Three months have passed since the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, and things still remain unclear.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been very open about its goal of replacing the 2015 nuclear accord with an agreement that would significantly tighten restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and block its path to nuclear weapons.
The United States has also made other demands, including that Iran stop meddling in other countries’ affairs, end its support for terrorism and rein in its ballistic-missile program. The Americans claim the reimposed sanctions on Iran are not aimed at bringing about regime change, possibly because they do not want to be seen as meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. But Iran believes this is indeed the Americans’ ultimate goal. It is safe to say that few in Washington would shed any tears at the downfall of the ayatollah regime.
Iran has three courses of action. First, it can remain in the nuclear deal. This means the United States can be held responsible for the accord’s failure, as well as prevent the other signatories from renewing their sanctions. Remaining in the deal also preserves the possibility that many restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will be lifted in a few years’ time, as agreed upon in the accord.
While Iran and the five other signatories see the agreement as binding, it is hard to see this lasting for much longer without the United States in the deal. Moreover, Iran is now demanding that the European signatories continue to purchase its oil to compensate it for the U.S. sanctions, and also wants the Europeans to prevent negotiations over Iran’s ballistic-missile program and aggression in the Middle East.
The European governments could look for ways to provide financial aid to Iran, but it is doubtful they will be able to expand such assistance. It is even more difficult to see them agreeing to Iran’s demand that its missile program and subversive activities in the region not be up for discussion. They seemingly want to do exactly that in order to bring the United States back into the accord.
Iran’s second option is to bring its uranium enrichment back to pre-accord levels, and possibly even beyond. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already instructed the government to take the necessary steps to expand Iran’s nuclear activity, and particular its uranium enrichment, in the near future. Iranian officials have gone so far as to warn that Iran could withdraw from the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—a far-reaching step that could be construed as a sign Iran will acquire nuclear weapons.
While Iran could choose to take this path, doing so has risks. By increasing its uranium enrichment to pre-accord levels, Iran would be violating the 2015 agreement. Such a serious violation could spur the Europeans to abandon the deal and effectively bring an end to it. If Iran takes steps to enrich uranium at levels higher than before the deal, this could spur military action—either by Israel or the United States—against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The third option is for Iran to agree to negotiate with the United States and the other signatories on a new agreement. While Iran has publicly said it is not prepared to take such a step, if the economic situation there worsens and the regime begins to fear domestic unrest that poses a risk to the country’s stability, it may be forced to negotiate a new deal. Still, it would only do so if the other governments ensure the concessions are tolerable from its standpoint.
All three options are problematic for the Iranian regime, which will likely take into account the impact of the economic sanctions and the Iranian public’s response before making its decision.
Dr. Ephraim Kam is a senior research fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies.