There are two ways to view Wednesday’s threats from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to abandon the 2015 nuclear bargain with his country.
The first is through the lens of Europe’s establishment and President Donald Trump’s opposition: Look what you’ve done! After a year of maximum pressure, Iran has finally been pushed to start breaking its commitments to limit its stocks of enriched uranium. As an EU foreign policy official tweeted, Trump’s Iran policy “has now triggered Rouhani’s move towards less for less.”
The second and better way is to see Rouhani’s threats as blackmail. Unless Europe agrees to violate America’s secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors, Iran will keep the uranium it enriches and halt its project to redesign a plutonium reactor. Rouhani gave the Europeans, Chinese and Russians 60 days to figure out how to relieve the U.S. sanctions.
Since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal last year, France, Germany and the U.K. have made it a priority to keep Iran in the nuclear deal through diplomacy. If Iran has kept to the basics of the deal (something the Trump administration disputes), why not create a financial mechanism to keep them in compliance?
One answer is in what Rouhani didn’t say on Wednesday. He did not say how much low-enriched uranium Iran would stockpile. Nor did he say whether his country would begin enriching uranium to levels suitable for a bomb. Nor did he make any mention of kicking out international inspectors.
That said, Europe should resist the appeasement temptation. Iran has been threatening the stability of the nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, pretty much since it was signed. Remember Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s complaint in 2016 that the U.S. was not doing enough to encourage foreign banks to invest in Iran’s economy? “The United States needs to first show that it is implementing the JCPOA,” Zarif said.
So why hasn’t Iran pulled out of that agreement, given Trump’s decision to re-impose the crippling sanctions that his predecessor lifted? One reason is that despite everything Trump has done in the last year, the agreement remains a sweet deal for Iran. If it complies with the deal’s limits for the next seven to 13 years, it can stockpile as much low-enriched uranium as it wants. In the meantime, it can install more efficient centrifuges and keep its once-illicit infrastructure.
Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure offers a way out of this flawed bargain. By waging economic war on Iran, the president is using the same tactics that pressured the regime into nuclear negotiations in the first place. Despite the PR campaign from Iran’s foreign ministry, the evidence shows that threats and pressure work against the Islamic Republic. This time around, Trump and his cabinet have vowed that any negotiations will also address Iran’s support for terrorism and its missile proliferation, along with regional meddling.
So instead of scrambling to come up with another special financial mechanism or a series of bribes to keep Iran in the deal, Europe’s great powers should respond to Iran’s latest threats with some threats of their own: If Iran abrogates its commitments to the deal, Europe will begin enforcing its own sanctions on Iran’s banks and oil sector.
Trying to influence Trump to go easy on Iran has not worked for Europe. On Wednesday afternoon, the White House is expected to announce new secondary sanctions on Iran’s industrial metals sector. By the end of the month, the Trump administration is planning to introduce even more sector-based sanctions.
Slowly and surely, the maximum pressure is building. Instead of trying to relieve it, the Europeans should use that pressure to get a better nuclear bargain with Iran.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.