The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran has picked up pace. Last month, the administration designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terror organization. Last week, it cancelled waivers from US sanctions that allowed some countries to buy Iranian crude oil, aiming to force Iranian oil exports to zero, and only renewed some of the waivers that allowed foreign countries to engage in civil nuclear cooperation with Iran—key to the functioning of the Iran nuclear deal. This week, the White House stated that a routine deployment of and aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf was in fact intended to “send a clear and unmistakable message” to Iran.
To date, however, the maximum pressure campaign has failed to change Iranian behavior. In fact, it seems designed to push Iran to leave the deal and set the scene for military confrontation.
When President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, he re-imposed a wave of unilateral sanctions. These sanctions included prohibitions on the purchase of Iranian oil. But in November 2018, the administration issued waivers to eight countries: China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, and South Korea, who would all be allowed to continue importing Iranian oil for six months, provided they showed significant cuts in their imports. Importantly, though, in issuing these waivers, the administration made a specific stipulation: For the countries buying Iranian oil to benefit from US waivers, the income from these oil sales would have to be funnelled into escrow accounts, to be held for use in the purchase of humanitarian goods. In other words, the money made from oil sales could only be used to buy food and medicine. For example, in December 2018, India and Iran agreed on the exact parameters of the process: India would deposit payments for oil imported from Iran into escrow accounts at five of its banks held by state-run UCO Bank Ltd. Iran would then use that money to purchase humanitarian goods from India.
When Secretary Pompeo announced the end to the US waivers on 15 April, he said it would deprive the Iranian government of a key source of revenue—40 percent of it, to be precise. But the November 2018 US oil waivers had already limited what Iran could do with the money from oil sales, ear-marking it specifically for the purchase of food and medicine. All this additional step did was remove the credit that Iran would have accumulated in each country it sold oil to, to spend on food and medicine. In addition, the administration is reportedly exploring expanding sanctions to target Iranian ability to sell other goods, including petrochemicals, abroad. All these measures clearly go beyond targeting Iranian officials, and now target Iranians directly.
Last week attention turned to the nuclear waivers, which are necessary for the international community to carry out the technical work required for the implementation of Iran’s nuclear agreement with Russia, China, and European countries. That work would convert Iranian nuclear facilities, so they no longer pose a proliferation concern. The waivers also allowed Iran to sell the excess nuclear material that it produces and that poses a proliferation concern to other countries.
The 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), specified that three Iranian facilities—the Fordow enrichment plant, the Arak heavy water reactor, and the Bushehr nuclear power plant—would be converted with the help of foreign countries. The nuclear deal requires both Fordow and Arak to be converted into research facilities; also, Iran needs waivers to continue buying fuel from Russia for the Bushehr plant. There was no fact-based argument in favour of not renewing the nuclear waivers; they enable foreign suppliers and engineers both to work to convert the Iranian facilities so they can’t be used in a nuclear weapons program, and to have insight into Iranian civilian nuclear efforts because of their presence on the ground and access to the facilities.
On 3 May, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford announced the renewal of the waivers allowing work to continue on Arak, Fordow, and Bushehr facilities, but only for 90 days, rather than the previous 180. The decision to renew the waivers is welcome to those who hope all remaining parties to the nuclear deal will continue to implement it. But the engineers involved in converting Iranian facilities will not be able to make significant progress in such a short time. This short extension move effectively kicks the can down the road for 90 days.
Apparently, the Trump administration did not want to risk looking lenient by renewing all nuclear waivers and so revoked two. The first allowed Iran to ship excess heavy-water to Oman, while the second permitted it to ship excess enriched uranium—any amount above a 300-kilogram limit—in exchange for natural uranium. The JCPOA states that excess enriched uranium can be either down-blended (converting uranium enriched to anything above 3.5 percent back to low enriched uranium) or sold. The US decision prevents Iran from selling the excess enriched uranium, only leaving Tehran with the option of down-blending it.
The nuclear deal doesn’t address how Tehran should stay below the 130-ton heavy-water limit contained in the agreement. Ensuring Iran remains below the limit of heavy-water allowed by the JCPOA is essential to ensuring that Iran does not retain a second path to a nuclear weapon. Plutonium—produced in the operation of a heavy water plant—is the second raw material that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon. As such, the deal doesn’t force any party to the agreement or third party to help Iran get the excess heavy water out. But removing the option for other countries to take the excess heavy water seems designed to make it harder for Iran to comply with the limit contained in the JCPOA.
It is unclear what the Trump administration aims to achieve with its “maximum pressure” campaign. Ceasing the oil waivers only restricts Iran’s ability to purchase much needed humanitarian goods for a population that Secretary Pompeo repeatedly states the administration “stands with.” The renewal of the waivers allowing work to continue on Iran’s nuclear facilities is wise, but the shortening of the timeframe will mean that the administration will merely have to revisit the issue in 90 days. The work contemplated under the Iran nuclear deal can’t possibly be completed within three months. What’s more, far from “tightening restrictions on Iran’s program,” preventing it from shipping or selling excess nuclear material abroad seems designed to interfere with Iran’s efforts to implement its commitments under the JCPOA. Reframing a routine deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln strike force to the region only serves to unnecessarily heighten tensions and foster the potential for miscalculation. The only reason to do any of this is to push Iran into a corner, paving the way toward military confrontation—something few want because it will achieve little.