Iran's president declared on Wednesday that he would begin to walk away from the restrictions of a 2015 nuclear deal, and the Trump administration responded with a new round of sanctions against Tehran, reviving a crisis that had been contained for the past four years. The escalation of threats caught the United States' allies in Europe in the crossfire between Washington and Tehran. And while the announcement by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran did not terminate the landmark nuclear accord that was negotiated by world powers, it put it on life support.
Iran threatened Wednesday to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels in 60 days if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its 2015 nuclear deal, raising regional tensions as a U.S. aircraft carrier and bombers headed to the Middle East to confront Tehran. A televised address by President Hassan Rouhani, who once pledged that the landmark deal would draw Iran closer to the West, saw the cleric instead pressure Europe to shield Tehran from the sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement exactly a year earlier.
The U.S. decision to surge additional military forces into the Middle East was based in part on intelligence that the Iranian regime has told some of its proxy forces and surrogates that they can now go after American military personnel and assets in the region, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. The intelligence shows that an Iranian official discussed activating Iranian-backed groups to target Americans, but did not mention targeting the militaries of other nations, the officials said.
UANI IN THE NEWS
One year ago today, President Donald Trump formally pulled the United States out of the deal that his predecessor had made with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for Tehran easing its nuclear activities. Since then, Trump has introduced some of the most robust economic sanctions that have ever been placed on Iran and last month labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, the first time the U.S. has so designated part of another country's government. After Trump pulled out of the deal, which rewarded Iran financially for making narrow and temporary promises to curtail aspects of its nuclear program, critics of the president warned that his policies would put the U.S. on a path to war with Tehran and that the U.S. would be isolated in the world. But a year on, war hasn't broken out and it's worth looking at what has - and hasn't - happened for a clear-eyed assessment of the president's "maximum pressure" strategy.
Jason Brodsky, a policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI): "I think the pressure really is going to be on Iran to come to the table. We're already seeing Zarif making some public overtures, using the Kim Jong-un approach, trying to decouple the president from his advisors. That's a hinted overture, testing the president's receptiveness to talk. I think that Iran is not likely to undertake any action that significantly rocks the boat because it is playing the long game and it wants to wait out the Trump administration at least until 2021 to try to see if they can get a better deal out if a Democrat were to win."
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Europe rejected Iran's 60-day ultimatum and said it viewed Tehran's threat to abandon some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear pact with "great concern." In a statement Thursday, French, German, British foreign ministers and the European Union foreign policy chief said Europe is determined to preserve the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and plans to pursue steps to maintain some trade between Iran and Europe.
As the divide widens between the United States and Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union finds itself trapped between them, with no easy or quick way to respond to its dilemma. President Trump pulled out of the deal, which the European Union championed and which three key European allies of the United States - Britain, Germany and France - all continue to support. The United States has reinstated punishing sanctions intended to disrupt Iranian oil exports and trade.
French President Emmanuel Macron says the Iran nuclear deal must be saved and that the accord's signatories should do all they can to ensure that the Islamic Republic respects it. Macron told reporters on Thursday that "Iran must remain in this agreement and we must do everything we can to ensure that it stays in." Speaking ahead of an EU summit in Romania, Macron lauded the 2015 deal curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions as "a good agreement."
The European Union and the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain on Thursday said they were still committed to the Iran nuclear deal but would not accept ultimatums after Iran announced it was scaling back curbs to its nuclear programme. After Tehran's announcement and threat to take more action that could violate the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran, targeting revues from exports of its industrial metals.
Iran wants to bring its nuclear deal with world powers "back on track" after the U.S. unilateral withdrawal, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said on Thursday, a day after Tehran said it was scaling back curbs to its nuclear programme. "Our goal is to strengthen the JCPOA (the acronym for the nuclear agreement) and bring it back on track," Behrouz Kamalvandi was quoted as saying by IRNA.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite expressed concern on Thursday with Iran's declaration that it was scaling back curbs to its nuclear programme, saying the European Union should seek ways to prevent that. "It is disturbing and I think we need to look what Europe can do, if anything, because if Iran withdraws totally we are again at square one as we were a few years ago," Grybauskaite told reporters arriving for an EU summit.
Iran could be playing with fire as it threatens to ditch its commitments to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, officially known as the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions. If Europe does not step in to protect Iran from those sanctions, salvaging trade with its oil and banking sectors in violation of U.S. rules, Tehran says it will return to higher levels of uranium enrichment, which would potentially pave the way for bomb-making capabilities.
The unraveling of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is now accelerating with Iran's announcement Wednesday that it will stop complying with some parts of the agreement. The stage is set for a confrontation between an unabashedly bellicose United States and an equally defiant Iran. It may all be, as some analysts have suggested, a "game of chicken," but this sort of "game" also can result in a head-on collision.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered new sanctions on Iran, this time targeting the Islamic Republic's export revenues from its industrial metals sector, and vowed to keep squeezing Tehran unless it "fundamentally alters" its policies. The announcement was made on the anniversary of Trump's unilateral withdrawal of the United States from a 2015 landmark deal between Tehran and world powers to curb its nuclear program in exchange for easing some sanctions and hours after Tehran said it would no longer fully comply with the accord.
The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed fresh sanctions targeting Tehran as both countries escalate their rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The White House announced sanctions on the steel, iron, aluminum and copper sectors of the country hours after Iran said it would stop complying with certain parts of the Obama-era nuclear agreement. President Trump's executive order imposing new sanctions on Tehran also came on the one-year anniversary of his announcement that he would withdraw the U.S. from the nuclear deal.
