Trump risks nuclear crisis in Iran

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE is increasingly facing the possibility of a nuclear crisis with Iran, as Tehran takes its biggest step back from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran’s decision to stop adhering to limits in the Obama-era nuclear agreement comes just days after Trump authorized a drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, posing a major test of the Trump administration’s gambit to withdraw from the international accord.

While Iran hasn’t kicked out nuclear inspectors, and has even left open the possibility of coming back into compliance, experts say Sunday’s announcement by Tehran brings the deal closer to collapse than ever before.

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“For all practical purposes, they have pulled out of the agreement, or whatever was left of the agreement they hadn’t pulled out of,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The nuclear deal … had already been attenuated through a series of steps that Iran has taken. This is certainly the culminating step.”

Iran has been gradually stepping back since last spring in a bid to pressure Trump to relax sanctions, or to encourage Europe to find a viable workaround to the harsh U.S. sanctions that were imposed after Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Three years earlier, the agreement between Iran and other world powers gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. But after the U.S. withdrawal, new sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy.

Iran had set an early January deadline for its next step away from the deal, even before last week’s U.S. strike in Baghdad killed Soleimani, the Quds Force leader. But his unexpected death has ratcheted up tensions between the United States and Iran, stoking fears about a military confrontation and making any step away from the nuclear deal now that much more fraught.

“The degree of their abandonment of the JCPOA may have come about as a result” of Soleimani’s death, Takeyh said, using the acronym for the official name of the deal.

On Sunday, Iran announced it would no longer adhere to the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment.

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Trump responded to the news Monday by tweeting in all caps that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon!”

Asked if Trump still believes it’s possible to renegotiate the nuclear deal, White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayBrazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record Conway: Reported sexist Bloomberg remarks 'far worse' than what Trump said on 'Access Hollywood' tape Candidates make electability arguments, talk Bloomberg as focus turns to more diverse states MORE reiterated Trump’s willingness to meet with Iranian officials.

“He said he’s open to meet,” Conway told reporters. “If Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country ... sure, absolutely.”

Despite saying it was no longer bound by the deal’s limits, Iran did not immediately announce actions to increase its uranium enrichment and reiterated its pledge to come back into compliance with the deal if it gets sanctions relief. Iran also maintained that its nuclear program is not a weapons program.

Iran also said it would continue cooperating with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

The IAEA said Monday its “inspectors continue to verify and monitor activities in the country.”

The nuclear deal was intended to keep Iran’s so-called breakout time — or the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon — at roughly a year. The decision not to follow the agreement’s limits will significantly reduce that time, though by how much depends on exactly what action Iran takes.

Takeyh predicted Iran could begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent, which is still below weapons-grade but speeds up the time it takes to get there.

France’s foreign minister said Monday that European powers would decide in the coming days whether to trigger the agreement’s dispute mechanism, a move that could lead to renewed United Nations sanctions on Iran.

“The latest decisions mean that the Iranians can now enrich uranium without any constraints, with the quantities they want, in the areas they want, and with the number of centrifuges they want,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM TV. “The repeated violations leave us today asking about the long-term validity of this accord.”

The European Union is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Friday afternoon to discuss the matter.

“Deeply regret Iran’s latest announcement on #JCPOA,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles tweeted Monday. “As ever we will rely on @iaeaorg verification. Full implementation of #NuclearDeal by all is now more important than ever, for regional stability & global security. I will continue working with all participants on way forward.”

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Iran hawks framed Tehran’s announcement as vindication of their arguments that it never intended to adhere to the nuclear deal.

“Another good day,” former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Bolton's lost leverage Azar downplays chance Trump will appoint coronavirus czar MORE tweeted Sunday. “Iran rips the mask off the idea it ever fully complied with the nuclear deal, or that it made a strategic decision to forswear nuclear weapons. Now, it’s on to the real job: effectively preventing the ayatollahs from getting such a capability.”

But others argued Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran is to blame.

“President Trump foolishly set the collapse of the multilateral agreement in motion in 2018 when he unilaterally pulled the United States out of the agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran, despite repeated confirmation by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was complying with its terms,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, said in a statement Monday.

Lyman added that Trump should take diplomatic steps, including recommitting to the nuclear deal, “instead of ratcheting up pressure, which would give Iranian hard-liners the upper hand and could prod Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, former Obama administration official Philip Gordon and RAND Corporation associate political scientist Ariane Tabatabai warned Iran’s decision on the nuclear deal means the costs of Soleimani’s death are “mounting beyond the already significant risks of Iranian retaliation and subsequent military confrontation.”

“If the Trump administration does not move to reduce tensions, it will soon find itself facing the very dilemma the nuclear deal was designed to avoid,” they wrote, “the choice between a nuclear Iran or the need to start a war to prevent one.”