With the announcement this week that it has begun to enrich uranium above the 3.67 percent limit allowed by the 2015 international deal curbing its nuclear program, Iran has opened another round of high-stakes signaling with the Trump administration, which withdrew from the agreement last year, and the European nations that helped negotiate it. The move is the latest attempt by Iran to impose costs both on Washington for having reimposed punishing economic sanctions, and on Europe for its inability to mitigate their pain.
The incremental but reversible breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is formally known, was telegraphed by Iran, and follows a previous announcement that its stockpile of enriched uranium would exceed the allowable limits under the deal. It also comes on the heels of a series of attacks last month on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the U.S. has blamed on Iran, followed by the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran, for which President Donald Trump authorized punitive strikes against Iranian targets only to call them off at the last possible moment. While neither side stands to gain from tensions flaring into open hostilities, both seem locked into positions that make conflict increasingly difficult to avoid.
The bitter irony is that the current crisis replaces a situation in which all sides had achieved some but not all of their objectives at the cost of suboptimal but not painful concessions, with one in which neither side is likely to achieve any of its primary objectives at the risk of potentially devastating costs. Complicating matters, today’s geopolitical environment is far less promising compared to 2015 for reaching any replacement deal in the event Trump decides to seek a diplomatic off-ramp to the current tensions, particularly if it is to address additional issues not covered by the JCPOA due to the difficulty of reaching any compromise on them.