Last week it was reported that Iran had officially violated the 2015 nuclear agreement by exceeding stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. Iranian officials followed up on that announcement with threats of further violations to come, and on Monday it was similarly confirmed that the regime had begun enriching nuclear material beyond the level of fissile purity established under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported upon the reality of the new violation but did not specify the level of enrichment involved. However, Iranian state media did not hesitate to promote the regime’s activity, noting that it had already reached 4.5 percent purity as an initial step beyond the 3.67 percent threshold. The regime reportedly has no intention of stopping there unless the European Union concedes to its demands concerning the operationalization of an instrument for sanctions-busting transactions between European entities and the Islamic Republic.
Even prior to confirmation of the latest breach, the regime gave a 60-day deadline for European compliance before Iran’s nuclear facilities begin to reactivate dormant centrifuges and push their uranium supplies to 20 percent fissile purity. There was some uncertainty as to whether the specific deadline is September 5 or 7, but recent experience raises some question as to whether Iran can be expected to adhere precisely to its threats anyway.
Tehran was originally expected to exceed stockpile limits on June 27, but after the EU failed to respond to the associated ultimatum, Iranian officials revised their estimate to the end of the month, then did not announce the violation until after the beginning of July. The subsequent violation hewed more closely to the regime’s estimates, although these had been vague, indicating only that higher-level enrichment would come in a matter of days. Meanwhile, some officials sought to emphasize the reversibility of both recent and forthcoming sanctions, arguably providing the EU with an entirely open-ended deadline for compliance with regime’s demands.
Nonetheless, this suggestion of flexibility has been counterbalanced with simultaneous threats and boastful statements concerning Iran’s supposed capacity for quick escalation of its nuclear program, as well as its resistance to pressure from foreign powers. Although the Trump administration cautioned Tehran against mistaking “restraint” for “weaknesses” after the president declined to follow through with air strikes in response to the downing of an American drone last month, some regime officials and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responded by publicly expressing the view that the US was afraid of the consequences of a military clash.
The head of the IRGC’s aerospace force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, even went so far as to suggest that the Islamic Republic had shown its own restraint by not also shooting down a manned aircraft that was flying nearby the drone. According to American officials, the unmanned surveillance craft was flying over international waters at the time of the incident, though the Iranians claimed it had passed into their airspace. The IRGC missile involved in the shoot-down was capable of reaching international airspace, but its success was made more likely by the drone’s lack of countermeasures available to manned aircraft.
This casts doubt upon Hajizadeh’s claim, as does the fact that the IRGC had apparently attempted to shoot down another drone days before the incident in question, but without success. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has a long history of overzealous claims concerning its military capabilities. Although widely disseminated by Iranian state media, within a heavily censored domestic environment, these claims are overwhelmingly disregarded by military experts around the world. Still, the regime’s bravado is still sometimes directed at foreign audiences, and this was the case once again on Friday, in the wake of the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker by British Royal Marines.
That incident may have been motivated in part by an appeal from the White House, after it became clear that the tanker was carrying Iranian oil that is under worldwide US sanction. But it was also reported that the ship was destined for a Syrian port of call, where the oil was to be sold to a refinery affiliated with the government of Bashar al-Assad which is under sanctions from European Union in connection with multiple serious human rights violations.
Tehran has refused to acknowledge the legality of the seizure, and the IRGC quickly responded by floating the idea of capturing a British tanker in retaliation. By Saturday, this rhetoric had already expanded beyond the IRGC, with a cleric by the name of Mohammad Ali Mousavi Jazayeri promoting the idea of a retaliatory attack and insisting upon the viability of the plan. Jazayeri, a member of the Assembly of Experts, which advises and oversees the office of the Supreme Leader, declared that he was “openly saying that Britain should be scared of Iran’s retaliatory measures.” He went on to connect the theoretical retaliation to the regime’s “staunch response” to the supposed drone incursion, as well as its overall posture toward Western “bullying.”
But while statements by Jazayeri and others treat all Western governments as if they are acting in unison, the reality is that many powerful European policymakers remain averse to the US strategy of maximum pressure, and are still trying to preserve the nuclear deal and utilize diplomatic channels to convince the Iranians to reverse course on recent breaches. Britain and the two other European JCPOA signatories, France and Germany, called for an urgent meeting with Iran, Russia, and China on Tuesday, in hopes of coming to an agreement that might forestall further escalation. If, however, such a meeting does not take place or is not successful, a mechanism may be triggered under the JCPOA which could result in the return of all previously suspended international sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Iranain officials have largely rejected the very concept of negotiation, even though the failure to resolve ongoing disputes could have a catastrophic effect upon an economy that has already been severely damaged by measures undertaken by the US alone. On Monday, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that “there won’t be a better deal” for Western policymakers who are trying to improve upon the terms of the JCPOA. But White House National Security Advisor John Bolton effectively mirrored these comments in remarks at a conference for Christian supporters of Israel on that same day.
“No regime that chants ‘death to America’ or ‘death to Israel’ will get a deal from this administration,” Bolton declared, echoing other officials’ explanation of the goal underlying the maximum pressure strategy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly said that that goal is to compel a fundamental change in the behavior of the clerical regime, and he has outlined a dozen anticipated features of that change. Among these are a more definitive end to the regime’s nuclear weapons ambitions, as well as an end to its support for regional terrorist groups like those involved in recent attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and multiple tankers in the waters of the Middle East.
Speaking at the same conference as Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence stated on Monday that “Iran must choose between caring for its people and continuing to fund its proxies who spread violence and terrorism throughout the region and breathe out murderous hatred against Israel.” Neither man expressed concern about Iran’s latest provocations and threats, and both professed undiminished confidence in the administration’s official position, that maximum pressure is working and will ultimately have its intended effect regardless of Iran’s rhetorical defiance.
On Tuesday, Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh claimed that the country’s oil exports would increase in the months ahead. But after reaching a peak of roughly 2.5 million barrels per day in April 2018, these exports fell to about 300,000 last month. And Britain’s tanker seizure underscored the difficult that Iran’s petroleum producers will continue to face in trying to get their wares to illicit markets.
Meanwhile, more names are still being added to the list of individuals and groups targeted by US-led sanctions. In June, the list came to include eight leading officers in the IRGC, as well as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The US Treasury also noted its intention to target Foreign Minister Zarif. This has yet to be done, but on Tuesday it was reported that the administration was going after three senior officials in the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah. The effects of these measures may add to the effects of sanctions on Iran itself, which have reportedly led to a reduction in the regime’s spending on foreign proxies that would traditionally be used to target Western assets and actualize Iranian threats while maintaining a veneer of deniability.