/Opinion | Iran breaches a nuclear limit — while Trump flails

Opinion | Iran breaches a nuclear limit — while Trump flails



President Trump speaks to journalists on the South Lawn of the White House on July 5. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord with Iran and reapplied sanctions, Tehran’s response was easily foreseeable and widely predicted: It would start to break through the limits it agreed to in uranium enrichment and other work that could lead it to nuclear weapons. Sure enough, Iranian news agencies reported Monday that the regime had crossed a new line by enriching uranium above the limit set by the deal. It had previously breached the cap on the total stockpile of enriched uranium it was allowed to keep.

Since it has initiated a confrontation that has sharply raised tensions in the Persian Gulf, you’d think the Trump administration would have anticipated the Iranian response and gamed out its next moves, with the aim of achieving tangible objectives without plunging the United States into another Middle East war. Mr. Trump’s response to the Iranian announcements suggests otherwise. “Iran better be careful” was all he had for reporters on Sunday. The empty words once again reveal the president’s lack of either a coherent goal for his “maximum pressure” campaign, or a strategy for achieving it.

Fortunately, Iran’s carefully calibrated response to Mr. Trump’s provocations means there is no emergency. Despite breaching the enrichment limits, the regime remains far from acquiring the material or means to produce a nuclear warhead. Nor is it racing for that capability: Instead, it has postponed further steps for 60 days, while demanding that European states come up with ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions and provide it with the economic benefits the nuclear deal promised.

The Europeans may try, but their previous efforts have faltered. The reality is that few Western companies wish to do business in Iran’s difficult market at the risk of forgoing that of the United States. At the same time, the Trump administration’s hope that the Europeans will respond to the Iranian moves by applying their own sanctions is unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon. French, German and even British leaders, like the Russians and Chinese, blame the United States for withdrawing from the nuclear deal and triggering the Iranian response, which likely also includes recent attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

If Mr. Trump is fortunate, the Europeans will negotiate him out of the mess he has created. French President Emmanuel Macron phoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday to ask for talks. While Iran says it won’t deal with the Trump administration unless it lifts sanctions, perhaps the French or Arab states such as Oman could serve as intermediaries. For success to be possible, Mr. Trump would have to settle on achievable objectives — unlike the list of 12 demands laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which, as he himself acknowledged, are a non-starter.

Mr. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, like the Israeli and Saudi governments, favor regime change in Iran and are open to using U.S. military force. Mr. Trump says he only wants to improve the nuclear deal, and doesn’t want war. If that’s the case, he ought to be turning away from the hawks and looking for a way to deescalate — before it is too late.