Iran is violating the International Atomic Energy Agency's (JCPOA) regulations for the fourth time since May this year: Iranian President Hassan Rohani announced that his scientists will again be filling uranium hexafluoride gas in the centrifuges of the Fordo uranium enrichment plant from Wednesday onwards. The JCPOA stipulates that Iran will not use this facility until 2031. The unauthorized step wakes bad memories: It was precisely this Fordo plant, whose construction Iran had once concealed from the international community.
To be sure, this time it is not an attempt to secretly carry out and expand atomic research, since the enrichment takes place under strict controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But they add up: Iran now produces more than eleven times as much enriched uranium as it did two months ago, said Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency on Monday.
AP / Office of the Iranian Presidency
Prime Minister Rohani: Under pressure from US sanctions and tipping mood in the country
The escalation spiral between Iran and the United States is thus creating facts that will not be so easily undone. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a way out of the ever-worsening crisis.
The Iranian regime increases the pressure
US President Donald Trump had triggered it in May 2018: he let the United States unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear agreement and has since imposed new sanctions against Iran, most recently on Monday. The Iranian leadership has been responding to this by consistently overriding JCPOA restrictions since May of this year – apparently until Trump abolishes sanctions or the other contractors – Europeans, Russia, China – help Iranians circumvent US sanctions.
Theoretically, the conflict would be easy to solve: Trump and Tehran would both have to give a little. But what the US president actually wants is still unclear. At times, it sounds like he is ultimately aiming for the complete surrender of the Iranian regime – a rather unrealistic demand. Teheran is also stubborn: it is increasing the pressure on its part, not only with the transgression of the nuclear agreement. A number of taboos have already hit this year – tanker explosions near the Strait of Hormuz, attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities – behind which the US and Europeans suspect the Iranian regime.
French President Emmanuel Macron tries to mediate between Iran and the US, but so far without success. The Europeans are in an increasingly difficult situation: How should they help Iran if the Iranian regime escalates the situation? How long will they still be able to stick to the nuclear agreement under these circumstances? In addition, the mistrust of European partners seems to be growing in Iran, the hardliners are prevailing.
Trump's sanctions go backwards
For the Iranians, the consequences of US sanctions are serious; their purchasing power collapses, they are barely on medication. Trump's "maximum pressure" does exactly the opposite of what he hopes for, writes Azadeh Zamirirad, Iran expert at the Science and Politics Foundation. The Iranian middle class and civil society are weakened, as well as the government of Rohanis. Instead, more radical political forces and shadow powers benefited like the Revolutionary Guards. For the entire Middle East region, too, the risk that Tehran would be able to establish its position permanently would mean that more could be achieved with escalation than with negotiations.
One of the few representative opinion polls in Iran recently painted a sobering picture. For the first time, a majority of Iranians reject the JCPOA. About 60 percent are in favor of Iran withdrawing from the agreement. Roughly 70 percent believe that experience with the nuclear agreement has shown that it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions because other powers would not fulfill their obligations – two-thirds more than in a January 2018 poll.
This shift in sentiment in Iran comes at a particularly sensitive time: parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2020, and the presidential election in 2021 – and eventually a successor to 80-year-old troubled revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei will also have to be appointed. The revolutionary leader is Iran's most powerful man, he rules for life. If a hardliner prevails in this influential post, the consequences of the escalation spiral between Washington and Tehran could impact for decades.