Iran on the Loose Is as Much a Danger as on the Leash

American President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal Iran had signed with the West in the days of Barack Obama in return for the lifting of the sanctions has certainly put the president’s European allies under intense pressure.

For starters, the real leverage to the treaty was provided by the heavy weight US alone since America’s influence, banking network, volume of trade and ability to influence international policies far outweigh the collective clout of France, Germany and Britain on those scores. One might count Russia and China as the fence-sitters in the game.

It is not surprising therefore that, sensing that Trump was unlikely to change his mind about reimposing the sanctions against it, Iran has started to take measures to boost its uranium enrichment capacity, thereby hoping to put pressure on the deal’s signatories to bring Trump back into their fold. Failing that, it has threatened to resume its 20% uranium enrichment, banned under the deal from which Trump has run away.

Where does this figure of 20% come from? The nuclear deal signed in 2015 allows Tehran to stay with 3.67% uranium enrichment as against the 90% threshold meant for weapons-grade uranium. Before the deal Iran was enriching uranium to up to 20% purity and that’s where it is going to back.

The director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi has been quite specific on the issue, telling the Press Iran was developing infrastructure to build advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facilities. Enigmatically, he clarified that the move did not violate the nuclear deal but merely increased the pace of its nuclear programme.

ali akbar salehi.
Director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi.

“If we were progressing normally, it would have taken six or seven years but this will now be ready in the coming weeks and months,” he told the Press. And there lies the catch. Apart from other reasons, this is what Trump had found galling – that the treaty allowed Iran to arrive in about seven years where, in his reckoning, it should never be allowed to arrive.

The treaty was also supposed to curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its propensity to impose its hegemony in the Middle East by backing subversive activities through extremist outfits funded by it [and lately by its newly-found ally Qatar], by supplying arms and funds to subversive elements in Bahrain and Yemen, and by generally muddying the waters for any serious efforts by the West to end chaos and bring order in the Middle East. Iran has balked at any negotiations on the two issues.

What gives courage to Iran, it seems, is the fact that two other signatories to the deal – Russia and China, as large in terms of clout and weight as the US – have tended to assume the role of spectators while the UK, Germany and France try to persuade Trump not to ditch the treaty.

And that’s not surprising. Both Russia and China have little influence in the Arab Gulf states which are key to the region’s wealth whereas both are very close to Iran. Russia has been aiding Iran in its ‘peaceful’ nuclear programmes for many years, has sided with it on the issue of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, and has been aided by Iran to negotiate arms sales to Qatar and even enter into military cooperation with it. China is planning massive road and rail links with Iran to promote its trade with the oil-rich Central Asian countries.

So while Trump may have a point that Obama and company signed a badly-drafted deal, his move to remain in or out of the deal is going to make little difference when it comes to Iran’s dirty tricks.

Brij Sharma
Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don't usually hear from the middle east country.