- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Iran delivered an ultimatum to the U.S. and its allies on Wednesday: Rework a comprehensive nuclear deal within the next 60 days, or Tehran will quickly ramp up its uranium enrichment operations to near weapons-grade levels.

The high-stakes demand from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — exactly a year after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the multinational Obama-era nuclear accord — added to growing military tension between the two nations and triggered swift warnings from U.S. and European leaders that Iran will face severe punishment if it follows through on the threat.

In a widely anticipated speech in Tehran, Mr. Rouhani cast his country’s defiant position as a final chance for the global community to salvage what is left of the nuclear deal, which signatories France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China still support. The 2015 agreement offered sweeping economic sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for giving up much of its nuclear program.

“We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery, and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Mr. Rouhani said. “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”

He made the comments at a crucial moment in an increasingly hostile relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The Trump administration this week deployed an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East in response to growing concern that Tehran-backed militias were plotting an attack against American forces in Iraq.



The administration recently expanded its efforts to uphold a global embargo on Iranian crude oil, effectively ending waivers to nations that had been permitted to purchase the oil without the threat of sanctions from Washington.

Cracking down

Within hours of Mr. Rouhani’s speech, Mr. Trump laid out measures to further isolate Iran economically. He announced a fresh set of sanctions targeting Iranian industrial metals such as iron, steel, aluminum and copper. Administration officials said the sanctions are designed to bite Iran’s economy beyond the oil sector, which provides most of the nation’s wealth, and that Mr. Trump is prepared to go further if provoked.

Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” the president said.

Brian Hook, the administration’s special representative for Iran, said Mr. Rouhani’s threat is proof that the U.S. campaign of “maximum economic pressure” is pushing Tehran’s economy to a breaking point. The oil embargo alone, Mr. Hook said, will deprive Iran of roughly $50 billion a year, or roughly 40% of its total annual budget.

The U.S. has no intention of easing the pressure, he said, particularly if Iran begins high-level uranium enrichment operations.

“We will not be held hostage by Iran’s nuclear blackmail,” Mr. Hook said during speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Either you comply with the deal or you do not. Cheating just a little bit is still cheating, and in the context of Iran’s nuclear commitments, it will not be tolerated.”

Analysts say the combination of Wednesday’s announcement from Tehran, the Trump administration’s increased oil embargo efforts and the movement of U.S. military forces toward the Strait of Hormuz — a crucial shipping channel off the Iranian coast — has raised U.S.-Iranian tensions to their highest level in years.

Critics argue that the White House, under the influence of hard-line National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, is seeking to provoke a war with Iran and has deliberately undermined the nuclear deal with the intent to create a pretext for military strikes.

“It is precisely what John Bolton and other Iran hawks have sought via their efforts to ratchet up tensions in recent weeks: a deteriorating nuclear deal that they will exploit to justify actions that move the U.S. toward war,” said Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an organization that fervently supported the achievement of the nuclear deal four years ago.

“Via their sabotage, Bolton and the Trump administration own the consequences as the agreement moves closer to collapse,” Mr. Abdi said Wednesday.

But with its challenge to the international community, Iran has again brought its dangerous nuclear ambitions to the forefront and stoked fears around the world, perhaps most notably in Israel.

Newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one of the international community’s harshest critics of Iran — vowed Wednesday that his nation is prepared to act. “We will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. We will continue to fight those who seek our souls,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a post on Twitter.

The nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, allows Iran to enrich uranium up to 3.67%, which is enough to fuel nuclear power plants used for peaceful purposes.

Weapons-grade uranium requires 90% enrichment, and some analysts warn that Iran could reach that threshold quickly given how advanced its nuclear program had become before it signed the deal, even though leaders in Tehran long claimed that its program never had a military aspect.

Squeezing Europe

Analysts say Mr. Rouhani’s demand Wednesday was designed to squeeze Europe into a corner and force the U.K., Germany and France to offer Iran greater relief from sanctions or watch as their prized nuclear agreement dies.

Iran’s threats to leave the JCPOA are just that at the moment: a threat,” said Peter Brookes, a senior fellow in national security affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation and former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Iran is mostly trying to pressure the Europeans to complete workarounds to U.S. sanctions as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago,” Mr. Brookes said.

The European Union this year finalized a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate a trading channel with Iran outside the reach of Washington’s sanctions.

Analysts say Mr. Rouhani likely seeks to expand the channel in response to the Trump administration’s plan to widen economic sanctions on Iran.

For now, Europe is presenting a unified front, warning Iran not to follow through on its uranium enrichment threat.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the threat “an unwelcome step” and urged Iran “not to take further escalatory steps.”

“Sanctions were lifted in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Should Iran cease to observe its nuclear commitments, there would, of course, be consequences,” Mr. Hunt said. “For as long as Iran keeps its commitments, then so too will the United Kingdom.”

Mr. Hunt spoke alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appeared to downplay the ultimatum from Tehran. “They’ve made a number of statements about actions they threatened to do in order to get the world to jump,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We’ll see what they actually do.”

French officials said they are doing everything they can to keep the deal alive, the BBC reported. But the French also warned that Paris could support further economic sanctions if Tehran acts outside the terms of the nuclear agreement.

German officials expressed a similar sentiment.

For the White House, the situation underscores the wide gulf between its view of Iran and that of the Europeans. The administration has tried over the past two years to put Iran’s support of terrorism and extremist Shiite militias in various corners of the Middle East at the forefront of any policy discussion about the region.

Mr. Hook lamented that European leaders have been so preoccupied with trying to save the 2015 nuclear deal that they have looked past Iran’s other activities.

“After the deal was concluded, Iran’s compliance with temporary nuclear limits became a prism through which countries assessed all of Iran’s malign activity,” Mr. Hook said. “The Iran deal has come at the expense of a more peaceful and stable Middle East.”

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