Iran’s patience may be running out

Lobe Log | Derek Davison: The Iranian government’s decision to reduce its adherence to the 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) reflects a “move from strategic patience to strategic action” in the face of mounting U.S. sanctions, according to a recent media call organized by the European Leadership Network. Although Iran’s moves have raised tensions around the nuclear accord, they may also offer a way forward for negotiations between Tehran and Washington.

On May 8, the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s decision to abrogate the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions against Iran, the Iranian government announced that it will stop abiding by limits on the amount of heavy water (130 metric tons) and low enriched uranium (300 kilograms) that it’s permitted to stockpile, as stipulated by the JCPOA. This move was “very much in response” to the Trump administration’s May 3 decision to bar Iran from selling its excess supplies of both items on the international market, according to Dina Esfandiary of Harvard’s Belfer Center.

This initial step by the Iranians seems not to be cause for much concern. Bourse and Bazaar’s Esfandyar Batmanghelidj characterized it as “a measured move from the Iranians [that] really represents a small step away from the JCPOA that is completely reversible.” Neither heavy water nor LEU is itself a proliferation concern. And as Esfandiary noted, Iran’s stockpiles of both heavy water and LEU are well below the limits set in place by the JCPOA, so it’s unlikely that Iran will even breach the deal anytime soon. This was a direct response to the Trump administration’s decision to block Iran from selling its excess supplies, which in itself is arguably a violation of the 2015 accord.

Of greater concern was the ultimatum the Iranians delivered to the remaining JCPOA participants (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom). In addition to its immediate steps on LEU and heavy water, Tehran gave those remaining participants—and particularly the so-called EU3 (France, Germany, and the UK)—60 days to find a way to protect Iranian oil exports and financial activity from U.S. sanctions. If they are unable to do that, the Iranians are threatening to resume enriching uranium to levels higher than the JCPOA’s 3.67 percent limit and to restart construction of their heavy-water reactor at Arak, a facility that could produce significant amounts of plutonium without significant design modifications (which were also stipulated in the JCPOA). These steps would represent far more significant violations of the nuclear deal.

Iranian Motives

According to Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the Iranians feel they’ve been forced to take these steps by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign and particularly its recent moves to completely block Iranian oil sales and limit its civilian nuclear program:

From Iran’s perspective this scenario is really untenable now. There was at least some breathing room for Iran before these latest sanctions came into force this month, but now I think it’s very difficult domestically to allow this deal to continue as it is.

And as I’ve heard some Iranian officials mentioned to me, they needed to change the strategic calculations of the remaining parties to the deal but also the United States; that the current approach is not going to be cost-free for the other members of this deal or for the United States while Iran bears the heavy security and economic costs that it’s facing at the moment.

So, what they’ve done has been outlined by [Esfandiary] and [Sahil Shah, ELN’s Iran lead] mentioned that my catchphrase with this at the moment is that Iran has moved from “strategic patience to strategic action”. They’ve done this in a very careful, informed, strategic way. They’ve looked at the technicalities. They have clearly set out a road map of a multi-phase approach.

The main audience for Iran is mostly likely Europe. Earlier this year, France, Germany, and the UK unveiled the “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges,” or INSTEX, a “special purpose vehicle” meant to shield European-Iranian commercial transactions from US sanctions. Initially intended to protect all European-Iranian trade, the mechanism has since been reduced in scope to cover only trade in humanitarian goods, which is technically not restricted by U.S. sanctions.

INSTEX still has not been “operationalized,” according to Batmanghelidj, and Iranian expectations in terms of its benefits may have outstripped European realities—as he put it, the Europeans are “victims of their own messaging, having placed upon INSTEX really the full expectation of their response in the face of US sanctions.” According to Geranmayeh, “there have been some wild hopes from the Iranian side that the INSTEX mechanism could facilitate trade in oil, which the Europeans have just said clearly at this time there is no way they’re going to touch sanctionable trade from the U.S. perspective.” So, the Iranians appear to be sending a message to Europe to get INSTEX up and running, and ensure that it offers the maximum possible benefits to the Iranian economy. It’s a message that carries with it some risk, according to Batmanghelidj:

There is, however, a gamble here. And I think the gamble is that the Iranians have calculated this move in the hopes that it might inspire a fight back on the part of the Europeans [against the Trump administration].

But there is a risk that it might also feed into a sense of defeatism that you might have sensed among European officials about their ability to stand up to the U.S. and their ability to really meet Iranian expectations.

Two Countries, Two Policy Gulfs

There may have been another purpose behind the steps the Iranians have taken this week: laying the groundwork for negotiations with the United States. Iran adopted a tactic of “strategic patience” when Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA last May, meaning that it chose not to negotiate with Trump and simply try to ride out the storm until, from Iran’s hopeful perspective, Trump would be defeated in the 2020 election and a new, potentially friendlier U.S. administration would take office. But with doubts about whether Trump actually will lose in 2020, and with a growing fear that the Iranian economy may not even be able to survive another two years before Trump could leave office under the best-case scenario, there’s a movement in Tehran behind the idea of opening negotiations now. The Independent’s Negar Mortazavi described this dynamic:

Until now, we’ve been talking a lot about moderates versus hardliners, the ones who want engagement and the ones who want wanted negotiations and the moderates who were the ones who were able to cut a deal basically with the Obama administration versus the hardliners going against everything the moderates wanted.

But now I’ve seen an increasing division within the moderate camp that is putting pressure even on President Rouhani and Javad Zarif team—the foreign policy team—by reformers, by moderates, people who are considered supporters of the deal, who supported negotiations, who still want diplomacy and engagement but with a different strategy.

So, what they believe—or this growing camp believes—is that the response to President Trump in the past year hasn’t been enough from Iran and that Iran should no longer wait around for Europe.

This new camp, according to Mortazavi, is pushing Rouhani to take steps to threaten Iran’s full withdrawal from the JCPOA as a way to gain negotiating leverage before agreeing to open talks with Trump. At worst, they feel, negotiating with Trump could buy Iran more time to run out the clock on his time in the White House while perhaps avoiding additional U.S. sanctions.

Were this plan to succeed, it would have to take advantage of what appears to be a small gulf between Trump and some of his more hawkish advisers, most prominently National Security Advisor John Bolton. On Thursday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he wants to talk with Iranian leaders:

“What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me,” Trump said. He pointed out the Iranian economy was in a shambles as a result of the pressure from the US.

“What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down and we can make a deal, a fair deal,” Trump said. “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. It’s not too much to ask. And we would help put them back into great shape.”

This certainly diverges from his administration’s previous Iran policy, which revolved around a list of 12 demands Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed on the Iranian government last year. At the same time, however, Bolton—whose preference for a war with Iran is well-known—is reportedly leading secret meetings on Iran at CIA headquarters, highly reminiscent of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s frequent trips to Langley in the run up to the Iraq War.

However, there are indications that the Trump-Bolton relationship has hit a rough patch. Already, of course, Trump has contradicted Bolton’s desire for a military conflict with North Korea by engaging Kim Jong-un in diplomacy. Now there are reports that Trump has begun to express frustration at Bolton’s more hawkish instincts with respect to the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela, which could be the harbinger of a broader divergence between the two. Certainly Trump’s comments on Thursday suggest that Iranians have an opportunity to engage him in talks should they choose.