The Trump administration on Sunday vowed to continue “maximum pressure” on Iran after the nation announced that it would start enriching uranium beyond limits set under a 2015 deal, but the U.S. has few options when it comes to trying to curb Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.
After withdrawing from the international nuclear agreement in 2018, President Donald Trump repeatedly said he wanted to negotiate a new deal with Iran, but he has continued to impose harsh sanctions and move troops to the region for possible military options.
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Iran’s brazen move on Sunday threatens to put the U.S. and its allies back where they were before the deal — with no comprehensive restrictions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump, spending the holiday weekend at his New Jersey resort, stayed uncharacteristically quiet about Iran’s announcement. But a senior administration official said the U.S. would continue to impose “maximum pressure” on the country.
“The Iranian regime proves once again the horrible Iran nuclear deal does nothing to stop Tehran from threatening international peace and security at any time it chooses,” the official said. “The Iranian leaders are using enrichment to hold the world hostage with nuclear extortion. As President Trump said, America will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Maximum pressure will continue until the Iranian regime abandons its nuclear ambitions and outlaw behavior.”
A second American official familiar with the situation said the Trump administration hoped to prevent the situation from escalating by pushing Europe to reimpose some sanctions and by sending U.S. troops to the Middle East in recent weeks. The official also said the U.S. was hoping that a new financial tool set up by the Europeans to help Iran get nonsanctioned goods would be successful.
“Fundamentally, we want them to stay in the deal,” the second official said, when asked why they wanted the European financial mechanism to work. There’s no desire to engage in an all-out war with Iran or see it obtain a nuclear weapon, the official noted.
Trump has repeatedly shown that he’s willing to strike out on his own on foreign policy if he doesn’t get support, but officials and analysts say that in the case of Iran he is looking for backing from European allies.
He spoke to allies about Iran last week at the G-20, an annual gathering of the world’s largest economies, but it wasn’t immediately clear that he managed to win over their support to reimpose sanctions.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in U.S. defense strategy at the left-center Brookings Institution, said the Trump administration’s strategy rests on other countries’ imposing sanctions that produce “favorable conditions for negotiations and a new deal,” but he said the prospects remained uncertain.
Trump has hit both Iran and North Korea with sanctions over their nuclear programs, but at the president’s urging, North Korea has agreed to talk with U.S. officials while Iran has not. Still, despite three meetings between Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, the country has done little beyond taking minimal steps needed to denuclearize. The country has resumed short-range missile tests, although it has halted nuclear testing.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, told reporters on Sunday that Iran would start enriching uranium for its Bushehr power plant to 5 percent, higher than the 3.67 percent agreed to in the deal. Before the 2015 deal was reached, Iran produced uranium enriched to 20 percent before the deal, a fraction of the 90 percent needed for nuclear weapons.
Iran will continue to reduce its commitments to the deal every 60 days unless the other countries that signed onto the landmark 2015 agreement — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — provide sanctions relief, according to the BBC.
A spokesman for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said that the agency was aware of the announcement and that its inspectors would “report to our headquarters as soon as they verify” Tehran’s breach of the limit, Reuters reported.
“Iran’s nuclear escalation generates leverage for the regime, and is designed to impede Washington’s pressure policy by raising the prospects of further escalation if there is no sanctions relief,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which opposed the 2015 deal and has advised the Trump administration. “It’s also an Iranian insurance policy if there ever is a time/need to negotiate. A more threatening nuclear program before talks means more time at the negotiating table and more opportunities for Iran.”
Trump withdrew from the 2015 agreement — which gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the country’s curbing its nuclear program — in May 2018 in part because of criticisms that the deal’s terms have expiration dates and that it doesn’t allow observers to visit certain nonnuclear facilities without requesting access and allowing a short delay.
The deal had remained intact, though Iran had become increasingly aggressive — behavior for which many blamed Trump’s unilateral decision to pull out of the pact and slap sanctions on the country.
“The rest of the world is looking at this saying, ‘You violated it first,’” said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and National Security Council staffer who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center.
Pollack said Trump wanted to negotiate but that Iranians were even less likely to want to do so now. Just two weeks ago, after the latest round of sanctions by the U.S., Iran proclaimed “the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy.”
“Trump’s whole approach is self-defeating,” Pollack said. “By pulling out the deal the way he did, it empowered the Iranian hardliners” who were skeptical of the deal. “He wants a deal better than Obama. That’s all he cares about. … But they’re in a pretty tough position.”
Tehran had said in May that it would increase its production of enriched uranium. It has since breached the amount of enriched uranium — which can be used to make fuel for reactors as well as nuclear weapons — it was allowed to stockpile under the terms of the deal, but strongly denies that it wants to build nuclear weapons.
Trump blamed Iran for recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, but he abruptly canceled a retaliatory strike on Iran last month after it shot down a pilotless U.S. surveillance drone, opting instead for new sanctions against Iranian leaders.
The Pentagon announced in mid-June that it would dispatch 1,000 more American troops to the Middle East, supplementing 1,000 troops sent to the region last month.
Iranian leaders have sought support from the European Union and other countries to salvage the nuclear deal, while taking measures to upgrade its nuclear capabilities to increase diplomatic pressure.
U.S. allies have continued to support the pact and remain skeptical that Trump can strike a better agreement within the time constraints of his fast-approaching reelection campaign.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke to President Emmanuel Macron of France by phone on Saturday, calling on European countries to increase their efforts to save the diplomatic truce.
Macron said he would seek to relaunch a dialogue between Iran, Europe and other stakeholders in the deal before July 15, his office said in a statement after the call.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.