Ready. Aim. But will either side fire? - Analysis

How much do new Iran violations matter?

June 18, 2019 05:09
2 minute read.
Ready. Aim. But will either side fire? - Analysis

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a welcome ceremony in Tehran, Iran, June 12, 2019.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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After a likely second round of attacks by Iran on oil tankers in the region and indications that the Islamic Republic would make a big announcement about reducing compliance with the nuclear deal, it looked like yesterday might have been the beginning of a shootout.

Both Washington and Tehran have been repositioning military forces, both sides are lashing out at the other side’s ability to import oil (Iran is taking shots at the US by hitting its allies, the Saudis and the UAE) and neither is signaling an iota of flexibility as Iran’s July 7 deadline comes closer.

It seems as if both sides have been saying: ready and aim, with only the final decision to “fire” and light up a conflict left unsaid.

This could still happen.

Iran announced on Monday that it will cross the 300-kilogram enriched uranium limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal on June 27, more than a week before its July 7 deadline for when it might pull out of the deal entirely.

Its officials mulled out loud over the possibility of leaving the deal, leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty, cutting back cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and elevating its uranium enrichment quality to the 20% level.

But none of that actually happened on Monday.

In fact underneath all of the public jousting and threats, nothing new happened at all on Monday.

Tehran had already announced in early May that it would disregard the 300-kilogram enriched uranium limit.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano had confirmed last week that the rate of the Islamic republic’s uranium enrichment was violating the nuclear deal.

The way math works, if the rate of production of an item speeds up, it eventually exceeds beyond whatever limits were set when the rate was lower.

So really all Iran did on Monday was try to sound tough and proclaim its violation, without actually taking new steps.
As long as Iran does not break the 20% enrichment limit and does not start to reinstall some 13,000 disassembled centrifuges to add to the approximately 6,000 permitted centrifuges for enriching uranium, the breakout time to build a nuclear bomb will not be reduced by much.

When the nuclear deal was cut, Iran shipped more than 11,000 kilograms of enriched uranium out of the country, and even at that point it was three to six months from enough material for a nuclear bomb because quality counts more than quantity.

As long as Iran’s violation of the deal is enriching uranium at or around the 3.67% level, it will inch closer to a bomb gradually and will not become a threat for some time – debate ranges from six months to two years.

All of this means that as long as Iran stays in the deal, the most significant question is whether Washington and Tehran are able to continue to stare at each other with loaded guns and their hands on the trigger, but without firing.

This week the Trump administration declined to fire after it was provoked by Iran’s (likely) attack on two oil tankers in the region.

Whether they can continue to hold their fire on June 27 and July 7, and whether one side will eventually toss out a plausible compromise, will determine whether the region goes to war.

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