Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a public speech in the southern Hormozgan province, Iran, February 17, 2019.
(photo credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
WASHINGTON - The crumbling nuclear agreement lost yet another cornerstone this Monday, with the Iranian announcement that it is expediting uranium enrichment – above the level that was set in the 2015 deal.
This situation caused some confusion in Washington. After all, if one wishes to cheat in a test, he usually doesn't announce it publicly. The conventional wisdom among scholars, both liberal and conservative, is that the Iranians are announcing the uranium enrichment as a negotiation tactic.
"They're trying to build leverage," Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Jerusalem Post.
"Their view is that the deal was sanctions relief for freezing the nuclear program and containing a nuclear program,” he said. “The US was re-imposing sanctions, and so they are going to start rebuilding their leverage by rebuilding their nuclear program.
“But they are going to do it slowly, over time and very publicly, to apply pressure on the Europeans, on the Chinese, on the Russians and the United States – ultimately, to try to provide them some economic relief."
According to Goldenberg, it's hard to see the Europeans saving Iran's economy.
"There's very little Europeans can do, because they're not going to risk their access to the American banking system to achieve European policy objectives,” he explained. “So there's only so much they can do."
He said that some Chinese companies could agree to buy oil from the Iranians, "but none of the major Chinese companies either."
"The nuclear clock is ticking: it's ticking very slowly, and that's on purpose," he added. "Iranians are not looking to escalate dramatically. They're looking to build leverage slowly.
“On the other hand, the danger of miscalculation and escalation has certainly gone up,” according to Goldenberg. “Neither side wants a war, but the two sides don't really understand each other's redlines. The most likely scenario is that Iranians misread American redlines and go too far."
Mike Pregent is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Like Goldenberg, he thinks that the primary goal of the Islamic republic is to gain leverage.
"The US Senate, both Republicans and Democrats are asking for snap-back sanctions on Iran. I think all of this is going to backfire,” Pregent said. “The game that they're playing is one that would have worked on the Obama administration, [but] now it's not even going to work on the Europeans, and that's how bad they are miscalculating here."
According to Pregent, the Iranians have been pushed into a corner by the Trump administration and they know it. Two weeks ago, US President Donald Trump ordered an American aircraft to stand down minutes before an attack on Iranian soil, for example. Pregent thinks that through this and other moves, the Trump administration was able to deliver its message without firing a single bullet.
"If you look at the attack that didn't happen two weeks ago, Iran hasn't done anything since," he said. "When you have an air attack coming, and the Iranians can see it was coming, it leaves them very vulnerable.
“So, the non-attack two weeks ago was like videotaping someone sleeping and saying, 'I could have killed you last night,’” he said. “The United States is not going to make a mistake here."
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