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Why Iran’s uranium announcement reflects ‘dangerous dynamic’ with the U.S.

Iran says it now has more low-enriched uranium than the level agreed upon in the 2015 nuclear deal, from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. In response, the White House says it will continue its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. William Brangham talks to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Karim Sadjadpour about what the latest news means for tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

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  • William Brangham:

    As we mentioned earlier, Iran declared that it is now surpassed the low-enriched uranium that it agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal.

    The White House responded by saying that it would continue its maximum pressure campaign on the regime until Tehran changes course. This comes amid increasing tension with Iran, after the Iranians shot down an American drone two weeks ago and President Trump nearly launched a retaliatory strike.

    For more on what today's announcement means for Iran, I'm joined by Karim Sadjadpour. He's a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Welcome back.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Great to be with you.

  • William Brangham:

    Help us explain the significance of Iran blowing past this low-enriched uranium threshold.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    So, I think just as the United States builds leverage against Iran with economic sanctions, Iran builds leverage against the United States by either restarting, reconstituting its nuclear activities or escalating in the region.

    And so I think it was predicted and predictable that Iran would eventually start to increase its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. It will start to reduce its cooperation with international weapons inspectors.

    I don't think this should be confused that Iran is making a mad dash towards a nuclear weapon. This is a very calibrated escalation. And, essentially, what Iran is trying to do is to create international divisions, rather than international unity.

  • William Brangham:

    As you mentioned, this is something of a two-pronged strategy, to both sort of test the limits of the deal and how far they can get away with that, but then, also, if you believe U.S. intelligence, to disrupt the flow of oil, as we saw the damage to those tankers coming out of the Persian Gulf.

    Is your sense that these — that this approach is going to work for the Iranians? Are they going to get their goal?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think the Iranians are probably going — are trying to test President Trump's resolve.

    I mean, we have seen, in other contexts, for example, Venezuela, President Trump, after a while, started to question the wisdom of some of his hard-line advisers, like John Bolton. And I think the Iranians feel that if they continue to resist and they continue to show the world that there are going to be costs for America's pressure campaign against Iran, that, at some point, Trump may start to question the wisdom of his approach.

  • William Brangham:

    And the Iranians said, we have to do this because the U.S. pulls out of the deal and imposes these sanctions, and that's really biting on the Iranian economy, and we want the Europeans to step up and fill the gap.

    Do you think the Europeans are going to try to fill that and help Iran out?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    It's very difficult for Europeans, because, essentially, U.S. sanctions force companies and countries around the world to make a very simple choice: Do you want to do business with America or do you want to do business with Iran?

    So even though the Europeans are sympathetic to Iran, they believe that it is the Trump administration which violated the nuclear deal and is provoking Iran to escalate, for major European companies, you know, their business in Iran is minuscule compared to their business in the United States.

    And so I think the Europeans really have limited ability to save the Iranian economy from its downward spiral.

  • William Brangham:

    So how do you imagine — you touched on how the president might be getting cold feet about further escalation, but play it out. How do you imagine that the U.S. will respond?

    We heard the president say the Iranians are playing with fire. What do you imagine happens next?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    I think we're in a dangerous situation, because President Trump has simultaneously provoked escalatory cycle with Iran, while also making it clear to the world that he doesn't want conflict, that, you know, conflict is not good for his reelection campaign in the United States.

    And so it could lead to an Iranian miscalculation, Iran believing that they need to react to U.S. pressure, they need to counterescalate, and they may be able to get in a few free punches because the United States doesn't want war.

    And so I think we're in a dangerous dynamic. And it's really driven not by the difference — differing interests of two nation states, America and Iran, but two very different leaders, 73-year-old Donald Trump and 80-year-old Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

  • William Brangham:

    How does this play in Iranian domestic politics? What are they — what constituency there are they trying to satisfy? What are the demands there?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    It's an important question.

    And one of the things we haven't seen reported much is the state of the Iranian economy and popular frustration in Iran. In fact, the Iranian government has been prohibiting reporting from Iran, because I think there's growing frustration. There's tremendous economic discontent.

    This is a country which has one of the world's highest resources of oil. They went from exporting 2.5 million barrels per day of oil. They're now down to 300,000, 400,000 barrels per day.

    So, I think, with the passage of time, especially — it's a hot summer now in Iran — there's going to be growing pressure on the regime to simply do a deal, or at least negotiate with the United States, especially when President Trump is making it very clear he wants to negotiate with Iran.

  • William Brangham:

    So, in that sense, the president's strategy thus far may pay the dividends that the president wants.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, that's assuming it doesn't ensnare the United States into some type of a conflict situation, which very few people in the United States and very few people in Iran want.

    And so I think it's going to take tremendous discipline. And it's also going to require the United States to send a clear signal to Iran about, what is America's endgame? Because, currently, you have a president, Trump, who has consistently told the Iranians he just wants a deal, he wants negotiations.

    But you have a national security in John Bolton who sent the opposite signal, who has advocated for military streaks and regime change in Iran. And so the Iranian regime needs to be clear about, you know, what is America's endgame?

    You really have — you know, you have a U.S. president with no clear strategy, an Iranian supreme leader with only one clear strategy, which is resistance against America.

  • William Brangham:

    Karim Sadjadpour, as always, thank you very much.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Thank you, William.

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