Middle East

Iran’s possible responses to Trump’s nuclear deal withdrawal

Rouhani says he instructed Iran’s atomic energy organization to takes steps to enable resumption of uranium enrichment.

TEHRAN: Iran finds itself in a tricky balancing act as it weighs a response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a landmark nuclear deal. “They need to find a response that keeps the Europeans on their side but also shows they can’t just be pushed around,” a Western diplomat in Tehran said.

“That seems pretty difficult.”

Some analysts say Iran could retaliate by causing trouble for U.S. interests across the Middle East, where the Islamic Republic has widespread influence and large proxy forces.

“Iran will push back, to show that it cannot be bullied,” said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Iran’s main response ... will probably be asymmetrical, harming U.S. interests in other realms, such as Syria and Iraq. While it may not be immediate, a pushback is inevitable,” Fitzpatrick said in a briefing note.

Iranian officials have suggested there are three broad responses.

Speaking immediately after Trump’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he had instructed the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization “to take the necessary measures for future actions so that if necessary we can resume industrial enrichment without limit.”

The head of the organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said in recent months that Iran would be ready to resume such high-level uranium enrichment to 20 percent “within five days.”

“We will wait several weeks before applying this decision. We will speak with our friends and allies, the other members of the nuclear agreement,” Rouhani said Tuesday.

The 2015 agreement restricted Iran to enrichment to around 3.5 percent, the level needed for nuclear power stations.

Although 20 percent is still within civilian use limits, the move would mean Iran was building up a stock that could then be enriched to military-grade levels of 80 percent or more.

Rouhani said Monday that Iran would stay in the agreement even if the United States pulled out.

But the Iranian president wants assurances that the country’s interests – primarily trade benefits from the deal – will be preserved.

“Either what we want from the nuclear deal is guaranteed by the non-American parties, or it is not the case and we will follow our own path,” he said in a statement.

European leaders have been adamant that they want to preserve the accord, but Washington has already threatened that European businesses in Iran must be wound down within six months.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said that Europe had caved to U.S. pressure before, having seen many of its businesses shut up shop under previous international sanctions from 2012-15.

“We can’t put much confidence in their statements about preserving the agreement, but it’s worth testing for a few weeks so that it’s clear to the world that Iran has tried all the avenues to a peaceful political resolution,” Larijani told Iran’s Parliament Wednesday.

Russia and China are less exposed to U.S. markets and therefore better placed to resist Washington’s economic pressure.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said recently that a top priority in Iran’s foreign policy today was “preferring East to West.”

The statement reflects Iran’s strengthening of relations with Russia – an ally in the Syrian conflict – and with China, which has no qualms about its business ties to the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei has also warned in the past that Iran would burn the nuclear deal if the U.S. walked out.

But while the supreme leader has ultimate authority in Iran, any decision will emerge from discussions between officials from across the political spectrum.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 10, 2018, on page 8.

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