The brewing conflict between America and Iran

THE DRUMS of war are beating once again. An American aircraft-carrier strike group is steaming towards the Persian Gulf, joined by B-52 bombers, after unspecified threats from Iran. John Bolton, the national security adviser, says any attack on America or its allies “will be met with unrelenting force”. In Tehran, meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani says Iran will no longer abide by the terms of the deal signed with America and other world powers, whereby it agreed to strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for economic relief. Iran now looks poised to resume its slow but steady march towards the bomb—giving American hawks like Mr Bolton further grievances.

Just four years ago America and Iran were on a different path. After Barack Obama offered to extend a hand if Iran’s leaders “unclenched their fist”, the two sides came together, leading to the nuclear deal. That promised to set back the Iranian nuclear programme by more than a decade, a prize in itself, and just possibly to break the cycle of threat and counter-threat that have dogged relations since the Iranian revolution 40 years ago.

Today hardliners are ascendant on both sides (see article). Bellicose rhetoric has returned. Mr Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, believe in using economic pressure to topple the Iranian regime and bombs to stop its nuclear programme. In Tehran the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards do not trust America. They are tightening their grip at home and lashing out abroad. In both countries policy is being dictated by intransigents, who risk stumbling into war.

It is probably too late to save the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has been complying, but critics in America complain that its temporary restrictions will ultimately legitimise the nuclear programme and that the deal will not stop Iran from producing missiles or sowing murder and mayhem abroad. President Donald Trump pulled America out of the agreement last year, calling it a “disaster”. It is not, but that damage is done. Renewed sanctions on Iran and the threat to punish anyone who trades with it have wrecked what is left of the agreement. Last week America cancelled waivers that let some countries continue to buy Iranian oil. It is extending sanctions to Iran’s metals exports. Instead of reaping the benefits of co-operation, Iran has been cut off from the global economy. The rial has plummeted, inflation is rising and wages are falling. The economy is in crisis.

Predictably, rather than bringing Iran’s leaders to their knees, America’s belligerence has caused them to stiffen their spines. Even Mr Rouhani, who championed the nuclear deal, has begun to sound like a hawk. Having long hoped that Europe, at least, would honour the promise of the deal, he is exasperated. On the anniversary of America’s exit from the agreement, on May 8th, he said that Iran would begin stockpiling low-enriched uranium and heavy water, which would in sufficient quantities breach its terms. Without economic progress in 60 days, he said, Iran “will not consider any limit” on enrichment. All this suggests that Iran will start moving closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb.

 Read more at The Economist

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