Iran's announced withdrawal from the nuclear deal is yet another form of political blackmail

Tehran threatened to opt out of the 2015 deal to drive a wedge between the US and its historic allies

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14 2019. Sergei Chirikov/File Photo
Powered by automated translation

It is a familiar ploy of the Iranian regime that, whenever it wants to cause problems for its adversaries, it simply resorts to the age-old tactic of blackmail.

The regime’s most obvious use of blackmail came shortly after the 1979 revolution, when Iran held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for a total of 444 days, to pressure the US into extraditing the exiled shah. This prompted a political crisis that effectively ended then US president Jimmy Carter’s chances of being re-elected as president.

The same tactic was used during Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s, when Iran masterminded the abduction of dozens of westerners as part of a blackmail campaign to force Washington and its allies to end their support for Israeli policy.

Now Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is looking to use a different form of the ancient art of blackmail, in his attempts to evade the effects of US sanctions.

For Iran's threat earlier this week – that it intends to resume work on its nuclear programme – should be seen as nothing less than a blatant attempt to drive a wedge between the US and the signatories of the controversial 2015 nuclear deal agreed with Tehran.

Under the terms of the deal signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, Tehran agreed to halt work on its nuclear enrichment plan in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.

But the future of the deal has been in jeopardy ever since the Trump administration took the unilateral decision to withdraw from the agreement last year. This move was criticised by the other signatories, especially in Europe, where politicians argued that this deal was the best means of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons arsenal.

Washington is now seeking to further pressure Iran, after announcing last week that it was ending the waivers that allowed certain countries, such as China, India and Turkey, to continue buying Iranian oil.

As a response, Mr Rouhani warned that in 60 days, his country will resume enrichment of uranium and keep those stocks in the country rather than sell them abroad, unless the European powers, Russia and China meet their commitments to the deal.

This amounts to a classic exercise in blackmail. Up until now, Europe has tried to maintain its obligations to the nuclear deal by setting up its own payments system, known as Instex, to allow European companies to continue trading with the Islamic Republic.

But take-up has been slow, not least because many European businesses are more concerned about losing lucrative contracts with the US than maintaining trade ties with Tehran.

As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me in a London interview earlier this week: “The vast majority of significant entities from the West have moved out of Iran... Compliance with oil sanctions has been near uniform.”

Washington now wants its European allies to follow its lead in withdrawing from the nuclear deal and supporting the US sanctions regime, an initiative that might well be backed by some European capitals, if Iran is seen as posing a direct threat to western interests.

Intelligence reports showing that Tehran had planned to attack American forces in the Middle East prompted Mr Pompeo to cancel a visit to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week and instead, divert to Iraq, where he met Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and other senior officials. During the meeting Mr Pompeo sought assurances that the Iraqis took seriously their responsibilities to protect American personnel based in their country from possible attack by Iranian-backed militias.

The Iranian threats were certainly deemed serious enough for the Trump administration to dispatch an aircraft carrier battle group and B-52 bombers to the Gulf region in response to what American officials called "troubling and escalatory indications" of Iranian activity in the region.

The recent increase in tensions between Washington and Tehran should certainly help to concentrate minds in Europe and elsewhere as to whether it is worth supporting the nuclear deal at a time when the Iranian regime appears intent on provoking a new crisis with the West.

While most European countries remain opposed to endorsing the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, Mr Pompeo told me he believed that they were in agreement when it came to assessing the threat posed to global security.

“They share our assessment of the threat, but they have taken a different approach when it comes to constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions," he said. “We think the ideal course is that every nation join the sanctions regime that exists today.”

Certainly, if the Iranians do decide to engage in hostile acts against the US and its allies, the Europeans' view on future relations with Tehran will be a great deal easier to make.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor