Tehran’s announcement earlier this week that it has breached the 300 kg limit on the stockpile of enriched uranium — special material that could be turned into atomic weapons — marks a significant moment in the breakdown of the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the international community. It also increases the danger that the current escalation would lead to a military confrontation between the US and Iran. Washington and Tehran appear to be making political assumptions about each other that could turn out to be terribly flawed. Responding to Iran’s decision, US President Donald Trump said, Tehran is “playing with fire” and promised to persist with the campaign of “maximum pressure” against it. Tehran is saying its breach is not a violation of the 2015 agreement but a response permitted under the accord. Iran says it is ready to reverse the decision if other signatories to the agreement (UK, France, Germany, Russia and China) restore its trading privileges.
The problem, however, is not with the legal niceties. It is the kind of political choices the two sides are making and the apparent absence of any diplomacy towards de-escalation. The Trump administration chose to withdraw from an agreement that was widely seen as imposing fairly stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. That move was animated less by concerns about the technical merits of the accord than a political desire to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Trump and his advisers bet that additional unilateral sanctions targeting Tehran’s oil exports would deepen Iran’s economic crisis and bring the clerical regime to its knees. Although sanctions are biting Iran hard, there is no sign that the regime’s collapse is imminent.
On its part, Iran has been hoping that its threat to undo the agreement, if only incrementally, will mount pressure on the European powers. UK, France and Germany have refused to follow Washington’s lead a year ago on walking out of the agreement. The Europeans want Iran to abide by the terms of the accord. But they have not been able to follow through on their promises to Tehran on finding ways to beat the US sanctions. Notwithstanding their rhetoric, Europe may not yet be ready to confront Trump on Iran. China and Russia have certainly rejected American unilateralism on Iran, but both have many other fish to fry with Washington. They may not be ready to make Iran the decisive breaking point with the US. With no significant political give by either side, Washington and Iran are likely to persist with what they see as “calibrated escalation”. That is a sure recipe for losing control and sliding into a conflict whose outcomes can’t be taken for granted by either side.