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Opinion Washington and Tehran are on a nuclear collision course

The intended goal of Trump's sanctions is to break Iran from within; to effectively achieve regime change without devoting U.S. troops and military to the region.

Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press

Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo, and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington, D.C.

On Sunday, Iranian officials announced that the country will enrich its existing uranium stockpile to 5 per cent, a level which exceeds the limit of 3.67 per cent set in the 2015 nuclear agreement. While only a small increase and far from the 90-per-cent enrichment rate needed to create weapons-grade nuclear material, Iran is clearly signalling to the world that since the Trump administration contravened the terms of the agreement – both by pulling out and applying painful economic sanctions – the original deal may as well be null.

Under normal circumstances, we could expect the international community to intervene in order to prevent full-out war. But the Trump administration has effectively bullied states and companies into compliance with its policies, and now neither Iran nor the United States is willing to concede.

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Despite the attempts of European governments that remain committed to complying with terms of the agreement and to finding legal loopholes that could allow their companies to continue trading with Iran, European companies have not been swayed and are unwilling to take on the potential legal risks. Iran’s announced nuclear enrichment is meant to put pressure on the Europeans, in particular, to throw a viable economic lifeline to the Iranians.

But Iran’s economic suffering is the Trump administration’s intended outcome. War hawks in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, want to see the Iranian regime collapse through hurtful economic sanctions. They are not seeking a new international deal or even renewed negotiations, regardless of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets to the contrary.

The intended goal of the sanctions is to break Iran from within; to effectively achieve regime change without devoting U.S. troops and military to the region. This is fanciful thinking, of course, as the Iranian regime is deeply entrenched in power, highly militarized and willing to sacrifice its own people to survive. But the regime-collapse agenda follows the misguided foreign-policy tactics of the entire U.S. administration under Mr. Trump.

We’ve reached a global impasse: The U.S. administration has its own malevolent goals of regime collapse in Iran, goaded on by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and the Europeans have been unable to provide their companies with the necessary assurances to continue trading with Iran.

Countries such as China, India and perhaps Russia could normally help to mediate. China and India are important trading partners for Iran, both of which buy Iranian oil for their energy-starved countries. But both China and India have their own trade disputes with the U.S. and do not want to risk muddying the waters further with an unpredictable U.S. president.

It is bad enough that the Chinese chief financial officer of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, is under house arrest in Vancouver, awaiting possible extradition to the U.S. for defying American sanctions on selling technical components to Iran. While China has no sympathy for U.S. tactics and has publicly lambasted the pressure campaign on Iran as “bullying,” Chinese pragmatism will take hold and it will not help Iran out of its predicament.

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Similarly, India was recently visited by Mr. Pompeo in an effort to put pressure on the country to comply with the sanctions on Iran, promising that the U.S. would help to find an alternative oil supply. India-U.S. ties are already tense, as the U.S. wants to put an end to the preferential trade terms currently given to Indian companies and as Mr. Trump accuses India of being protectionist and preventing American companies from accessing the large, lucrative Indian market.

Meanwhile, Russia is sitting back in delight. . As a net oil exporter, Russia has little economic interest in Iran but would be happy to continue to supply it with all the conventional military hardware it wants to buy.

We live in a tumultuous time. The U.S. has hawks seeing the clock tick away on the tenure of a malleable Mr. Trump. Iran is suffering economically and its own hawks feel that the doves gave away precious enriched uranium under the 2015 agreement, and are now pushing every button short of a direct attack to challenge the U.S. The European Union is hamstrung; The Chinese and Indians are trying to remain neutral, and the Russians are smiling at it all.

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