Events are unfolding rapidly between the United States and Iran. At time of recording, it was reported that Trump ordered and then called off a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the downing of a US surveillance drone over the gulf of Oman. Meanwhile, Iran is threatening to take actions that would put it in direct violation of the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the JCPOA and Europe is trying is darndest to hold the deal together.
There are a lot of moving pieces right now, so I wanted to bring you an episode that gives you some context and background for understanding and interpreting events as they unfold in the coming weeks and months. To that end, I could think of no better interlocutor than Laicie Heeley. She is the host of a fantastic podcast called Things That Go Boom. She just wrapped up her second season, which was all about the Iran Nuclear Deal. The podcast tells the story behind the Iran nuclear deal in a really interesting and entertaining way, and I’d urge people to check it out.
In our conversation today, we kick off discussing Europe’s efforts to salvage the deal and the tough position Europe finds itself in. And then we have a forward looking conversation about some of the key decisions that Iran, the United States and Europe will be forced to make that could determine whether this crisis leads to war.
The reason why Europe is trying to take steps to address Iran’s concern is because Iran stated, Europe if you don’t do something to bring us some of the benefits of this deal and address some of the sanctions pressure, then we are done and we are pulling out of the JCPOA. Europe has announced a new euro credit line to ease trade between the EU and Iran. This is a last-ditch attempt to keep Iran from leaving the deal.
European companies are the ones being targeted by US sanctions should they do business with Iran. On the other hand, Iran is threatening to enrich uranium above certain thresholds which directly threatens European security. So, Europe is being bullied on both sides.
Europe is in a terrible position. It is tough for them to take Iran’s side fully and cast aside long-standing allies. On the other hand, they could fully side with the Trump administration, throwing out a deal they worked for years to achieve. They did try that second effort at first, and Emmanuel Macron was engaged in trying to come to an agreement with Iran before Trump pulled out. But, it did not come together in time. It is important to remember that Europe negotiated this deal, and put in a great deal of effort to do so.
Iran is deciding whether or not it will enrich uranium above 3.67%, which is the amount allowed in the deal. Can you explain what that really means?
Let’s go back to 2012. We were in a similar position, but Iran’s stockpiles were much larger. People were speculating that Israel might launch an attack on Iran. The reason was, Iran was stockpiling 20% of rich uranium, which is this threshold that experts consider a tipping point. It is hard to go from zero to twenty, because there is a lot of enrichment that has to be done. However, getting from twenty to ninety is a lot easier.
Iran had agreed to ship that uranium out as part of the deal. They have been living with 3.67%, which is what you need for energy. Basically, Iran is threatening to go back to this place where they would go beyond 3.67% or 300 kg. This would take us back to where we were before the deal. Besides bombs, you would need 20% for medical isotopes such as chemotherapy or imaging.
If they start trying to get to 20%, that is when alarm bells go off.
Iran has said that they will need that 20% to power various reactors for energy and medical purposes. This is the same argument they were making before the deal.
How would you predict the world response?
We have two choices. The Trump administration will be driving this train in a lot of ways. The reason Iran is making these moves is as a reaction to the Trump administration. The US raised sanctions as far as they can go. Iran’s economy is hurting and they must do something. There are still things we can do to signal to Iran that we want to negotiate. We are at the point where there are not a lot of additional sanctions the US can enforce. However, we can raise military pressure and threaten military action. If you are for the strategy of maximum pressure, then you take that risk of going to war. Essentially, every military commander and head of the Pentagon has said it is not a good idea to go to war with Iran. So, we either have a war with Iran, or we re-enter something like the JCPOA, or we negotiate a new deal.
War seems like the probable outcome. What are some domestic political considerations in Iran that would suggest that some elements of the regime want to provoke the US?
Iran has an interesting political environment. Folks refer to the Ayatollah as the supreme leader and people assume this is a dictatorship situation and people do not have much say. That is an unfair assumption. Its ecosystem is complicated. For instance, the Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian who was held in Iran for 544 days, argued that he was taken captive because the revolutionary guard wanted to scuttle the Iran deal. So, there are competing factions.
What indicators will you look towards that suggest which outcome is more likely?
We will have to watch the Trump administration. When we see them sanctioning Javad Zarif or the Ayatollah – that is a provocative move. If we don’t want to escalate the pressure, then we want to see the opposite from the Trump administration. Increased pressure means they are willing to risk of war.
Update: As of July 1st, reports show that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile tops 300kg.