Iran’s Patience May Be Running Out

Ellie Geranmayeh

by 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.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

SHOW 9 COMMENTS

9 Comments

  1. Is there really anything the Iranian regime can do to satisfy the belligerent and devious Trump administration besides unconditionally surrendering? It’s not like this is a negotiation between two more-or-less equally powerful parties acting in good faith and with mutual respect. Rather, it is a blatant attempt by Washington to dominate and destroy Iran as it currently exists. Why should Iran trust the Americans who have made a great show of demonstrating how they absolutely cannot be trusted to keep their word or negotiate reasonably? Who was it that ripped up the JCOPA deal without any legitimate reason? Who regularly threatens other countries with destruction and wages economic warfare against them? Who has a proven track record that shows the only thing that will hold them back is a credible threat of military violence?

    Any observer who is not in thrall to American power can see what is going on here and who shoulders the responsibility for the current state of affairs. There is no “both sides”…it is entirely a one-sided affair – a project cooked up by Washington and Jerusalem to cripple and destroy Iran as we know it. So please stop pretending that supplicating to Trump’s attack dogs and putting up with European cowardice will change Washington’s animosity towards Iran. If you are worried about the “nuclear deal” falling apart completely you know very well who set this train of events in motion.

  2. 1- Iran should not have waited for Patriot missile system to join the US warship Lincoln Carrier Strike Group: Iran should have outsmarted the US and used all its military power and attacked Lincoln Carrier as soon as it reached the Persian Gulf, because the American and Israeli intention to attack Iran has been clear: Iran should not have given its sworn enemy time to assemble its forces for an all-out assault on Iran.

    With a wounded and humiliated Imperialism one cannot negotiate, regardless of the world opinion, especially when the world has for long been imperious to our suffering.

    The statement that the US has no intention of waging war against Iran is a lie in order to buy enough time to gather US forces for a new ‘shock and awe’ attack! We should have learned from the US fake claims before her savage invasions of Vietnam and Iraq.

    2- The US ultimatum that any attack by Iran’s proxies (any Shia group) would automatically justify the American military attack on Iran is also an irrational decree: it gives the American forces and it’s proxies/subservient ‘allies anywhere in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine ‘full impunity’ to shoot any Shia fighter, because from now on no Shia victim of American aggression or its proxies should dare to defend himself, otherwise the US would strike Iran!

    This is a new irrational international law. And hear the silence of the civilised world: absolute silence, because the international law has always been the American law!

  3. OK. Let the Mullah’s and Revolutionary Guards loyal to the fascist’s patience run out, what they plan to do attack the U.S. ships? They are not man enough to do such STUPIDITY, they are a bunch of goons only capable of harassing and murdering people of Iran knowing 90% of that nation hate that fascist regime and its leaders’ guts but unable to defend themselves while under guns of a backward theocracy. Only on bullet shut in direction of the U.S. carriers or the U.S. soldiers, and leaders of that Mullahcracy and their Revolutionary Guard will meet Sadam Husain’s destiny.

  4. Let us hope this horrible regime does lose its patience and crosses the line and we see the end game. The people of Iran have had enough of them. The world has had enough of them.

  5. How much does one need to be paid to say that it is all right for a foreign country to attack it and kill hundred’s of thousands of innocent people? All this to get rid of a regime that one does not like!

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