NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 9 JUNE, 2018
Dangerous game of poker
US President Donald Trump triggered the process of dismantling the 2015 JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, by announcing that America was withdrawing from the deal.
He did so despite public and private appeals to the US by the European signatories to the deal—Britain, France, and Germany—that America should not do so, because the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) was underpinned by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and that it was a good deal, painstakingly put together by the former US President Barak Obama and his European partners.
But President Trump remained unmoved by the appeals of the other signatories to the JCPOA and announced unilateral US withdrawal from it on May 8.
Thus began a series of events which is still unfolding. The latest is Iran’s announcement on June 4 that it was expanding its Natanz nuclear site to boost its enrichment capacity.
Iran has also sent a letter to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that it had “tentative “ plans to produce the feedstock for the centrifuges, which are the machines that enrich uranium. The IAEA has certified that so far, Iran has not violated the nuclear deal.
That was followed by a statement by the French Foreign Minister on June 6 that the Iranian announcement on June 5 could unravel the deal, and risk Iran moving closer to the “red line,” [i.e. enriching uranium to the 20 per cent level, which would facilitate rapid development of a nuclear weapon].
Earlier, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had said on June 4 that he had ordered preparations to increase Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity if the JCPOA collapsed. Khamenei, however, also said that Iran would continue to adhere to the limit of enriching uranium under five per cent, as laid down in the JCPOA.
Even though Iran is saying that it would increase its enrichment capacity by setting up more centrifuges and increasing the feedstock for them, the Europeans are afraid that Iran would not only increase the quantity of enriched uranium but also increase its quality, by enriching it to the 20 per cent level. They do not seem to believe the statement of Ayatollah Khamenei that Iran will not enrich uranium beyond five per cent, as mentioned above.
The Europeans are being subjected to pressure from at least four sides: Iran, which is threatening to produce more enriched uranium [below 5 percent for the time being]; European companies that have invested in Iran and fear US sanctions impacting them; the US, which has so far refused to grant exemptions to the European companies which have stakes in Iran; and the European public opinion, which is increasingly angry with the US, for blackmailing them by applying extra-territorial sanctions.
On the other hand, Trump is facing pressure from Israel’s Netanyahu, who wants the US to bomb Iran. He has cited Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement [mentioned above] to claim that Iran is on track to producing nuclear weapons to be used against Israel.
A report attributed to the Press Trust of India dated June 6 quoted Netanyahu as saying in a video: “Two days ago Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, stated his intention to destroy the State of Israel. Yesterday he said how he would do it—by unlimited enrichment of uranium to create an arsenal of nuclear bombs…we are not surprised.”
It may be noted that Netanyahu clearly distorted what Ayatollah Khamenei had said on June 4—that Iran would continue to adhere to the limit of enriching uranium below five per cent, as prescribed by the JCPOA. But then the US Main Stream Media (MSM) does not have either the time or the inclination to make such fine—but important— distinctions. And even if it did so, Trump would listen to Netanyahu, not to Ayatollah Khamenei.
The European companies in Iran are putting pressure on their governments to obtain exemptions from US sanctions for them. The governments of Britain, France, and Germany are trying to do so, but have not succeeded so far.
Some European companies, including A. P. Moller Maersk of Denmark and Total of France, have already started pulling out from Iran. Chinese, Russian, and possibly Indian companies may replace them.
The chances of the US granting exemptions to European or other companies presently look bleak. If the companies take the risk of staying on in Iran, they might incur heavy losses, in the shape of the imposition of US sanctions and loss of the American market.
Thus, a complex interplay of brinkmanship, or a game of chicken, involving multiple players, is going on. It is a dangerous game, with a very little margin of error. Its outcome is difficult to predict; what could be done is that the probability of likely outcomes could perhaps be outlined.
It is unlikely that the EU would be able to obtain exemptions for its companies in Iran from the US authorities. The Jewish lobby in the US would see to it that the exemptions are not given. Moreover, the approach of the EU governments so far to the requests of their companies for obtaining exemptions has been lukewarm at best. In the end, they will all fall in line, as decreed by the US.
On the other hand, Iran is unlikely to be intimidated by the US and Israel. It will continue to gradually withdraw from the JCPOA, and likely to increase both the quantity and the quality of its enriched uranium, in tandem with the increasing withdrawal of the EU from the JCPOA. Israel will happily encourage both sides to stay on a collision course.
It will be a downward spiral for both the US, Israel, and the EU on the one hand, and Iran, China, and Russia on the other. The two sides are more than evenly matched.
The situation is very inflammable. All that is needed is a spark to set the region on fire. That spark may suddenly come from anywhere, for example from an attack on the Iranian forces in Syria, or an attack on Iran itself.
If that happens, Iran will hit back against Israel, and against US targets in the Gulf and the Levant, such as the CENTCOM base in Qatar, or the US bases in Syria and Bahrain, all of which are within the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Iran may also use the Hezbollah against Israel, as it did in 2006.
The chances of a war breaking out in the Gulf and the Levant are rather high. A dangerous game of Poker with high stakes is being played.
(Niraj Srivastava is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several countries around the world, including in Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the United States )