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Where does Trump’s showdown with Tehran leave Iran’s nuke program?

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Picture shows general view of Isfahan (UCF) nuclear power plant (UCF) 295 km from Tehran, March 2005

Picture shows general view of Isfahan (UCF) nuclear power plant (UCF) 295 km from Tehran, March 2005. (photo credit: HENGHAMEH FAHIMI / AFP)

It is coming down to a game of chicken.

That’s right. The very complicated and important issue of a nuclear Iran, the future of the nuclear deal with the West, and the long-term security for the West and Israel, have all come down to a staring contest.

After months of hearing President Donald Trump threaten to tear up the nuclear deal, Iran has escalated its threats at the US and the West in the past few days.

Iran’s atomic energy agency said on Wednesday that reimposition of sanctions on Iran by the US would violate the nuclear deal and that Tehran would likely respond by increasing its enrichment of uranium.

Trump is expected to decide any day now whether to continue suspending US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports as part of the deal which reduced economic pressure on the Islamic Republic in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

“Iran is ready to increase the speed of its nuclear activities in various areas, especially enrichment, several times more than [in the] pre-JCPOA [nuclear deal] era,” Behrooz Kamalvandi, the deputy chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iranian national TV on Wednesday.

Kamalvandi said, “If suspension of the sanctions will not be extended, Iran will take the first retaliatory action immediately.”

Prior to that, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on Monday that Tehran might reconsider its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency if the US reneged on sanctions relief.

The IAEA is responsible for overseeing Iran’s compliance with the deal’s nuclear restrictions.

Where do these threats leave things?

First, it seems likely that Trump will opt for some kind of middle-of-the-road solution – pushing for sanctions on Iran’s non-nuclear activities, which are not part of the deal, or kicking the can down the road a few more months for more negotiations in Congress and with Europe.

But Iran’s threats also expose each side of the Iran nuclear debate.

On the one hand, it would seem to be the height of foolishness to see whether Iran will follow through with its threat and to allow the opportunity for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon in the near future when it is currently complying with the deal according to both Israeli and US intelligence.

Keeping watch for violations of the deal and being ready to punish Iran if it does violate it is far different than ending the deal when there is no current evidence that Iran is breaking with its terms and while there is no plan in place to slow Iran from a sprint to the bomb.

On the other hand, Iran’s threat also exposes some of the deal’s shallowness and therefore the need for the deal to be modified. If Iran can so quickly kick the IAEA out and immediately start enriching uranium at a faster and higher rate than before the deal, what safety has the deal bought?

Don’t Iran’s threats prove the deal’s critics’ point that the sunset clause, permitting Iran to continue experiments with advanced centrifuges, and having Iran disassemble instead of destroy its thousands of centrifuges means that Iran will be able to walk out to a nuclear weapon at the end of the deal?

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