The White House’s long-running dispute with Iran is approaching a perilous crossroads one year after President Donald Trump walked away from the multilateral nuclear deal.
The Administration’s increasing pressure on Tehran has resulted in an unpredictable and tense standoff with potentially serious implications. The two nations’ leaders say they don’t want conflict, but their rhetoric, threats and actions are increasingly heated.
A flotilla of American warships and a fleet of B-52 strategic bombers are headed toward the Persian Gulf on the same day that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed to ramp up enrichment of nuclear material unless Tehran gets sweeping relief from economic sanctions.
“We have never began violating an agreement and will not begin a war, but will give decisive response to any aggressor,” Rouhani said in a nationally televised speech.
The stated goals of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” are to obtain more constraints on Iran’s missile and nuclear technology, while also forcing Tehran to halt support for proxy forces in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Rather than give in to those demands, however, Iran has done the opposite.
Rouhani said Wednesday his nation would begin stockpiling extra low-enriched uranium and so-called heavy water, which is needed for commercial nuclear reactors. Iran will ramp up enrichment to weapons grade levels at the end of 60 days unless U.S.-led pressure on Iran’s oil and banking sectors was relieved.
The U.S. warships and bombers sped up their deployment to the Middle East after intelligence agencies spotted Iranian backed groups move ballistic missiles, which some officials said could pose a threat to U.S. troops and allies.
The decision to expedite the ships to the region was made by National Security Advisor John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk. Officials at the State and Defense Departments and in U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly worried that Bolton is trying to maneuver both Iran and Trump into a corner where they have no alternative but war.
“Bolton has made it very clear for years that he thinks the only way to eliminate the threat he thinks Iran poses to us and our friends in the region is by getting rid of the regime, by hook or by crook,” said one U.S. official who deals with Iran and criticized Bolton only on the condition of anonymity. These officials’ fears have been heightened by the departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis, widely regarded as one of the few if not the only brake on Bolton, and Trump’s failure so far to appoint a successor after 125 days and counting.
The assessments within the intelligence community don’t square with Bolton’s and he often ignores them, officials at two agencies say, again agreeing to speak only anonymously. While Bolton keeps saying Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons that could hit Israel, Saudi Arabia and other friendly states, the U.S. intelligence assessment — shared by other nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency — is that Iran continues to abide by the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Bolton, these officials said, hyped both what both called a “routine transport” of some Iranian missiles and the scheduled deployment of he deployment of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and adjoining ships to the Middle East as part of the Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
The Iranians know U.S. intelligence watches and eavesdrops on their military movements and communications, but they made no attempt to conceal the missiles’ movement, one of the officials said. That, he said, does not appear to be preparation for an attack, but a reminder that Iran has the weapons.
There is no dispute within the Administration that Iran is a bad actor intent on expanding its influence in the Middle East, either directly as its military forces and Iranian-backed political groups have done in Iraq, or by funding and equipping proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The dispute is how to respond.
Trump hasn’t been shy in vocalizing his aversion to overseas military entanglements, but Bolton has repeatedly advocated for the use of force in Iran. “The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure,” he argued in the New York Times in 2015. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that the aircraft carrier and bomber task force deployment intended to show Iran “that there would be no ambiguity about our preparedness to respond to any threat against our people or our partners in the region.”
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, promised to meet hit Iran with “unrelenting force” should Iranian forces or proxies attack. “Make no mistake, we’re not seeking a fight with the Iranian regime, but we do have a military force that’s designed to be agile, adaptive, and prepared to respond to a variety of contingencies in the Middle East and around the world,” he said during a speech in Washington.
The deployment have some Congressional members spooked. Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the actions “deeply troubling,” while demanding to be “briefed immediately” on the military’s plans.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration continues to ratchet the economic pressure. The U.S. government slapped a new round of sanctions targeting Tehran’s steel, iron, aluminum and copper sectors, while also putting “other nations on notice that allowing Iranian steel and other metals into your ports will no longer be tolerated.”
Despite resistance from virtually every major world power for abandoning the deal, the U.S. has turned the global financial system into a weapon against Tehran. The policy has triggered an exodus of corporations and financial institutions that would rather abandon their investments in Iran than risk U.S. Treasury Department sanctions. Iran’s economy sustaining oil exports has plunged to historic lows.
The State Department says nearly 1,000 Iranian individuals, businesses and banks have been sanctioned. The Administration last month designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an arm of the nation’s military, as a terrorist organization, which restricts members’ banking transactions and ability to travel. It marked the first time the U.S. designated an arm of a nation’s government as a terrorist group.
Tehran, which for its part has complied with the 2015 nuclear agreement despite the U.S. pullout, is seeking to split other countries from the U.S. by salvaging a deal with its remaining signatories: Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France. It has thus far elected for minimum retaliatory measures. But as the screws continue to tighten on the economy, Iran has announced its intent to return to the path toward producing nuclear bomb.
After all, the JCPOA brought Iran’s nuclear program under tight international controls, but freed it from heavy sanctions. Now that the sanctions are back on, Tehran doesn’t see the logic in abiding by the rules.
“JCPOA will be either win-win or lose-lose. We won’t let US turn it into a win-lose situation,” Rouhani said in his national address.
A collision course is now set with Iran’s declared 60-day ultimatum. Pressure for a solution will mount with each passing day.