By Alejo Vidal Quadras
Foreign Ministers representing the three European signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal responded with predictable condemnation this week when the Iranian regime announced that it had resumed enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. The move comes roughly a year after Iran abandoned all of the restrictions it had ostensibly imposed on its nuclear enrichment and stockpiling when the deal went into place in 2016.
This latest escalation is especially significant because it openly places Iranian nuclear facilities only a short technical step away from further enriching uranium to the 90 percent level, which would make the material weapons-grade. Furthermore, the new enrichment is taking place at a well-known facility at Fordow, which was chosen to be the site of such activity because it is built into the side of a mountain as a way of guarding against aerial bombardment.
The location of the 20 percent enrichment suggests that Iran is guarding against the prospect of retaliation from foreign adversaries. Neither the nations of Europe nor the United States have given any indication they have an interest in taking concrete steps to prevent Iran from moving forward with its violations. And while the US is still applying “maximum pressure” via economic sanctions for the time being, its European allies remain largely unwilling to even use that strategy.
“We strongly urge Iran to stop enriching uranium to up to 20 percent without delay,” the three European signatories said in their recent statement, adding that they also expect Iran to “reverse its enrichment program to the limits agreed in the [agreement] and to refrain from any further escalatory steps which would further reduce the space for effective diplomacy.” The international community should now be asking the same question that Iran is no doubt already asking in response to this statement: “Or what?”
Europe’s expectations are reasonably clear, but what is not at all clear is what consequences, if any, the Iranian regime would face if it refused to fulfill those expectations. Until this is clarified, the Foreign Ministers’ statement can only be regarded as empty words. And words alone cannot possibly be expected to have a meaningful impact on the behavior of a regime that is so deeply committed to malign activities aimed at extracting concessions from its negotiating partners.
The regime has a long history of utilizing this strategy. And shockingly, it has paid dividends in the past. Yet Western powers have rarely adjusted their own strategies to match. They have continued operating on the plainly naive assumption that if extend a friendly hand to the “moderate” elements within the Iranian regime, they successfully encourage more moderate behaviors which do not threaten Western interests, territory, or lives.
Chief among those “moderates” are Iranian regime’s current President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Both men have held their offices since more than two years before the conclusion of negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Also both men have spent that entire time promoting and defending the actions and ideological goals of their “rival” faction, the “hardliners” associated with clerical Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. And over the past year, Rouhani and Zarif have specifically and repeatedly affirmed their support for that faction’s position on nuclear deal and the violations that have rendered the agreement devoid of value.
This should have come as no surprise to Western policymakers. After all, Rouhani’s prior career included a stint as his country’s chief nuclear negotiator, after which point he openly bragged that he and his colleagues had forestalled American and European pressures by creating an atmosphere of apparent cooperation, thereby leaving Tehran free to pursue advancements to certain aspects of its nuclear program which were not then under close scrutiny. Many critics of the JCPOA understandably feared this same outcome on a much larger scale, and those fears have been amplified by the news of Iran rapidly accelerating its nuclear enrichment.
Whatever the precise consequences of that acceleration may be, there is a larger danger at hand which stems from the sense of impunity that is reinforced in Tehran if the regime continues these sorts of provocations and faces no consequences. Inevitably, both “hardliners” and “moderates” will act as one in promoting new provocative activities. And when they still face no real consequences – no further economic sanctions, no closures of diplomatic posts, and no expansion of coalitions opposing Iran’s regional influence – they will move right along to the next item in that category.
If the past week is any indication, Tehran is prepared to take those steps very rapidly. On the very same day that uranium expansion accelerated, Iranian naval forces also captured a South Korean-flagged tanker and began holding it hostage, apparently in hopes of securing the release of funds frozen in South Korean banks. The move is reminiscent of countless other instances of terrorist kidnapping aimed at securing prisoner swaps or other forms of ransom from foreign adversaries. It is also consistent with the JCPOA violations, insofar as that agreement too is being held hostage – a symbol of the looming possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons capability, which the European Union is desperate to avoid.
Unfortunately, that desperation is pointless if it only spurs the Western world to fecklessness instead of action. If Iran doesn’t face consequences for the latest violation, it will only have further incentive to hold the nuclear weapons issue over the heads of its Western adversaries, believing there is little to be lost and everything to be gained. Arguably worse still, if Europe continues refusing to outline consequences for this, the Iranian regime principle of hostage-taking will be reinforced, and more foreign nationals will fall into the regime’s hands to be used as bargaining chips.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)