Iran tests re­solve of U.S. and its al­lies

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By David E. Sanger

WASH­ING­TON – Iran’s an­nounce­ment Mon­day that it ex­pects to breach the terms of the 2015 agree­ment that was in­tended to slow its progress to­ward a nu­clear weapon opens a new and per­ilous phase of its con­fronta­tion with the West.

If the Ira­ni­ans make good on their threat to break through the re­stric­tions on how much nu­clear fuel they will pro­duce, Tehran will have enough fuel to make a sin­gle bomb in less than a year for the first time since the 2015 agree­ment went into ef­fect. The oneyear buf­fer is the safety thresh­old that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion set and that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has adopted to im­pede Iran from gain­ing the ca­pa­bil­ity to build a nu­clear weapon.

Ira­nian lead­ers ap­pear to be test­ing whether the rest of the coali­tion that ne­go­ti­ated the nu­clear deal – es­pe­cially the big Euro­pean pow­ers – will stick with Wash­ing­ton.

Should the Euro­peans break with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and agree to help Iran weather harsh eco­nomic sanc­tions im­posed by the United States, Tehran said, it could avoid break­ing the 2015 agree­ment. That seems un­likely.

None­the­less, the Euro­peans blame Pres­i­dent Trump for push­ing Iran into break­ing out of an agree­ment that was work­ing, as do China and Rus­sia. And de­spite calls from some hawks in Wash­ing­ton for mil­i­tary ac­tion – most re­cently Sen. Tom Cot­ton, R-Ark., who said Sun­day that at­tacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman “war­rant a re­tal­ia­tory mil­i­tary strike” – Iran is bet­ting that this time Wash­ing­ton will find few al­lies will­ing to es­ca­late the con­fronta­tion, ei­ther in the Persian Gulf or by at­tack­ing the coun­try’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties.

It is a huge game of chicken, and a mis­cal­cu­la­tion on ei­ther side could eas­ily pro­voke a con­flict.

Now Trump faces two im­me­di­ate chal­lenges: mak­ing the Persian Gulf safe for oil shipments and keep­ing Iran from edg­ing to­ward the bomb

mak­ing ca­pa­bil­ity that in­cited the cri­sis of a decade ago. Nei­ther will be easy.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we are head­ing to­ward a con­fronta­tion,” Iran’s am­bas­sador to Bri­tain, Hamid Baei­dine­jad, warned CNN’s Chris­tiane Aman­pour on Mon­day.

But it is also part of the un­wind­ing of Trump’s prom­ise that he would re­store re­spect for U.S. power to the de­gree that ad­ver­saries would give up their nu­clear weapons pro­grams, start­ing with North Korea, to be fol­lowed by Iran.

Nearly 2ø years into his pres­i­dency, Trump’s high-pro­file diplo­matic ef­fort with North Korea has stag­nated, and Kim Jong Un, whom the pres­i­dent im­prob­a­bly de­clared a friend who will make good on his prom­ises, is as­sessed by U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to be adding to the North’s arse­nal while the clock ticks. On Mon­day, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping of China an­nounced that he plans to visit North Korea this week, his first trip there as pres­i­dent.

At the same time, Trump’s gam­ble that Iran would crack once he aban­doned the Obama-era nu­clear deal and reim­posed sanc­tions has failed to pay off, at least for now.

In­stead the Ira­ni­ans es­ca­lated, leav­ing Trump with­out any easy op­tions. That is in part be­cause the con­fronta­tion erupted so quickly and in part be­cause Trump is pay­ing the price for hav­ing alien­ated so many other par­tic­i­pants in what was once an in­ter­na­tional coali­tion to iso­late Iran’s lead­ers.

“The U.S. seems to have em­barked on its ‘max­i­mum pres­sure’ cam­paign with few al­lies and lit­tle fore­thought as to un­in­tended con­se­quences or how to re­spond if key as­sump­tions – e.g., that Iran will im­plode or suc­cumb and en­ter talks on U.S. terms – prove false,” Brett McGurk, Trump’s former spe­cial en­voy for the global coali­tion against the Is­lamic State group, wrote re­cently.

He added: “Those as­sump­tions are now highly ques­tion­able at best, which means the en­tire pol­icy foundation as ar­tic­u­lated by Trump has eroded. Iran ap­pears to have made the strate­gic de­ci­sion (not sur­pris­ing) to re­sist eco­nomic pres­sure and re­spond asym­met­ri­cally, not di­rectly against us.”

Iran has al­most never di­rectly taken on Amer­i­can forces, know­ing what the re­sult would be. In­stead, it has used prox­ies like Ha­mas, the Pales­tinian organizati­on judged by the United States to be a ter­ror­ist oper­a­tion, while also launch­ing cy­ber­at­tacks and build­ing mis­siles that could reach Amer­i­can al­lies but not the United States.

In strik­ing the 2015 nu­clear agree­ment, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was bet­ting that he could grad­u­ally en­cour­age Iran to mod­er­ate that be­hav­ior. The ef­fort failed – the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard, keeper of the nu­clear pro­gram, turned its at­ten­tions else­where. But the agree­ment de­prived Iran of a path­way to a nu­clear weapon for an­other 15 years or so.

Trump has taken the op­po­site ap­proach, try­ing to force change by chok­ing off ev­ery last source of oil rev­enue. He aban­doned the nu­clear ac­cord so that he could reim­pose sanc­tions – while his ad­min­is­tra­tion in­sisted that Iran must still ad­here to the ac­cord. And Trump has pre­ma­turely claimed vic­tory, declar­ing that Iran is “a dif­fer­ent coun­try” since he be­gan to crack down.

Trump has few easy op­tions as he con­fronts the chal­lenge of keep­ing tanker traf­fic mov­ing through the Persian Gulf while also fac­ing Iran’s provoca­tive nu­clear stance.

Se­cur­ing the gulf re­quires enough naval ves­sels and re­con­nais­sance ca­pa­bil­ity to mon­i­tor just about ev­ery­thing pass­ing close to Iran’s shores.

“That re­quires a coali­tion,” said John F. Kirby, a re­tired rear ad­mi­ral who par­tic­i­pated in the tanker wars of the 1980s and served as the State De­part­ment spokesman dur­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tion of the Iran deal. “We don’t have enough ships to do it our­selves.”

Whether the United States can per­suade al­lies to sup­ply ad­di­tional ships may be a test of how big a price Trump has paid for alien­at­ing the other na­tions that were part of the 2015 agree­ment and that also fear Iran’s move to a bomb.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo sug­gested Sun­day that China, among oth­ers, should help with that task, since it is so de­pen­dent on oil from the Mid­dle East. But it is far from clear that China, Rus­sia or the three Euro­pean pow­ers that ne­go­ti­ated the nu­clear ac­cord along­side the United States – Bri­tain, France and Ger­many – are will­ing to join in that ef­fort.

But the longer-term chal­lenge is whether the world will still unite around the idea that Iran can­not be trusted with any­thing more than a to­ken nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity.

With Mon­day’s an­nounce­ment, Iran has made it clear that it plans to in­crease the pres­sure, first by pro­duc­ing more ura­nium, then by grad­u­ally ramp­ing up the en­rich­ment level of the nu­clear fuel, push­ing it closer and closer to bomb grade.

Tehran ap­pears to be bet­ting it can do that, gain­ing lev­er­age over the West, with­out prompt­ing a mil­i­tary re­sponse. That was a close call in Obama’s time, when plans were drawn up for such an at­tack.

In the Trump era, it is as un­pre­dictable as a pres­i­dent who says he does not want an­other war in the Mid­dle East but pe­ri­od­i­cally threat­ens one.

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