Iran crossed a first threshold on Monday 8 July for non-compliance with its obligations under the 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA). It exceeds the stock of enriched uranium it is authorized to hold and has begun to increase the enrichment of its uranium beyond the level permitted by the JCPOA.
However, observers downplay the scope of these offences. Tehran's measures only marginally alter Iranian capacities. They seem intended to put pressure on Europeans in particular in order to obtain economic compensation from them for the American sanctions, rather than to relaunch a programme to gain access to the bomb. They are described as "carefully calibrated" and reversible.
As for another aspect of Iranian issues - regional tensions - , calm prevails for the moment, although probably temporarily (how will Tehran react to the arrest of one of its tankers off Gibraltar?). This lull is welcome following a period of withdrawal from Irak of American personnel in fear of Iranian attacks against American interests, "incidents" with several tankers in the Arabian Sea, the shot down of an American drone and an American retaliation against the Iranian territory cancelled by President Trump at the last minute.
Moreover, we can speculate that by progressively pulling out of the JCPOA (they have indicated that they will push the limits further in 60 days if they do not obtain satisfaction), the Iranians intend to give themselves some leverage to resume negotiations with Washington. This is the theory that "they must hold their heads high to renegotiate".
All these considerations may be correct. However, there are several reasons to be cautious about optimism:
- By cancelling in April the "waivers" (exemptions) to the ban on the purchase of Iranian oil, the American administration has plunged the Iranian economy into a situation of asphyxia. It practices a kind of tourniquet strategy.
- Washington has added to the cancellation of the exemptions a whole series of vexatious measures, perceived in any case as humiliating by Tehran, including the inclusion of Revolutionary Guards on the list of terrorist organizations and sanctions against the Supreme Leader.
- In this situation, the Iranian authorities have little choice but to raise tensions, both regionally and on the nuclear issue. For them, it is probably a necessity of internal politics (defending the country's dignity), a means of not allowing themselves to be marginalized at the international level (even China and Russia do not consider the Iranian issue a priori as essential), and finally, as already indicated, to put themselves in a position to resume negotiations.
- Unlike the Americans, who can gradually tighten the tourniquet, the Iranians only have the strategy of the unpinned grenade: a gradual resumption of their nuclear programme is basically indifferent to the Americans and even plays into the hands of Washington's "hawks" eager to fight it; the real threat posed by Tehran is to set fire to the region, first by attacking third parties, then, one day, American interests.
On this last point, as much as on the nuclear issue, it is in theory a calculated threat. Iranian strategists intend to exploit the weakness of Mr. Trump's position: in the event of a real challenge to American interests in Iraq, the Gulf or elsewhere, would he be ready to go to war? The downing of the drone suggests that this is not the case, at least not in the pre-election period. Consequently, the American President risks finding himself in a scenario of attacks on America's interests, and, in turn, in a humiliating position, or at least in the face of a dilemma: not reacting or engaging in unpopular (amongst his own electoral base) military intervention.