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Iran boast on enrichment serves as warning to Trump

Iran’s boast this week that it needs only days to ramp up the uranium enrichment needed to produce a nuclear bomb added a new layer of complexity to an internal White House debate over whether President Trump should declare Tehran in violation of the 2015 nuclear accord.

The assertion by Iranian Atomic Chief Ali Akbar Salehi on Tuesday was a veiled threat, according to analysts, who say Tehran was sending a message about how bad things could become if Mr. Trump decides to pull out of the agreement when it next comes up for review in October.

Mr. Salehi, who said Iran is poised to “surprise” Washington if the deal crumbles, may also have sought to deepen disagreements within the administration over the accord, which Mr. Trump vowed during last year’s campaign to pull out of if he got elected.

While Mr. Trump grudgingly kept the deal alive when it last came up for review in July, sources close to the White House say he’s grown increasingly determined to break with top advisers, including Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who’ve resisted pulling out of the agreement.

Pros and cons

Mr. Tillerson has expressed wariness of diplomatic fallout with U.S. allies that could be triggered by a pullout — particularly the potential acrimony that may occur between the U.S. and Britain, France and Germany, who backed the accord two years ago with China and Russia.

After years of Iranian isolation, the nuclear accord opened the way for Europe to do business with Tehran by dramatically easing sanctions on the Islamic republic in exchange for curbs to nuclear activities — activities the West believed were geared toward the developing of nuclear bombs.

Europe’s growing business ties with Tehran hung in the backdrop on Tuesday when Mr. Salehi warned that if the U.S. moves against the accord, “we will definitely surprise them. If we make the determination, we are able to resume 20 percent enrichment in at most five days.”

The Iranian atomic chief added: “Definitely, we are not interested in such a thing happening. We have not achieved the deal easily to let it go easily. We are committed to the deal and we are loyal to it.”

His comments, according to James F. Jeffrey, a former high-level American diplomat in the region, could also be read as a threatening cry for help from Tehran to the other powers backing the nuclear accord.

“They’re trying to appeal to everybody else who signed on — the Germans, French, Britons, Russians and Chinese — and basically say, ‘Hey, if the Americans keep screwing with us, we can just go ahead and blow up the agreement and start enriching,’” said Mr. Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Turkey and Albania, and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The talk of five days to enrich is dramatic,” Mr. Jeffrey told The Washington Times, adding that the idea was to scare the Europeans into pressuring the Trump administration to stay in the deal because pulling out will damage U.S.-European relations.

Looming review

U.S. legislation passed after the nuclear deal was reached stipulating that the White House must certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the accord.

Declaring Iran not in compliance in October would amount to what diplomats call issuing “decertification.” Such a declaration would not result in an immediate “snapback” of economic sanctions but would be a major first step toward pulling out of the agreement.

Deal critics already argue Tehran is in violation for testing more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges than agreed. They also argue the spirit of the agreement has been damaged by recent Iranian ballistic missile tests that violated a key U.N. Security Council Resolution.

The latest statement by Mr. Salehi gave new ammunition to the critics.

“Salehi’s comments, [which] suggest the deal is so thin Iran can reconstitute its weapons-grade enrichment capability in less than a week, undermine the claim that the deal is worth preserving,” according to an analysis circulated this week by Omri Ceren, managing director of The Israel Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization that has long criticized the nuclear accord.

An internal White House debate over the matter, meanwhile, has played out among Joel Rayburn, Mr. Trump’s National Security Council director on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria; Christopher Ford, the NSC’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation; and others, including Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and recently departed chief strategist Steve Bannon, who once sat on the NSC.

Mr. Bannon’s Iran position was seen by some to be at odds with his general noninterventionist worldview. He supported regime change in Tehran and had NSC allies pushing in the same direction, including Senior Director for the Middle East Derek Harvey, an old confidant of former U.S. commander in Iraq and later CIA Director David Petraeus.

Mr. Harvey at times also argued for expanding the U.S. military mission in Syria to pursue Iranian proxy forces there. Mr. Trump, according to sources who spoke with The Times, disagreed with that approach, worrying such a strategy could drag the U.S. into another major Middle Eastern war. Instead, the president sought to target the Iranian nuclear agreement — or what he called “the worst deal in history” — during last year’s campaign.

Since the U.S. and Iran struck the deal in 2015, Tehran had increased support in Syria for Bashar Assad, conducted ballistic missile tests that pushed the boundaries of the agreement and taken advantage of the easing of sanctions by unfreezing about $ 100 billion worth of overseas assets.

Decertification on table

Without a war option, Mr. Trump is seen to have become increasingly bent toward declaring Iran in noncompliance of the nuclear accord. Debate on the issue has been hot since July, the last time the deal was up for review.

At the time, the Bannon camp supported decertification, but Mr. Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis were in opposition, according to one of the sources close to the White House, who spoke only on condition of anonymity with The Times.

Those three advisers, according to the source, argued that the accord had the backing of the international community, and a dramatic move by America’s new president to begin pulling out of the accord would not be worth the diplomatic fallout that would come with it.

A senior pro-U.S. diplomat from the region, who also spoke on condition of anonymity this summer, suggested such thinking was undergirded by the fact that several U.S. allies around the world were already seething over Mr. Trump’s antagonism toward other global agreements after moving swiftly during his first days in office to remove Washington from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that the Obama administration had spent years pursuing.

The source close to the Trump White House told The Times that the July Oval Office meetings on the Iranian decertification option became so heated that cursing and yelling broke out.

Fast forward to the current moment, said the source, and the Tillerson-McMaster-Mattis position against decertification has only solidified. Last month’s appointment of new White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, an ally of Mr. McMaster, witnessed the dismissal or resignation of the entire Bannon-NSC camp, including Mr. Harvey. “Now,” said the source, “the president has no one around him who’s willing to do what he’s asking for, which is give him a decertification option.”

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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