There has been a frightening escalation in the showdown between Iran and the United States this week, after Iran announced on Sunday that it had deliberately breached the limits of the 2015 six-country nuclear-peace treaty in an act of revenge against the U.S. for having reneged on the treaty last year.
It is an entirely avoidable conflict, rooted in the political decisions of President Donald Trump and his administration. While Tehran’s behaviour is reckless and deliberately inflammatory, it should not be mistaken for anything other than a symbolic gesture – and there should be no support from Western countries for any U.S. attempts to turn this into a full-scale military conflict.
Indeed, such acts of military escalation only serve to give greater power and legitimacy to Iran’s theocratic regime.
The latest outrage is small but, like those that have preceded it in recent weeks, symbolically loaded: Iran made it known, through an announcement by its atomic-energy organization, that it had slightly exceeded the limit on uranium enrichment imposed by the 2015 treaty, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iranian officials said Sunday they had begun producing uranium of 4.5-per-cent purity, slightly higher than the treaty’s 3.67-per-cent limit, and further claimed Monday that they could restart some deactivated centrifuges and increase purity to 20 per cent. (Uranium would need to be enriched to more than 90 per cent purity to be usable in a weapon.)
This occurred a week after Iran announced that it had slightly exceeded the treaty’s 300-kilogram limit on the size of its uranium stockpile. There was no need for Tehran to announce these breaches of the treaty limits: The entire country’s nuclear program is monitored closely by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which Iran allows to inspect its laboratories and facilities. The IAEA has already been able to confirm, through its inspections, the breaching of the 300-kilogram limit.
Iranian officials said they are deliberately breaching the terms of the JCPOA in protest against Mr. Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the treaty (which he described as “the worst deal in history") and re-impose near-total economic and trade sanctions on Iran.
That decision was sharply opposed by the treaty’s other signatories – France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China and the 28-country European Union – which argued that Iran was effectively being punished for having rigorously fulfilled all its obligations and kept all its promises under the treaty, including destroying almost all its enrichment equipment, handing its stockpiles to other countries and opening itself to constant inspections.
Although only the United States has withdrawn from the treaty and no other country is honouring sanctions against Iran, European states have found it difficult to work around the American sanctions because all European financial transactions with Iran have to go through the U.S. banking network, and because European companies fear reprisals from Washington if they do business in Iran.
As a consequence, Iran has been plunged deeper into economic hardship and isolation, ordinary Iranians are furious with the United States for having broken its promise, and its leaders have capitalized on this public anger by further antagonizing the Americans – shooting down U.S. drones flying over its territory, antagonizing and possibly bombing ships, and now flaunting the U.S.-rejected JCPOA. The U.S. has responded by sending thousands of troops and military vessels into the Persian Gulf.
In the midst of these rounds of escalation, we need to be clear on what’s a real threat and what’s merely symbolic.
Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons program, has not had one for more than 15 years and does not appear to be accumulating the sizable amount of technology it would need to start one.
This was confirmed, most recently, by Mr. Trump’s intelligence chiefs in January. An annual consensus report on worldwide security threats issued in January by America’s 16 intelligence agencies found many threats emerging from Iran – its support for terrorist organizations and sponsorship of rebel armies in Yemen and Iraq – but it was unambiguous about one thing: “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”
That’s the conclusion the Central Intelligence Agency and its sibling agencies have drawn since 2007, when a declassified National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran had abandoned its nuclear-weapons research program in 2003 and did not appear to be pursuing one, an assessment repeated in every report since. There continues to be no evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
That doesn’t mean Iran should be trusted to stay out of the nuclear-weapons game: Tehran’s theocratic regime has, since it seized power in 1979, never proved to be terribly trustworthy, especially on military matters.
But that was the whole point of the 2015 peace agreement: It was based on distrust. It placed Iran under the permanent watch and constant inspection of the IAEA, and ensured that even the slightest shift from Iran’s minor atomic-energy program into anything potentially military would cause Iran to be isolated from the world.
But Mr. Trump reversed that equation last year, by unilaterally isolating Iran from the world after it had abided by its terms of the treaty. Iran’s decision to lash out, while unacceptable, is hardly surprising, given the bizarre U.S. betrayal of the treaty’s logic.
The solution, for the rest of the world, is not to participate in any continued escalation – regardless how much Tehran and Washington attempt to do so. Rather, countries should participate wholeheartedly in Europe’s efforts to de-escalate the situation, by restoring economic and trade ties to Iran, so that we are again in a world where misdeeds are punished and steps toward nuclear peace are rewarded – not, as is now the case, the opposite.
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