Iran breaches uranium enrichment limit, hinting at Trump’s failing brinkmanship strategy

Borzou Daragahi

Iran on Monday increased its stockpile of reactor grade-uranium beyond the limits permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal, challenging the United States “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran and testing European resolve in upholding the landmark agreement.

Iran’s Fars news agency reported that the country’s stockpile of 3.67 per cent enriched uranium has exceeded the 300kg limit imposed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“Based on what I have been told, Iran has exceeded the 300kg limit,” Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.

“We deem it as part of our rights under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”

The announcement had been expected for two weeks. It comes days after world powers announced the launch of Instex, a financial mechanism for doing trade with Iran by circumventing harsh US sanctions meant to draw the country back to reopen negotiations.

The uranium stockpile breach, a moderate violation of the agreement which can easily be scaled back, will challenge European commitment to the deal, but it is unlikely to cause them to leave the agreement.

Iran would need at least 1,200kg of reactor grade uranium, further refined, to build a single nuclear bomb.

“At the moment it’s a game,” Ephraim Asculai, a former Israeli nuclear official, told The Independent.

“Iran is being really careful by not exceeding the limits of the deal. If Iran goes 10 percent more over the limit, no one will start a war.”

But Iran’s breach also adds to mounting questions about whether the US strategy is advancing its stated goals of getting Iran to roll back its nuclear programme, curtail its armed proxies, and rein in its missile development. Iran also appears no closer to coming to the negotiation table. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last week ruled out talks with the United States, potentially forever.

In addition, what few channels of diplomacy there were with Iran on key issues have been squelched. Western officials have told The Independent that removal of waivers on US-imposed energy sanctions late last year snuffed out quiet ongoing talks led by French diplomats and the European Union over the Iranian missile programme and its support for armed groups throughout the Middle East.

“They were halted in December,” a western diplomat involved in the talks said. “We asked them to resume, but we have no answer. They were ended by the removal of waivers, and the fact that since they got nothing from the JCPOA, they couldn’t rationally engage in another limiting negotiation.”

The launch of Instex last week, a mechanism endorsed by the UK, France, Germany, as well as China and Russia, suggested US diplomatic isolation.

When pressed by journalists about what the “maximum pressure” campaign has achieved, US officials cite reports that Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere have less money as evidence that the Trump administration policy is working.

No power in the world that was a signatory to the JCPOA is taking a stand against in the US

Kamran Bokhari, former US diplomat and founder of the Center for Global Policy

“Iran’s economy is in recession ... and we have put in place a policy of zero imports for Iranian crude oil,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s point person on Iran. “Our oil sanctions will deny the regime $50bn (£39bn) in revenue that is 40 per cent of its annual budget and we are closing the doors to Iran sanctions evasion to cover these losses.”

But officials can point to few shifts in Iranian policy. More than a year after the withdrawal, Iran’s nuclear programme has been ramped up, with the breach of the JCPOA, and threats by the regime in Tehran to increase enrichment to 20 per cent and reopen the dormant heavy water reactor at Arak.

Despite the paucity of cash, Iranian-backed militias continue to hold territory in Syria, where they and their allies have all but won an eight-war against rebels, and Iraq, where they are an integral part of the security and political architecture.

Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen are launching more audacious attacks on Saudi Arabia using better weapons. And Iran itself allegedly was behind attacks on Arabian Peninsula oil tankers, as well as the downing of a $130m US drone.

“So far there is much more continuity than change in Iranian policy,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran expert at Brookings Doha Centre. “One could not say the maximum pressure has been successful in achieving its goals. Iranians will likely continue to do what they’re doing, even for the next year.”

Still, scholars and diplomats say the maximum pressure campaign has been more successful than anticipated in hurting Iran’s economy, and putting pressure on the state, possibly to reopen negotiations with the Trump administration in the coming months.

If Iran goes 10 percent more over the limit, no one will start a war

Ephraim Asculai, former Israeli nuclear official

They point to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s lengthy April visit to the United States as an attempt to explore the possibility of dialogue. Meeting scholars and journalists inside the Iranian mission and the United Nations, Mr Zarif voiced frustration at the unwillingness of Europeans to defy the US by coming up with effective measures to counter sanctions, which have halted Iranian oil sales, the mainstay of its economy.

“No power in the world that was a signatory to the JCPOA is taking a stand against in the US,” said Kamran Bokhari, a former US diplomat and founder of the Center for Global Policy, a Washington think tank. “Europeans are not taking a stand. Russia is not making a huge issue. Neither are the Chinese.”

There is much more continuity than change in Iranian policy

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Brookings Doha Centre

Eventually, he predicted, Iran would have to come to the negotiating table, and it may be ramping up its nuclear programme and regional activities to gain leverage in any talks. “The bottom line is that ultimately Iran cannot continue ad infinitum,” he said, citing its embrace of talks with President Barack Obama following his campaign of “crippling sanctions”.

But Iran could also seek to wait Mr Trump out, shielding itself from unrest caused by the economic hardship by increasing repression. Protests over economic worries that erupted in late 2017 have all but died down. “At the state level there’s been a lot of pressure felt, but they’ve been able to externalise the costs onto society,” said Mr Fathollah-Nejad.

Almost all the Democratic Party contenders for president have vowed to recommit the US to the nuclear deal, arguing that the Trump team has accomplished little.

“Donald Trump told us when he got out of it that he was going to give us a better deal,” Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator, said during a debate last week. “And now we are [days] away from the Iranians who claim now that they’re going to blow the caps on enriching uranium. He has made us less safe than we were when he became president.”