While Washington is increasingly consumed with the impeachment drama, the globe has not stopped spinning and dangerous regimes have not stopped making menacing moves.
The latest news comes from Iran, where the regime has just announced it is injecting uranium into centrifuges spinning in a nuclear facility deep inside a mountain in Fordow, raising questions about Iran’s intentions to build a nuclear weapon. Since President Donald Trump announced in May 2018 that the US was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has strayed further from the 2015 accord, which was also joined by China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the EU. Under the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran agreed to limiting its uranium enrichment efforts and accepted monitoring from international inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Iran’s latest provocation is further evidence that Trump’s policy on Iran is turning into a disaster. That may offer some comfort to Trump’s critics, but it should not. Iran’s actions, which put it closer to a nuclear bomb, are extremely troubling because they raise the risks of war in the world’s most unstable region and boost the incentive for further nuclear proliferation among its Sunni Arab rivals.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded the alarm on Thursday, saying, “Iran is positioning itself for a rapid nuclear breakout.” That was a far cry from his swaggering response last year, when he predicted the sanctions in Iran would force Tehran to change its behavior. When asked what the administration would do if Iranians restarted their nuclear program, he replied, “We’re confident that the Iranians will not make that decision.” He was wrong.
Back then, Trump repeatedly blasted the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” His plan was to reimpose harsh sanctions on Iran to pressure its leaders to reopen negotiations and strike a better deal than the original one spearheaded by Barack Obama’s administration. One of the main flaws of the JCPOA, according to its critics, was that the limitations on uranium-enrichment activities expired between 10 to 15 years, allowing Iran to race for a bomb once those provisions lapsed. If Iran agreed to return to the negotiating table, these sunset provisions in the JCPOA — which limited Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and its use of advanced centrifuges — might be extended or made permanent.
But Iran, it turns out, did not follow Trump’s script. That’s hardly surprising. Trump’s style of bluster, threats, insults and bluff is one of the reasons why his plan has gone as badly as could be imagined.
Instead of achieving the goal of moving Iran’s nuclear capability further into the future and persuading the regime to restrain its aggressive behavior against its neighbors, American policy has aggravated all the ills that made Iran a regional threat. Iran is steadily breaking the restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal and showing no restraint in its regional interventionism, another area of concern for the deal’s critics.
Last week, Iran prevented a UN inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency from gaining access to a uranium-enrichment facility before detaining her and seizing her travel documents.
On Thursday, the IAEA held an extraordinary meeting to discuss a series of breaches by Iran. Tehran is reportedly failing to cooperate with nuclear inspectors on a number of issues. Among them, the IAEA found traces of uranium in what Israel called a “secret atomic warehouse” in a site called Turqazabad, which Iran says is a carpet-cleaning facility, according to a report from Reuters.
Just one day before the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced the start of uranium enrichment in more than a thousand centrifuges in Fordow, the country’s nuclear chief claimed that dozens more advanced IR6 centrifuges have also started spinning. The technology allows for much faster enrichment on a possible path to a nuclear bomb.
In addition to rebuilding its nuclear program, Iran is becoming more brazen in its attacks against the region and heightening the fear that all-out war is inevitable. It was allegedly behind a series of attacks on its neighbors, sabotaging oil tankers and delivering a massive strike against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.
Israel’s former ambassador to the United States also revealed that his country is preparing for the probability of an excruciating war with Iran, which could start at any time. An accidental spark could set off a firestorm, especially if Iran and its proxies are emboldened in Syria following Trump’s relinquishing of the territory it held alongside the Kurds.
That’s not how Trump’s plan was supposed to work.
Tehran has called Trump’s bluff. The entire world saw Trump threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” against North Korea, and shortly thereafter embracing its dictator. And when Iran downed a US drone and later struck Saudi Arabia, Trump huffed and puffed, saying the US was “locked and loaded,” and then did nothing.
The idea of reopening negotiations with Iran was a long shot, but it was worth a try. Trump handled it in his inimitable style, disparaging not only Iran but America’s allies. With that, he made it much more difficult for Iran’s leaders to accept talks without losing face, and put the United States alone in its pursuit of a stronger deal.
Now Pompeo is pleading with the international community to help stop Iran. But Trump has weakened America’s alliances. French President Emmanuel Macron said Trump’s indifference to its allies is causing the “brain death of NATO.”
The American public, and the President, are understandably focused on the impeachment proceedings, but the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran deserves attention, given the alarming threat it presents to global peace and stability.
As we are increasingly seeing around the world, Trump’s bravado and boasts do not amount to coherent, successful foreign policy.
It may be too much to ask of Trump to acknowledge that the United States needs its allies, but the best path forward requires Washington to rebuild the alliance of nations that pressured Tehran into negotiating during the Obama administration. Washington alone cannot force a satisfactory, peaceful resolution to the Iranian threat.