Iran Challenges Trump, Announcing End of Nuclear Restrictions

By David E. Sanger and William J. Broad
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When President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, he justified his unilateral action by saying the accord was flawed, in part because the major restrictions on Iran ended after 15 years, when Tehran would be free to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wanted.

But now, instead of buckling to American pressure, Iran declared on Sunday that those restrictions are over — a decade ahead of schedule. Mr. Trump’s gambit has effectively backfired.

Iran’s announcement essentially sounded the death knell of the 2015 nuclear agreement. And it largely re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago, again bringing them closer to the potential of open conflict with Tehran that was avoided by the accord.

Iran did stop short of abandoning the entire deal on Sunday, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and its foreign minister held open the possibility that his nation would return to its provisions in the future — if Mr. Trump reversed course and lifted the sanctions he has imposed since withdrawing from the accord.

But some leading experts declared that the effort to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy was over. “It’s finished,” David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said in an interview. “If there’s no limitation on production, then there is no deal.”

To some of the Iran deal’s most vociferous critics, the announcement was a welcome development. Among them was John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser who was ousted by Mr. Trump last summer because, the president said, he was concerned Mr. Bolton was forcing him into conflict with Iran.

“Another good day,” Mr. Bolton wrote on Twitter. “Iran rips the mask off the idea it ever fully complied with the nuclear deal, or that it made a strategic decision to forswear nuclear weapons. Now, it’s on to the real job: effectively preventing the ayatollahs from getting such a capability.”

But to much of the world — especially the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, who were partners in the nuclear deal — Mr. Trump’s decision to back out of the accord led to the crisis.
Listen to ‘The Daily’: The Assassination of General Qassim SuleimaniWe piece together the events leading up to the killing of one of the most powerful operatives in the Middle East, a strike that has been called an act of war.
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

Today: From Iraq to Washington, consequences are mounting after the United States assassinated Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. Helene Cooper on why President Trump chose to do it. It’s Monday, January 6.

Helene, what do we know about what led up to this extraordinary decision by the U.S. to take out General Suleimani?Helene Cooper

Well, from what we’ve been able to piece together over the past few days, all of this started on December 27.Archived Recording

And just into Fox, an American contractor was just killed in northern Iraq in a rocket attack, and several U.S. troops were also injured.Helene Cooper

When an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group launched an attack in Iraq that ended up killing an American contractor.Archived Recording

This is just the latest in a spate of similar rocket attacks, but it’s the first time that we’re actually seeing U.S. casualties.Helene Cooper

Right after this happened, the Pentagon drew up the perennial list of options that the Defense Department is always keeping for the president to respond and decide what he’s going to do in order to respond to the attack. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper both flew to Mar-a-Lago, where President Trump was spending the holidays, and met with him, presenting him this list of how do you respond to what the administration immediately determined was an Iranian-backed attack. One option included striking Iranian ships. Another option was striking, perhaps, a missile site or two, or looking for a way to launch airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq that had started this. Also on the list was one extreme option, which was to launch an attack, which would really be a targeted assassination, actually, of General Qassim Suleimani, who is the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, and it’s basically Iran’s very muscular, yet covert, arm of the Iranian military. He’s, in essence, the most senior military commander in Iran. This is something that the Defense Department often does, is they will put an extreme option on the table because they will always give all options to the president, but it’s almost their way of nudging the president toward an option that they prefer, right? If you put something that is viewed as a little bit crazy out there, then you get him to do what you want. President Trump, at the time, did not choose the nuclear option.Archived Recording (Mike Pompeo)

What we did was take a decisive response that makes clear what President Trump has said for months and months and months, which is that we will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.Helene Cooper

He went for, let’s launch an attack on the Shiite militia group that launched the attack that killed the American contractor.Archived Recording 1

The Pentagon says it carried out military strikes in Iraq and Syria, targeting a militia group.Archived Recording 2

A spokesman for the group says U.S. airstrikes killed at least 25 of their fighters and hurt more than 50 others. This happened in Iraq and Syria yesterday.Michael Barbaro

