Trump vaguely warned that Iran was playing with fire, but Tehran has learned that Trump’s act is smoke and mirrors. An incoherent White House statement completed the portrait of disarray: “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.” Huh? The statement continued, “We must restore the long-standing nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran. The United States and its allies will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.” Well, “some people” would say that leaving the Iran nuclear deal forfeited our leverage and sacrificed a unified front against Iran.
In the near term, what does Iran’s move mean? “It adds to the pressure on the Europeans but should not push them to a decision on staying in or leaving the deal,” former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin tells me. “Iran gave up 98 percent of its enriched uranium and this bumps up the low enriched amount only a bit.” He adds, “If they start next enriching to 20 percent they raise the stakes because of the greater ease in jumping to weapons grade from that level. We’re not there yet.” He continued, “Of course the only reason this is happening is because Trump pulled out of the deal, ceding the high ground on this issue and reopening problems that would have been held at least for a number of years in abeyance.”
The administration was supposed to be conducting a policy of “maximum pressure.” However, “Together with their proxy attacks, sabotage operations, and now the incremental walk away from the JCPOA limitations, we are seeing the Iranian version of maximum pressure,” veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis A. Ross tells me. “The Iranians were never simply going to succumb to our maximum pressure without applying some of their own on us, our friends and our interests in the region.”
It’s not clear what the Iranians’ aim here is, Ross notes: “See if they can get us to ease off, raise oil prices both because President Trump is sensitive to those and generate a little more revenue in the process, get our allies and friends to pressure us to step back from the brink and ease some of the sanctions?”
Ross points out that in the past Iran has been forced to negotiate “when the pressure has reached a point that matters to the supreme leader — whether Khomeini or Khamenei,” referring to the late Ruhollah Khomeini and current leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, Trump and his gung-ho advisers have overestimated their leverage. “At this point, [the Iranians] think they can manage the pressure, that domestic peace for them is not in danger, and that the administration’s policy is not leading to the isolation of Iran,” Ross cautions.
It does not take too much imagination to see all of this leading to a diplomatic coup — for Russia. While Ross doubts Iran will negotiate directly with the administration, “the possibility of working through [Vladimir] Putin as a mediator with Trump is, I suspect, a very real one — especially, if Khamenei decides that the level of alienation on the inside is becoming too great.” Trump’s infamously deferential behavior toward Russia would likely make for a disastrous result.
At any rate, the supreme leader “prefers to wait out Trump — and seems to believe that presently the U.S. is blamed internationally more than Iran for the escalation in tensions,” Ross says. About the latter, it is hard to argue he is wrong.