China opposes unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, and curbs on its oil will only worsen volatility in global energy markets, the commerce ministry said on Thursday. President Donald Trump on Wednesday imposed new sanctions on Iran, targeting revenue from its exports of industrial metals, in Washington's latest salvo over a 2015 international accord reining in the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
The United States will not grant any more waivers to any countries that would allow them to buy Iranian oil without facing U.S. sanctions, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday. Brian Hook, Iran Special Envoy, also said in a briefing the global oil market had already factored in Iranian oil exports falling to zero under the Trump administration's economic pressure campaign against Tehran.
Work on setting up a special purpose vehicle for business with Iran is taking longer than expected, a German government spokesman said on Wednesday. "Currently, the last steps need to be taken for this corporation to be able to operate - that includes Iran making the necessary preparations on its side," spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular government news conference.
U.S. President Donald Trump's ambassador to Germany warned companies that they could be barred from the U.S. if they do business with Iran, the latest volley from a diplomat who's made a habit of irritating his hosts in Berlin. Ambassador Richard Grenell also told Bild newspaper that Russia can't be trusted and accused Moscow of using chemical weapons in the U.K., shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet and interfering in elections across Europe.
Saudi Arabia plans to meet all requests for oil purchases it has received for June, notably from countries that had to stop buying Iranian crude because of recent U.S. sanctions. The world's biggest oil exporter has received moderate requests from customers for shipments next month, including from former buyers of Iran's oil, according to a Persian Gulf person familiar with Saudi plans, who asked not to be identified because the matter is confidential.
China bears significant blame for Iran's success in developing a dangerous new array of ballistic missiles, a top White House adviser said the same day the administration imposed significant new sanctions on the Middle Eastern regime. Tim Morrison, the National Security Council's senior director for weapons of mass destruction, asked allies to join the United States in rebuking Beijing for protecting an arms dealer who has made Iran's weapons programs possible.
TERRORISM & EXTREMISM
As the Trump administration doubles down on the contention that Tehran is cooperating with Al Qaeda, another former Iranian commander has reportedly come forward with allegations about an Iran-Al Qaeda link. Said Qasemi, a now-retired spokesperson for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), told Al Arabiya that IRGC deployed undercover soldiers to Bosnia-Herzegovina during its conflict in the 1990s under the pretense that they were members of Tehran's state-endorsed Red Crescent.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has cancelled a visit to Greenland to return to Washington amid an escalation of tensions with Iran. Pompeo had been due to wrap up a trip to Europe on Thursday with a stop in Greenland aimed at promoting the Trump administration's Arctic policies. Those policies were criticized earlier this week for not containing the words "climate change" when Pompeo attended an Arctic Council meeting in Finland.
The United States is not seeking a war with Iran but said it stands ready to respond if Tehran mounts any attack on America, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told Al Arabiya on Wednesday. "We are ready to restore diplomatic ties and welcome the country into the international community but the regime has got to change its behavior," Hook said.
The chief of U.S. Central Command put Iranian leaders on notice Wednesday, warning: "If a fight is to be had ... it won't be a fair fight." Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie's warning followed the military's recent deployment of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East. This deployment, according to the general, sends a clear message to adversaries and allies alike.
There are two ways to view Wednesday's threats from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to abandon the 2015 nuclear bargain with his country. The first is through the lens of Europe's establishment and President Donald Trump's opposition: Look what you've done! After a year of maximum pressure, Iran has finally been pushed to start breaking its commitments to limit its stocks of enriched uranium. As an EU foreign policy official tweeted, Trump's Iran policy "has now triggered Rouhani's move towards less for less."
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
The intelligence that Iran or its proxies were planning something against U.S. interests in the Middle East reached senior U.S. officials on Friday afternoon, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Congress on Wednesday. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said Wednesday that the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force was intended to deter Iran "so that there would be no ambiguity about our preparedness to respond to any threatagainst our people or our partners in the region."
All the Americans could do was shake their heads as a Shiite militia flag waved above their base. The troops from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division were still getting used to living alongside an old enemy. It was the fall of 2016, the start of a U.S.-backed offensive to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. Some Americans who'd come to aid the effort had also fought in the Iraq War, when the U.S. military suffered hundreds of deaths in battles with Shiite militia groups.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iranian media say firefighters managed to put out a blaze that erupted at the historic market in the northwestern city of Tabriz. Thursday's report by the official IRNA news agency says some 16 people were slightly injured in the fire, which erupted around 9 p.m. on Wednesday at the Bazaar of Tabriz, which dates back 1,000 years. IRNA says it took six hours to extinguish the fire. About 150 of the market's 5,500 shops were damaged.
GULF STATES, YEMEN & IRAN
Dozens of Houthi fighters were killed and others injured in a large explosion at a weapons and ammunition depot on Wednesday. The rebel fighters were at the centre of Al Duraihimi city, south-east of Hodeidah, said Col Wathah Al Dubaish, spokesman for the pro-government forces. "The operations room of the joint forces received a call reporting a huge explosion at a weaponry and ammunition cache affiliated with the Houthis, who have held the centre of Al Duraihimi city since August 2018," Col Al Dubaish told the National.
CHINA & IRAN
Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Wednesday amid tensions with Riyadh's regional rival Iran after Tehran announced it was scaling back some commitments under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. China has had to tread a fine line as it has close energy and business relations with both countries, in a part of the world where Beijing has traditionally exerted far less sway than the United States, Russia, France or Britain.
An Air France jet flying from Paris to Mumbai on Wednesday was diverted to an airport in Iran after officials say the aircraft suffered a "malfunction" in the ventilation system. Air France flight 218 departed from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris just after 11:00 a.m. local time. The airline crew decided to land the plane in Shahid Beheshti International Airport in Esfahan, Iran, around 7:35 p.m. after being alerted to a malfunction on board.