So the president, in the end, chooses a pretty measured kind of tit-for-tat response. We were attacked by missiles, so we will attack with missiles.Helene Cooper

Exactly, and we’ll attack who attacked us.Michael Barbaro

Got it.Archived Recording (Mark Esper)

I would add that, in our discussion today with the president, we discussed with him other options that are available, and I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense, and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.Helene Cooper

So then, a couple of days later, President Trump is still at Mar-a-Lago, and he’s watching TV. He’s still angry about the initial Shiite militia attack that killed the American contractor, but now he’s seeing, on TV, all of these video images of Iranian-backed protesters attacking the American Embassy in Baghdad.Archived Recording 1

A chaotic scene as protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad today, scaling the walls, forcing the gates, and setting fires inside the heavily guarded compound while diplomats were trapped inside. Some protesters were chanting, “Death to America.”Archived Recording 2

[CHANTING]Helene Cooper

And one of the first things that come to his mind is Benghazi and the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi in 2011 that led to the death of four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya.Michael Barbaro

Which was an attack of protesters —Helene Cooper

Yes.Michael Barbaro

— on an American, essentially, embassy-like building.Helene Cooper

Yes.Archived Recording

How would you have handled that, if you were watching, in real time, Americans under fire at the American Consulate, and an ambassador under fire?Archived Recording (Donald Trump)

Well, it would have never taken place, because I think —Helene Cooper

President Trump, during his campaign, and for years after the initial attack in Benghazi, really went after Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, for not doing enough to prevent that. And this had been a rallying cry during his 2016 campaign, so this was a pretty big deal for him.Archived Recording (Donald Trump)

Horribly handled. A horrible leadership. She’s a horrible leader.Helene Cooper

So he’s watching, now, these attacks that are happening under his own watch, and he’s thinking about Benghazi, according to his aides that we talked to. He’s also thinking about the 1979 attack on the American Embassy in Iran that led to the hostage crisis. He’s getting more and more angry, according to his aides, and then he calls for his menu of options again, and this time, he picks the extreme option.Michael Barbaro

And so this is the moment when the president calls for the strike on Suleimani, this top general.Helene Cooper

That’s right. Pentagon officials and administration officials were very surprised, because it’s one thing to give an option to a president. It’s another thing for him to actually do it. They had put that option on the menu for President Trump, not thinking that he would take it, and now he has taken it. So the Defense Department went into action. This is something that the American Defense Department, quite tragically, almost, is very good at doing. We know how to kill people, and we have been tracking, for more than a decade, almost two decades, Qassim Suleimani. So intelligence-wise, we had intelligence reports that he would be flying into Baghdad International Airport that night. There was some question now, as the military is setting up, just sort of the mechanics of how this strike is going to be conducted. The Pentagon had determined that, if he was met, for instance, by Iraqi officials who were friendly towards the United States, they would not go ahead with the strike. If he was not, they would. When General Suleimani’s plane landed, he was met by the head of one of Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shia militias, who was viewed by the United States as somebody who — I think the phrase they used was a “clean party,” meaning it’s O.K. to kill him. It’s kind of a weird way of saying it.Michael Barbaro

So a clean party means somebody we don’t mind killing?Helene Cooper

Exactly. Exactly. And so they authorized the strike and blew up the two-car convoy as it was leaving Baghdad International Airport.Archived Recording 1

In a dramatic escalation of tensions in the Middle East, a U.S. airstrike has killed Iran’s most important military commander.Archived Recording 2

This was a swift, precise military strike that has huge, unpredictable and possibly long-term consequences.Michael Barbaro

So help us to understand the significance of this decision by the president. Why was this ever an option given to him, even if it was the most extreme option? And why do we think he chose it?Helene Cooper

