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Iran threatens to surpass uranium limits as tensions with the U.S. continue to grow

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said June 17 Iran’s enrichment rate would bypass the nuclear deal’s limit in 10 days. (Video: Iran Press)

Iran said Monday that its stockpile of enriched uranium will surpass limits set by the 2015 international nuclear deal 10 days from now, unless European partners in the agreement do more to help it circumvent U.S. sanctions — a step by Tehran likely to add to growing U.S.-Iran tensions.

The announcement, made by the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was the first time Tehran explicitly said it was on track to violate the agreement. The increase in both quantity and quality of the enriched fuel could shorten the time, currently estimated at one year, that it would take to produce enough for a nuclear weapon.

“There is still time for the European countries, but if they want more time it means that they either can’t or don’t want to honor their obligations” under the deal, spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told reporters gathered at Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor.

The Iranian uranium threat was followed by an announcement by acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan that he was sending approximately 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East “for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats.”

President Trump has said repeatedly that his goal in Iran is “no nuclear weapons” and that he does not want war. But events seem to be quickly moving in the opposite directions on both counts.

Trump rails against Iran. But who’s listening?

The enrichment announcement followed last week’s U.S. charge of Iranian responsibility for attacks against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

In response, the Trump administration has said that it is considering a “full range of options” beyond the crippling sanctions it already has imposed, including on Iran’s oil exports. “Of course, of course,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday when asked if those options include military action.

The Pentagon announced plans to send 1,000 more troops to the Middle East June 17, hours after Iran threatened to surpass uranium limits. (Video: Reuters)

European allies, partners in the nuclear agreement that Trump dropped out of last year, remain stuck in the middle. They want to stay in the deal and continue trading and investing in Iran. But efforts to persuade their own skittish business communities and to use government coffers to arrange financing, while avoiding sanctions and the U.S. dollar, have proved difficult. If Iran seriously breaches the boundaries of the agreement, it would be almost impossible for them to stay in it.

While they are exasperated with Iran, the Europeans are perhaps even more annoyed with Trump, who has repeatedly tested their allegiance and trust. On Iran, France, Germany and the European Union believe the U.S. president has put them in an impossible position — and made the Iranian threat far worse than it was a year ago for no good reason. Of the European partners to the deal, only Britain so far has accepted that it is “almost certain” that Iran attached mines to the oil tankers last week.

As the administration tries to present convincing proof, the Pentagon on Monday released several photographs it said showed Iran’s involvement more clearly than a grainy video released last week.

A defense official said that Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the chief of U.S. Central Command, will meet with Pompeo on Tuesday at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa to discuss Middle East security.

“It would be foolish to quarrel with the assessment that things haven’t gone well” over the past several weeks, a Western official said of the U.S.-European breach. To discuss the sensitive issue, the official spoke on the condition that neither his position nor country would be reported.

There is a widespread consensus that the only way out of the current situation is for Iran and the United States to negotiate. But it is hard to see a path in that direction, as each seems intent on showing it can inflict pain on the other, and both are edging ever closer to the brink of war.

“The president and the administration keep saying that they’re keen to talk to the Iranians. The Iranians are the ones so far refusing to do it. But that’s the way forward,” the Western official said.

In both countries, the government is seen as divided between those who agree with the need for negotiations and those who appear to believe war is inevitable, and perhaps even desirable.

Iran’s revolutionary government is the subject of constant outside analysis to determine the extent of division between its religious figures and its more conventional political leaders. Each has its own military forces, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controlling separate parts of the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman from the Iranian navy.

It was the IRGC navy, according to the administration, that attacked the oil tankers, just as its land forces control Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In Washington, Trump has derided the nuclear deal with Iran as a failure of the Obama administration, and said that his own pressure is designed to bring Tehran to the negotiating table to forge a new agreement.

It is a tactic that he believes has been successful with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was a target of escalating administration threats — coupled with escalating North Korean actions — until the two agreed to summit diplomacy. But after two meetings, in Singapore and Hanoi, Kim has not budged on denuclearization, and Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions against Pyongyang remain.

North Korea already has a nuclear weapons arsenal. With Iran — which allegedly sought to build a weapon until it shelved any such aspirations, at least temporarily, as part of the 2015 accord — the idea is to prevent it from acquiring a weapon.

Trump’s belief that he can get a better deal from Iran than President Barack Obama did remains to be tested. And according to some experts, his administration is the main impediment to doing so.

“Trump’s problem is that he has to get his own house in order,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. Nasr says that Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton are part of that problem. Both are longtime Iran hawks who, in Bolton’s case, said in the past that bombing Iran and regime change are the only viable way to achieve U.S. security goals.

“Iranians don’t credit what Trump says so long as Bolton is his national security adviser,” Nasr said. “It’s not a matter of good cop versus bad cop,” he said. To the Iranians, “these are people who are ideologically someplace else altogether. Pompeo, with language so over the top, makes it difficult for the Iranians to engage.”

Nasr and others, sketching out ways that a negotiation could begin, said that Iran would have to abide by the nuclear deal limits while giving Trump something that he could tout as a political victory, perhaps an exchange of prisoners. In January 2016, as the nuclear agreement was about to go into effect, Iran released four U.S. citizen prisoners — although seven Iranians being held in U.S. prisons for sanctions violations declined to return home.

Until recently, the administration has counted on the European allies, who have maintained diplomatic relations with Iran, to serve as interlocutors with Tehran. But as their stock has fallen in Iranian eyes, Trump has tried to enlist as conduits both the president of Switzerland, which facilitates U.S. diplomatic matters with Iran, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Tehran last week.

But there was no inkling of any Swiss success, and Abe’s meeting with Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, overlapped with the Gulf of Oman attack, in which one of the targeted tankers was a Japanese ship. Khamenei told the Japanese leader that he saw no value in the message he said Abe brought from Trump, “and I do not have any reply for him, now or in the future,” Iranian state media reported.

Trump, who just days earlier said he would welcome the chance to talk to Tehran, quickly disowned any part of the exchange. While he appreciated Abe’s effort, the president said on Twitter, “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.