Iran has started enriching uranium at levels that breach the 2015 nuclear agreement. The Trump administration withdrew from that Obama-era deal last May, calling it “decaying and rotten.” But the agreement also included European allies, so it’s remained partially in place. That has put those allies in a predicament since the U.S. imposed new economic sanctions on Iran.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and is also a professor of public affairs and history. He says Iran likely violated the terms of the nuclear agreement in order to put pressure on European countries that also signed onto the deal. The pressure, in theory, could motivate them to break sanctions that keep them from importing Iranian oil, among other things. The other hope is that the pressure could get the U.S to lift the sanctions altogether. But he says it’s not clear that the U.S. would do that.
“The United States is in a position now where it will have to escalate its responses to Iranian efforts to break out of the sanctions,” Suri says.
Iran doesn’t appear to have many options at this point. Suri says the sanctions have “backed the Iranians into a corner.”
“We have basically crippled their economy,” Suri says. “We have told them that until they do what we say, we’re not going to lift these sanctions.”
But he says Iran is unlikely to do that, and it’s looking for a “face-saving” way out. Ideally, he says the U.S. would offer a compromise that eases sanctions while keeping limits on Iran’s nuclear development.
Iran’s pressure strategy could work, especially because Suri says most of the allies in the nuclear deal say that Iran was living up to the agreement. They also say that the U.S. withdrew from it unnecessarily. Beyond that, those allies want access to Iranian oil again, which is prohibited under the sanctions.
“They all have incentives to try to help the Iranians, and they all have reasons to be opposed to what the United States is doing,” Suri says.
The conflict between Iran and the U.S. has escalated in other ways lately. Iranian forces shot down a U.S. Navy drone in June, though Iran says the drone had entered Iranian airspace. Suri says this, added to the conflict over the nuclear deal and sanctions, could be possible precursors to war if there’s nothing done to mediate the situation. Adding to the threat is a cadre of people close to President Donald Trump who are advocating for war.
“There are people close to the president who have long argued for military action against Iran,” Suri says.
That includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Suri says it’s hard to envision a way out of the situation because Iran is unlikely to back down and “let their economy crumble.” The same goes for the U.S.; it’s hard to imagine Trump backing down, Suri says. The worst-case scenario is war, but the best-case scenario would be a compromise brought forth by the European allies, which allows the U.S. and Iran to back down without appearing that either has done so.
“It becomes a compromise to reduce the sanctions, and for the Iranians to delay their continued development of nuclear capabilities,” Suri says.
Written by Caroline Covington.