The Iran nuclear front: From deterioration to deadlock - analysis

Why did nothing come out of the European Union's meeting on Wednesday with Iran?

Iranians shout slogans during a protest against President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY)
Iranians shout slogans during a protest against President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018.
The parties to the Iran nuclear deal met late Wednesday for the first time since several crucial changes took place, with the surprising signal being that the trajectory of the US-Iran standoff has cooled off a bit from deterioration to deadlock.
This is surprising because it would seem to be the opposite of the worsening deterioration that has taken place over the last two months.
First, the US killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani on January 3.
In response to that and to US sanctions, Iran shortly afterward announced it would no longer abide by any of the nuclear deal’s limitations.
There are debates about the exact numbers, but Iran likely has gone from less than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to about the 1,000 kg. needed to make a nuclear bomb.
The EU-3 (France, Germany and Italy) responded with its first sign of life to exercise its enforcement ability by formally declaring that Iran may be in fundamental violation of the deal. It invoked a clock that could tick down to UN-enforced global sanctions more serious than the American ones.
Last Friday, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a powerful international banking organization, blacklisted Iran for the first time since the nuclear deal was signed, because it had failed to pass anti-terrorism financing and anti-money-laundering legislation despite years of warnings to do so. Importantly, the FATF is viewed as heavily influenced by Europe, and no one thinks the blacklist decision could have happened without European support.
Also on Friday, Iran’s hard-liners swept reformists out of parliament in an election, seizing virtually all levers of power in the Islamic Republic other than the presidency, held by now-isolated Hassan Rouhani.
In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently has made repeated statements that Iran violated the nuclear deal by concealing nuclear material from inspectors at the Turquzabad nuclear site discovered by the Mossad.
An explosion could have been expected at Wednesday’s meeting. But it did not happen. In fact, it seems all the sides have taken their “pound of flesh” and now want to calm down, slow down and see what happens in the November US elections.
SINCE MAY 2019 when the US ended waivers from its Iran sanctions, Tehran had grown more violent against the US and its allies and had violated the nuclear deal more and more.
But after announcing in January it was no longer bound by the nuclear deal and deeply violating the low-enriched uranium threshold of around 5%, something surprising happened. Iran ceased additional violations.
Alternately, it had threatened to begin enriching uranium to the much more threatening midpoint of 20%, throw IAEA inspectors out of the country or leave the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It has done none of the above.
The bottom line is that Iran moved months closer to being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. But by stopping where it is, it has still kept itself at least several months or more away from one.
So maybe Iran had acted up enough and is now ready to wait on US elections.
The EU-3 has always been desperate to keep Iran within the limits of the nuclear deal and has been ready to twist and turn in Iran’s favor to maintain that.
So while some might have though that Wednesday’s meeting would lead to the EU-3 leaving the deal, moving to snap back UN global sanctions or at least issuing a new ultimatum deadline, such consequences reportedly were not even discussed.
On the one hand, this completely erodes the EU-3’s credibility, if it had any, about confronting Iran.
On the other hand, maybe the triumvirate succeeded if its purpose in threatening Iran was to get it to halt its violations where they stood when the Eu-3 issued the snap-back sanctions threat. Also, it did give Iran a bloody nose with the FATF blacklist decision.
So it is clear that the EU-3 is ready to wait indefinitely on pressuring Iran with such sanctions – as long as Tehran does not move closer to a nuclear bomb than it already has.
And US President Donald Trump’s plan, despite killing Soleimani, is very clearly an economic sanctions marathon against Iran.
There is no other plan. If it works and Iran changes its behavior, great. If not, then at least as long as Tehran does not move to get a nuclear weapon, the US is not going to up the stakes with a use of military force as things stand.
This does not mean everything will be smooth sailing from now until November.
But if May 2019 until February 2020 was a time of extreme instability in the nuclear standoff, we may now have entered a “time-out” and wait-and-see period of sorts – pending the big contest in November.