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Iran’s Gambit: Force the World to Rein In Trump

The Trump administration has portrayed Iran’s recent moves, including its threat to resume stockpiling low-enriched uranium in violation of the nuclear agreement, as proof that Iran is an implacable rogue state, bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, that can be contained only through the threat of military force.

Iran has indeed often acted as a regional provocateur, but in this case some nonpartisan experts on Iran and on United States policy in the Middle East see something different.

They say Iran appears to be pursuing a provocative but calibrated strategy to counter what its leaders see as a potentially existential American threat — as severe economic sanctions strangle the economy and cut off vital oil revenues — as well as to preserve the nuclear agreement.

In doing so, Iran is falling back on tactics associated with its reputation as a rogue state, including asymmetric military escalation, like threatening oil shipments, though Iran denies American accusations that it attacked tankers last week, or the downing of an American drone on Thursday (in disputed circumstances), and nuclear blackmail. It is doing so, analysts say, because such tactics are part of the basis of Iranian power and because the United States has closed off other avenues for responding.

“Iran lashing out is a way for it to show the rest of the world, ‘Look, we’ve been acting in a relatively restrained manner in the year since Trump pulled out of the deal. But now we can’t,’ ” said Dina Esfandiary, a Harvard University expert on Middle Eastern security issues.

She said Tehran had settled on a “two-prong strategy of showing that they, too, can apply pressure by being a pain but also saying, ‘We’re willing to talk.’ ”

And because Iran cannot defy American might on its own, it may be hoping to coerce European and Asian nations to rein in the United States.

[On Thursday, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, which it says was flying over Iranian airspace.]

The result, the experts say, is an Iranian strategy, rational but risky, that increases the likelihood of the nuclear agreement’s collapse and even of outright war in the hopes of compelling the world to avert both.

Iran’s threat to stockpile low-enriched uranium can be seen as a microcosm of its apparent strategy, and of the predicament facing the country.

Iran had agreed, as part of the 2015 nuclear pact, to keep its stockpile of energy-grade uranium, enriched just enough for use in power plants, at or below 300 kilograms, or around 660 pounds.

In return for this and other restrictions, Iran received a reduction in the economic sanctions that had devastated its economy and, implicitly, a lowering of the threat of conflict with the United States, theoretically making a nuclear weapons program less appealing.

The Trump administration has removed these incentives. It has reimposed sanctions, put pressure on other countries to break from the deal and has increased military pressure on Iran, most recently by deploying an additional 1,000 American troops to the region.

The administration has also curtailed Iran’s options for disposing of its excess energy-grade uranium. In May, it revoked authorization for Iran to sell the uranium abroad, as it had done under the nuclear agreement. Though Iran has largely disposed of the uranium by reprocessing it, the revocation underscored perceptions that Iran was being goaded into violating the agreement.

As the costs of keeping the nuclear agreement in place rose, Iran came to bear all of its obligations with ever-fewer of its upsides — along with overwhelming economic and military pressure from the United States.

At first, Tehran managed those costs in the apparent hope that European diplomats eager for peace and Asian economies hungry for oil would step in.

But the country’s calculus appeared to change in recent weeks, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Its recent provocations, she said, appear aimed at pushing those burdens out to European and Asian governments.

“Creating a sense of urgency among the Europeans, as well as Chinese and Russians” is meant to compel those governments to rein in the United States on Iran’s behalf, she said.

So, for example, implied Iranian threats against oil tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf — whether or not Iran was behind the attacks on tankers there — would mostly harm the Asian and European economies that rely on those shipments.

It may also be a warning to American allies in the Middle East.

“This is a direct message to the Saudis and the Emiratis that if Iran is being squeezed, its share of the oil market is being squeezed, then other major oil suppliers are also going to feel the squeeze,” Ms. Geranmayeh said.

“They could be hoping that the Emiratis and Saudis could press the U.S. administration to cool down its strategy,” she added.

This strategy also fits with Iran’s threat to expand its stockpile of energy-grade uranium.

The threat puts credibility to Iran’s argument that it cannot be expected to deliver its half of the deal unreciprocated in perpetuity.

And it appears calculated to create a crisis just large enough to pressure European and Asian powers to step in and rein in the United States, Ms. Geranmayeh said, but small enough to be easily defused.

It would preserve Iranian adherence with what arms control experts consider the deal’s most important provisions, such as inspections of nuclear facilities and prohibitions on weapons-grade uranium. Tehran, far from gathering the nuclear material in secret, announced it to the world weeks in advance. Experts say it could be easily reversed.

In a Twitter post, Gérard Araud, until recently the longtime French ambassador to Washington, called Iran’s threat, “A reaction limited not to antagonize the Europeans and not to give a pretext for a military intervention,” adding, “Iran was politically obliged to react sooner or later to the U.S. sanctions.”

Still, even if Iran says its goal is to preserve international restrictions on the very program it is threatening to expand, the move implies a threat to return to the pre-agreement days of nuclear blackmail and brinkmanship.

Supporters of Mr. Trump’s approach have argued that confrontation with Iran was inevitable, given the country’s disruptive behavior in the wider Middle East, making Mr. Trump wise to try to force Tehran’s capitulation.

But critics say that undermining the nuclear agreement only increases the country’s incentives to project power abroad.

Brett McGurk, until recently the Trump administration’s presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, warned earlier this month in Foreign Affairs that American strategy was all but forcing Iran to escalate in response.

“Ever-increasing sanctions” and other American pressures on Iran, he wrote, offered “no plausible on-ramp for Iran to enter negotiations” and, “if carried to their logical conclusion,” pointed to regime change.

Mr. Trump has invited talks with Iran’s leaders, and though he has said he does not seek regime change, some of his top officials have, and it remains unclear who has the final say. The possibility would give Iranian leaders every incentive to fight back, rather than back down and invite their own destruction.

Even if Iranians conclude that regime change proponents are bluffing — and past American hints at a possible military intervention in Venezuela have so far come to nothing — sanctions still put the country at severe risk.

In short, experts said, the United States, by its strategy and its sheer power, has closed off virtually all peaceful avenues for Iran to respond.

Unlike China, Iran can hardly counteract American economic pressure by putting its own sanctions or tariffs on the United States. Nor can Iran hope to match the United States diplomatically, as it has no seat on the United Nations Security Council and no network of global allies.

While some countries have called Washington the irresponsible party in the crisis, Tehran has found that persuading the world to blame the United States is not enough. European and Asian governments have their own feuds with the Trump administration and have struggled even with matters that concern them directly.

By increasing the stakes of the crisis in the Gulf region, Iran is hoping to force it onto global agendas, experts said. But it is risky, akin to a game of chicken in which the strategy is not to compel the other side to blink, but to make bystanders feel so endangered by the looming collision that they will intervene.

“From the perspective of officials in Iran, they tried being reasonable and calling for dialogue in maintaining the deal,” Ms. Esfandiary said. “They’ve said again and again, ‘If you were in our shoes, what would you do?’ ”

Source: NYT > World

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