Iranian officials issued fresh warnings on Monday about their plans to expand upon recent violations of the nuclear deal that was negotiated with six world powers in 2015.
The relevant statements come in the midst of escalating tensions between Iran and the US, which have created uncertain divisions among international community, with some countries struggling to maintain friendly relations with both sides while also maintaining pressure for change from one or the other.
US President Donald Trump withdrew last year from the agreement that had been spearheaded by his predecessor Barack Obama. But since then, the White House has been seeking to compel the Islamic Republic to renegotiate terms that were deemed inadequate by serious critics of the theocratic regime.
Toward that end, the Trump administration has maintained that its own withdrawal from the agreement did not give Iran license to abandon its own commitments. But Tehran has taken the position that in absence of American participation, the remaining signatories must do more to counteract the effects of US sanctions and improve Iran’s economic prospects. In order to pressure them toward making such concessions, Iran began to reduce its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July, and the regime has repeatedly threatened to continue doing so if there are no new guarantees concerning its own interests.
The United Nations’ agency in charge of monitoring JCPOA compliance, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that Tehran was still in violation last week. The latest report showed that Iranian stockpiles of low-enriched uranium continued to grow and that the nation was still enriching that material to a level slightly above the 3.67 percent allowed under the agreement. No new violations were recorded last week, but previous reports indicated that the Islamic Republic had installed up to 33 new enrichment centrifuges, potentially putting it on course to dramatically increase enrichment levels and stockpile quantities in the near future.
This is in keeping with various threats that Iranian officials have issued since before they formally began violating the deal. Figures such as the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran have typically insisted that they can exceed pre-JCPOA enrichment levels in as little as three days. But for those who were already critical of the 2015 nuclear deal, such commentary raises additional questions about its real effect on Iran’s “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon.
But the latest indications from Europe is that those questions are not widely shared among persons who are in a position to assist the Trump administration in exerting pressure on Iran for expanded restrictions on its nuclear program or on other aspects of the regime’s malign or destabilizing behavior. On one hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, indicated on Friday that she would welcome expanded terms under the JCPOA. But on the other hand, she also made it clear that the focus of European policy remained the preservation of the existing deal, with or without supplemental provisions.
Other European officials such as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas joined Mogherini in welcoming the prospect of direct talks between Iran and the US while reaffirming their commitment to the JCPOA as it currently exists. At a meeting in Helsinki last week, other European foreign and defense ministers took the opportunity to outline their perspectives on broader tensions surrounding the Islamic Republic, whose paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps is still holding a British-flagged commercial vessel, after having previously shot down a US drone and staged or sponsored attacks on at least six tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
“We must guarantee free navigation and security in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital region for the transport of hydrocarbons,” said French Defense Minister Florence Parly, before going on to reiterate her government’s resistance to plans for an American-led security force bearing the name Operation Sentinel. Although the US has consistently maintained that this force would only serve to deter further Iranian provocations and would involve US naval forces serving little more than a coordinating role from outside the Persian Gulf, the French are reportedly wary of any perception by Tehran that Paris is aligning with a US strategy of “maximum pressure.”
The French position in the midst of these tensions was underscored in August by President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to invite Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Biarritz, where Macron was hosting the latest summit of leaders from G-7 nations. That invitation was preceded, days earlier, a direct meeting between Macron and Zarif as the latter visited Paris after leaving a tour of Scandinavia. The Foreign Minister’s entire tour was met with protest by Iranian expatriate communities, especially those affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
These protests placed little emphasis on the nuclear dispute, and instead the French-headquartered NCRI sought to bring renewed attention to Zarif’s tendency to deny Iranian human rights violations and terrorist activities. An international rally organized outside Paris by the NCRI was the target of a thwarted Iranian bomb plot in June 2018, but the French newspaper Le Monde reported in late July that Macron had ordered his own intelligence chiefs to avoid making noise over the incident in the run-up to diplomatic negotiations with the Iranian government.
Foreign Minister Zarif came under sanction from the US Treasury around the time of that report, with the White House explaining that his role largely resembled that of a propaganda minister working on behalf of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. Several IRGC commanders and the supreme leader came under sanction themselves about a month earlier, whereas the measures targeting Zarif were delayed until after he had rejected a request for direct talks with the Trump administration, thereby undermining expectations that the nuclear agreement might be restored and/or expanded.
However, this apparent rejection of diplomacy is unique to Iran’s response for talks with the US. Iranian officials including President Hassan Rouhani have generally maintained that they would only entertain the prospect of such talks if the US first agreed to remove all economic pressure. But talks with the likes of President Macron have proceeded at a steady pace in the wake of his efforts to conceal last year’s incidence of Iranian terrorism. It is not possible to say with certainty how closely these two facts are related, but Macron’s instructions to his intelligence service have naturally aroused concerns about the potential for broader conciliation by his government.
These concerns were given additional fuel on Monday when it was reported that Macron and Rouhani had spoken by phone for roughly two hours, leading to a narrowing of the gap between their views on nuclear issue. Media reports were vague about the implications of this claim and whether the change represented a French shift in the direction of the Iranian position, or vice versa. But the close proximity of this conversation to Tehran’s latest threats of additional JCPOA violations may provide a clue.
In any event, it reportedly remains the case that France and the other two European signatories of the nuclear deal are working to find ways of granting Iran economic incentives without violating US sanctions. Paris is specifically said to be exploring the idea of granting Iran a 15 billion dollar line of credit for oil sales, though it seems unlikely that the US would grant approval even for this alternative to direct transactions.
The ongoing American commitment to maximum pressure was underlined on Friday when the US government blacklisted the Adrian Darya, a ship carrying an estimated two million barrels of Iranian oil which had previously been held for six weeks at Gibraltar after being seized by British Royal Marines on suspicion of violating EU sanctions on transactions with the Assad regime in Syria. The ship, formerly known as the Grace 1, was released over American objections after its operators provided assurances that it would not sell its merchandise to Syria. But its alternative intended destination remains unknown and the ship has been unable to make landfall while being continually monitored by the US.
The British decision to release the vessel and the American effort to block it from carrying on its mission arguably reflect the different approaches being taken on either side of the Atlantic to the Iranian nuclear issue. But the Adrian Darya’s blacklisting is not strictly related to that specific effort. Rather, the US has declared it “blocked property” under an “anti-terror order,” in line with the Trump administration’s conclusion that any proceeds from the sale of its oil would go toward financing the paramilitary activities of the IRGC.
Despite the disruption of terrorist plots on European soil in 2018, the EU and its member states appear to be placing less emphasis on such paramilitary activities than on the goal of preventing Iran from stepping up its violations of the JCPOA. But the Trump administration is expected to keep up pressure for a broader approach to dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Secretary of State Pompeo has an opportunity to make that case once again as he continues a two-day visit to Brussels on Tuesday, where he was to meet with the presidents-elect of the European Council and the European Commission.
“I essentially want to try to reset the relationship,” said Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, in remarks to Politico on Monday. But in light of the Trump administration’s long-term commitment to exerting maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic, it seems unlikely that it would entertain a “reset” that involves moderating the American position on that issue. More likely, the White House will push for the same sort of narrowing of perspectives that the Iranian president ostensibly achieved on Monday in conversation with his French counterpart.