligence or information that has necessitated this heightened posture towards Iran.”

Democratic lawmakers have consistently reminded the administration that only Congress has the authority to declare war and has not authorized any use of military force against Iran.

Analysts say Washington and Tehran are playing a dangerous game of chicken, with both sides apparently convinced that the other doesn’t have the stomach for war.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, told the Al-Jazeera news network Iran’s uranium move was aimed at gaining leverage both with the U.S. and nervous bystanders in the region and Europe.

“It is aimed at showing the international community, the U.S. in particular, that Iran is not in a position of weakness,” the analyst said. “However, this is also a risky endeavor because it might jeopardize the political and diplomatic support that until now Iran has received from Europe.”

⦁ Tom Howell Jr. and Carlo Muñoz contributed to this report.

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