War Stories

Does Trump Want Iran to Try to Go Nuclear?

It’s the only explanation for his latest move that makes sense.

An Iranian flag flying in front of a nuclear power plant.
Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant on Nov. 10. Atta Kenare/Getty Images

Despite a pandemic, a looming cold war with China, and the harshest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Donald Trump still has room on his plate for provoking a war with Iran.

That is the only plausible interpretation of his decision, reported by the Washington Post this week, to end the sanction waivers that allow Russian, Chinese, and European companies to do work at Iranian nuclear sites.

The odd thing about this decision is that those companies were helping to prevent Iran from reviving its nuclear program. With the waivers removed, the brakes will be lifted, and Iran is likely once again to enrich uranium at levels approaching what’s needed to build bombs. The Post quotes Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, as saying, “The Trump administration is shooting itself in the foot with this move.”

This would be true if Trump’s prime motive in dealing with Iran were to block it from going nuclear. But the move makes perfect sense if his larger aims are to put the final nail in the coffin of the Iran nuclear deal, which his nemesis, Barack Obama, negotiated in 2015—and to crush the Iranian regime, in part by forcing it to get back in the nuclear business, which would provide an excuse for Trump to bomb its facilities and perhaps other targets too.

The 2015 accord—which was signed by the U.S., Iran, and five other countries, then codified into a U.N. resolution—required Iran to dismantle nearly all of its nuclear infrastructure, in exchange for which the other countries would lift most of their economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. (Some sanctions, penalizing Iran for its ballistic missiles and its support of terrorists, would remain.) When Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 (against the advice of his top advisers at the time), he reimposed the sanctions—then, one year later, imposed “secondary sanctions” against other countries that did business with Iran.

However, even Trump’s most hawkish advisers on the subject realized that not all business with Iran should be canceled or penalized. One aspect of the 2015 deal called for Russia to take away spent fuel from Iranian reactors and return it in a form that could not be used to make bombs. Another article allowed Iran to import uranium enriched to the level of 20 percent purity, which was required for operations at the Tehran Research Reactor. Still another clause allowed other countries to help modify Iran’s Arak heavy-water research reactor so it’s unable to produce plutonium, another path to atomic weapons. If those activities were halted, Iran would have no choice but to enrich its own uranium to 20 percent or to process plutonium. A foreign presence at the nuclear sites also helps ensure that Iran is abiding by the deal—supplementing the inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. So Trump waived the sanctions on those transactions.

These are the waivers that Trump has now decided to cancel. After a 60-day period, allowing the foreign companies to wind down their programs, the United States will apply sanctions if they continue to help Iran—even though they’re stopping Iran from going nuclear.

According to the Post, some U.S. officials, including Iran hawks, argued against lifting the waivers. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fiercely made the case in favor—and, as often happens, won the day. He’d pushed for taking the action in March, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued for keeping the waivers in place. Trump extended them for another 60 days. When that period expired, Pompeo pounced and, this time, prevailed.

Pompeo has long been an insistent advocate of regime change in Tehran, and he has shrewdly pushed Trump in that direction at key moments. With Trump keen to excite his base in the run-up to the 2020 election, Pompeo apparently saw the expiration of the 60-day extension as an ideal time for a push.

The 2015 deal barred Iran from enriching uranium at levels above 3.67 percent over the subsequent 15 years. Enrichment below this level—much too low to produce an A-bomb—is permitted not only by the deal but also by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed long ago. Weapons-grade uranium requires enrichment of 90 percent purity. But once enrichment reaches 20 percent, it doesn’t take much effort or time to get to 90.

If the Iranians start enriching uranium to 20 percent, or start undoing the modifications at the Akar heavy-water reactor, Pompeo will no doubt sound the alarm that they are on the verge of becoming a nuclear-armed state—and push for action to prevent that. He will make this push with no support from European or Asian allies and much bitterness from his own colleagues within the Trump administration. The next move would be up to Trump, who may have to decide between bombing Iran or letting Iran approach the verge of going nuclear. If he faces this dilemma, it will be the result of his own decisions—first, to pull out of the deal; second, to lift the sanction waivers. It’s not too late now to reconsider the latter—for his own good, as well as for the rest of us.