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PoliticsMiddle East

Iran's nuclear move is playing with fire

Barbara Wesel Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Barbara Wesel
January 5, 2021

Iran has announced that it is upping uranium enrichment levels — a move that threatens any attempt to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Barbara Wesel says it’s time for Europe to re-examine its policies towards the regime.

Iran IR 6 Zentrifugen
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/IRIB

France, Germany and the UK have never fought so hard to achieve an international deal as they did with the nuclear accord with Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed by the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union in 2015. It has largely been on ice since US President Donald Trump's decision tounilaterally withdraw from the treaty in 2018 . For a long time, the deal was lauded as a major European joint foreign policy achievement. Now it looks seriously under threat.

A declaration of war on the international community

The hardliners in the regime seem to have gained the upper hand. Tehran says it has now resumed enriching uranium to up to 20 percent purity at its underground facility in Fordo. While that is still a long way off the levels needed to make weapons-grade uranium, it is far above the three or so percent agreed in the deal — a limit that Tehran has been breaching for some time now. Iran also says it will no longer allow inspectors from the nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, in Vienna access to its facilities.

DW's Barbara Wesel
DW's Barbara Wesel

Tehran's seizing of a South Korean tanker and its cynical policy of detaining foreigners or dual nationals under trumped-up charges — in what are essentially acts of hostage-taking — is hardly reassuring. But the regime's announcement that it has once more increased uranium enrichment levels is a declaration of war on the international community.

The aim of the 2015 nuclear deal was to stop Iran becoming an atomic power that could put its neighbors under pressure and further destabilize this powder-keg region. Tehran's military influence is keeping the conflict in Syria smoldering and acting as a spoiler for international peace efforts. The idea that the state could become a nuclear power is the stuff of nightmares for the West.

Iran is playing a high-stake game

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has criticized the regime's announced change of course. However, moderates like himself are currently losing ground and there are presidential elections slated for summer. The hardliners are gaining traction and pushing forward aggressively. Even Iranian experts are asking themselves how the regime can afford new centrifuges and an expanded nuclear program in the light of latest US sanctions which have plunged the country deeper into economic crisis. But this is clearly not about economics.

Tehran has thrown down the gauntlet before the international community. Blackmail is the name of the game. Iran has vowed to quickly return to the conditions set out in the deal, if the other signatories, in particular Washington, also uphold the agreement.

The move is a slap in the face for the new US administration. Joe Biden's team of advisors had indicated that it would consider resuscitating the accord. But Tehran's flagrant breach of the agreement will make it hard for Biden to convince a domestic audience.

Iran's decision to move on uranium enrichment shortly after the anniversary  of the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani by a US drone is intended to demonstrate the regime's power and serve as a signal for nationalists.

No more velvet glove treatment

Up to now, the best allies of the Iranian regime have been sitting inParis, London and Berlin. Over and over again they havereached out to the government in Tehranand given economic and political support. Shortly before Christmas, they declared that they were prepared to resume talks with Iran without setting any preconditions.

But the Europeans have received nothing in exchange: no concessions or cooperation. When German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently,  called on Iran not to squander the last window of opportunity for rapprochement with the United States, his appeal seemed almost desperate and it has clearly fallen on deaf ears.

Perhaps Tehran is inclined to regard diplomatic efforts like theseas a sign of weakness and feels that it can get away with responding aggressively without facing any consequences. This velvet glove policy appears to have reached the end of the road. The major European states must now consult with the incoming Biden administration and decide whether and on what terms the nuclear deal with Iran can be renewed.

Simultaneously, the Iranian missile program and the country's political and military role will also have to be up for discussion. We can no longer avoid confronting the government in Tehran. When world powers signed the nuclear accord in 2015, they were hoping to open a chapter of constructive cooperation with Iran, but the only way left to achieve that is with concrete trade-offs.

This commentary has been adapted from German.