By Gwynne Dyer
Iran has “begun its march…towards nuclear weaponry,” said Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz, and that is technically correct. Only one year and sixty days after President Donald Trump ripped up the treaty that guaranteed Iran won’t make nuclear weapons and peed on the pieces*, Iran has taken a tiny step towards reviving its nuclear programme.
Just a baby step: on Monday Tehran announced that it would start enriching uranium fuel to more than 3.67%, the limit set by the treaty that it signed in 2015. Until last week it was fully obeying all the terms of the treaty, as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), all confirmed.
The United States has blocked all trade with Iran and used its power to force most of the other countries that signed the treaty to stop too. So Iran has been hung out to dry.
Its foreign trade has collapsed, including the oil sales that kept the economy afloat. Household incomes have fallen sharply, and the economy is predicted to shrink by 6% this year. It’s what Trump calls “maximum pressure”, and ordinary Iranians are hurting.
Iran’s response, after more than a year of this, was to become just a little bit non-compliant with the JCPOA – but it will ratchet up the scale of the breach a bit more every sixty days, applying pressure back in a quite different mode.
You can only sub-divide the move back to a full civil nuclear programme into so many steps, however, and even at 60 days per step Iran will probably be there by this time next year.
That doesn’t mean it will be making nuclear weapons next year. It had a full civil nuclear programme for several decades before the JCPOA was signed, and it didn’t get nuclear weapons then. But without the treaty the ‘break-out time’ to Iran’s first nuclear weapon, if Tehran decided to go for broke, would drop from one year to only a couple of months.
This is what the JCPOA was really about. Iran always swore that it would not make nuclear weapons, but before the 2015 deal there was much wild talk in the US and Israel about the need to make a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The JCPOA kicked the can down the road for 15 years. Iran dismantled various nuclear facilities and agreed to intrusive inspections so that if it ever did decide to cheat, everybody else would have a year or more to respond. Nobody loved the deal, but everybody agreed that it made the future a lot safer.
So why did Donald Trump trash it? His obsession with destroying Barack Obama’s political legacy undoubtedly provided the initial impetus, but he also probably believed that putting ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran would make it crumble. Another triumph for the great statesman.
The hawks in the White House (John Bolton, Mike Pompeo et al.) probably do know that Iran is too proud to crumble, but they don’t care because they actually want a war.
Trump is trapped between them and his promise not to take the United States into another Middle East war – which is why we have crazy episodes like the air strikes on Iran he allegedly cancelled on 20 June ten minutes before they hit.
No wonder Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, said in a confidential dispatch leaked to the press on Sunday that Trump’s White House is “uniquely dysfunctional” and “divided”.