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Is Anyone Surprised Iran Has Returned to Enrichment?

The predictable result of the Trump administration's incoherent foreign policy

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The United States continues to have one strategic overriding objective with Iran: to prevent it from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons. If that one objective is achieved, then the United States, Israel, and its friends in the region are more than capable of deterring Iranian aggression in the region, and defeating it in any conventional battle.

President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to violate America’s obligation and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) undermined that objective. And to this day, the administration’s policy on Iran continues to make very little sense. Monday morning, news broke that Iran has now increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to more than the 300 kilograms permitted under the agreement—further evidence that the White House’s continued saber-rattling, from deploying 1,500 troops to the region to leaking military plans, is having the opposite effect intended: It is giving Iran more, not less, of an incentive to violate its nuclear obligations.

The good news is that Iran is being a lot more careful and nuanced than Trump is. While any violation of the JCPOA, by the U.S., Iran, or any other party, should be condemned, Tehran’s move does not mean it is any closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA was negotiated to ensure that Iran was at least one year away from being able to produce enough nuclear material for one nuclear bomb, and that any move to do so would be rapidly if not instantaneously detected by international inspectors. Iran, even by surpassing the 300-kilogram mark, still remains a year away from being able to build a single bomb and lacks the quantity of material needed to get from here to there. Inspectors remain at work, with access to every part of Iran’s nuclear complex.

Thus, what the world faces now is a political, not a nuclear or military crisis. Iran is seeking to increase pressure on Europe to ensure the economic and trade benefits Tehran negotiated when it signed the JCPOA—even without U.S. participation.  Simultaneously, the U.S. is urging European states to cut economic ties with Iran, leaving the EU and close U.S. allies between a rock and a hard place. 

The U.S. is depleting diplomatic goodwill on this issue without a clear strategy or goal: Iran, even if it wanted to reach a deal with the U.S., does not know what it is being asked to do. At least under President Obama, the goal was clear: never build a nuclear weapon and stay at least one year away from being able to do so. By contrast, Trump first said Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon, then said it must also renounce terrorism, the latter goal left undefined. Before that, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out his famous 12 steps Iran must take to become a “normal” nuclear state. It is far from clear that Trump supports those, or that the 12 steps, if met, would be enough to satisfy John Bolton, who has long pushed publicly for regime change.

So, lacking a clear set of presidentially-endorsed benchmarks to meet, and facing increased economic and military pressure, Iran has decided to start pulling back from its nuclear obligations. While Iran may feel justified in following Trump’s move and violating the terms of the JCPOA, such steps also move Iran, Europe, and the U.S. further away from a negotiated or peaceful settlement. This plays into the hands of National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hardliners who are prepared to risk a conflict and escalation to achieve their ambition of getting rid of the current regime in Tehran.

If Trump, as he has said, does not want a war with Iran, it is far past time for his administration to provide some clarity about what the U.S. seeks to achieve with Iran and why. The highest priority should be to define what kind of nuclear restrictions the U.S. wants Iran to accept. The last time John Bolton was in government, during the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. goal was zero enrichment. That failed spectacularly and left Iran with 15,000 spinning centrifuges, weeks away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. On Monday, the White House press statement in response to Iranian enrichment seemed to be returning to this previously disastrous strategy: “We must restore the longstanding nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran.” It’s not hard to see John Bolton’s fingerprints on such a line, which lacks any legal justification.

Obama concluded his time in office with Iran one year away from a bomb and facing 15-plus years of binding constraints, as well as a permanent ban on both weapons and weapon-related activities. It is far past time for Trump to define what he considers a successful outcome, and propose a process capable of achieving it. If, as seems more and more likely, his goal is something unachievable, like zero enrichment, then it will be clear to both Iran and the world that the U.S. under this administration is not serious about a negotiated settlement. Iran will only increase its leverage over the U.S. by dealing directly with Europe. Short of a clear statement of achievable U.S. goals, Iran will continue to move further away from the confines of the nuclear deal and the world will move closer and closer to calamity in the Gulf. A war with Iran serves no one’s interests and could lead to a full-blown nuclear arms race between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, with chaotic and possibly disastrous consequences. Even an administration as poorly coordinated and lacking in strategic thought as the current one can see that is bad for America and the world.