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Iran’s Response To New Western Criticism Masks a Devious Strategy

On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry offered a harsh response to European criticisms after the Iranian regime took its latest provocative steps away from the 2015 nuclear deal. It has already been a year since the Iranian regime announced that it would no longer be abiding by any of the restrictions it adopted under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But since then, violations have continued to accumulate as nuclear facilities sought to resume and then exceed the scale of activity they’d achieved before the deal went into effect.

Although Western concerns over that trend are both predictable and well-justified, this has not stopped the Iranians from dismissing expressions of that concern as “absurd nonsense.” Those were the words that the regime’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif used on Twitter while also levying unrelated accusations against the deal’s European signatories. Zarif took particular aim at traditional Western support of Iran’s regional adversaries, who have also used the latest Iranian provocations as an opportunity to draw attention to their concerns about nuclear activities.

Zarif’s comments on Twitter were specifically directed against “E3 leaders” and French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian. The latter appeared in media interviews on Saturday to say that Iran’s recent decision to start work on the production of uranium metal constitutes a deliberate and recognizable advancement of its nuclear weapons capability. The trio of nations known as the E3 – France, the United Kingdom, and Germany – implied the same conclusion in a statement released the same day. It noted that Iran has “no credible civilian use” for uranium metal.

Despite all this, the overall European position on the JCPOA apparently remains unchanged for now. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell underscored “deep regrets” and “deep concerns” on Monday, but also reiterated his longstanding commitment to preserving the nuclear deal in its present form. Le Drian informally challenged that position by urging negotiations over Iran’s buildup of ballistic missiles and “destabilization of its neighbors in the region,” but his perspective is still a long way off from being generally adopted as a basis for European policy.

At the beginning of December, the Iranian parliament passed a bill that sets the stage for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to be kicked out of the country if an internationally agreed-upon arrangement is not reestablished.

Many European policymakers seem to be pushing for sending the new US administration early signals that it should re-enter the JCPOA without modification and without holding Iran accountable for the systematic violations it has made over the past two years.

Earlier this month, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) captured a South Korean tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, then detained it for use as an apparent bargaining chip in negotiations over assets that remain frozen in South Korean banks. More recently, as discussions over uranium metal were ongoing, it was revealed that Iran had arrested another American citizen and sentenced him to 10 years in prison on an unsubstantiated charge of spying. And in the days ahead, an Iranian diplomat is scheduled for sentencing by a Belgian court, in connection with his attempt to bomb an Iranian expatriate gathering near Paris in 2018.

These three incidents represent three entirely different categories of Iran’s malign activity, but they all have something in common. They are all motivated, at least in part, by a desire by the Iranian regime to keep violent pressure on its adversaries, in hopes of securing either new concessions or securing some type of surrender or collapse. They all have also been either excused or downplayed on the international stage by the regime’s Foreign Minister Zarif, who insists that hostage situations are only a matter for the courts and that Iranian diplomats are owed legal immunity even when they are believed to be the masterminds of a terrorist plot.

Zarif is sure to push for an abrupt end to US sanctions and a return to the same terms that Iran found so easy to violate over the past two years. It might be wishful thinking but, the Western policymakers must be careful not to fall back on old, conciliatory habits, no matter how much Zarif plays the innocent victim.