It’s hard to explain why President Trump chose to take this option. I think many of us don’t understand it ourselves. The administration will tell you that he’s a very bad guy, and there’s no denying that. The administration will also tell you that he’s responsible for the death of hundreds of American troops. That is true as well. The issue, though — that has been true for years and years, as American troops have battled some Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, and both Presidents Bush and Obama made the decision not to kill Suleimani because he was a general with the Iranian military, and the United States traditionally does not go around assassinating military generals. The last time we did this was in 1943 during World War II, when we took out a Japanese admiral. Iran is a sovereign state. Assassinating one of their officials is pretty much almost the same thing as assassinating the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or a high-ranking American official, and then own up to it and take credit for it. It’s just not something that is normally often done in broad daylight. But we should also remember that, just a month ago, President Trump authorized the killing of Baghdadi that ISIS had, and he got a lot of very good and deserved credit for that. The administration now, today, will try to make the equivalent that General Suleimani is the same as Baghdadi, that he’s a terrorist, and he has certainly been behind many proxy terrorist acts by Iranian-backed groups in Yemen, in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Syria. So that has been increasing in recent months as the United States has choked off Iran economically.Archived Recording 1

We’re following multiple breaking stories, including Iran’s seizure of at least one oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz today, and there are now conflicting reports about whether a second tanker was seized. Iran is clearly messaging that they hold cards here, but as this continues to go on, what will Iran continue to do?Archived Recording 2

Well, you know, Brianna, I think it’s important that we understand what’s motivating Iran right now. Look, since the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and the administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, those sanctions have absolutely crippled Iran’s economy.Helene Cooper

That led the Iranian regime to start, as a lot of people at the Pentagon say, acting out, and you saw an increase in attacks from Iran, which has been punching out because it was being punched. And that is one of the reasons that the administration has now given for why this strike was taken. The other big reason, though, leads back to this, which is that the administration is saying that Suleimani was planning additional, even more high-profile attacks on the United States and on American interests and assets in the region, and that this was eminent.Archived Recording (Mike Pompeo)

We could see that he was continuing down this path, that there were in fact plots that he was working on that were aimed directly at significant harm to American interests throughout the region, not just in Iraq.Helene Cooper

You know, you’re hearing that from General Milley, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You heard that on Sunday from Secretary of State Pompeo.Archived Recording (Mike Pompeo)

We would’ve been culpably negligent had we not taken this action. The American people would have said that we weren’t doing the right thing to protect and defend American lives.Helene Cooper

Which is the argument that Suleimani was about to launch another imminent attack on American interests.Michael Barbaro

Helene, of all the rationales that we’ve heard from the Trump administration, this seems to be the most important in terms of explaining why we would do this now, take out Suleimani. But of course, the U.S. has a very complicated history of using potential threats to American interests as a rationale for actions overseas, especially in the Middle East. So what does your reporting show about how we should be thinking about this explanation of an imminent attack?Helene Cooper

That’s such an interesting and key question, how we should be thinking about the administration rationale for this attack. Do we believe them, or do we not? Our reporting shows that it depends on where you stand. There is no question that General Suleimani has planned, and was continuing to plan, attacks against the United States through these groups, but that’s been going on for more than 15 years. So the question then becomes, why now? The administration says there was something imminent and big that was about to happen, and they appear to be basing that on intelligence reports that they’ve received about General Suleimani’s travels in the last few days leading up to the attack that took his life. But these same intel sources also say that he had been asked by Ayatollah Khamenei, who’s the supreme leader of Iran, to come back to Iran, that Khomeini had not authorized anything. He had requested permission, and he was not given it, and he was told to come back to Iran. So that then belies the whole question of “imminent.” Does it become something that is happening in two days, or something that hasn’t even been approved yet? So what the administration, then, will have to answer to the American people, if this leads to war, which it might, is whether or not this assassination was worth it.[Music]

Michael Barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Helene, what has been the response in the Middle East in the days since the U.S. killed Suleimani?Helene Cooper

The response since the U.S. killed Suleimani in the Middle East has been huge.Archived Recording


In Iran, where protesters had, two weeks ago, been protesting against the regime, they had now united, apparently, behind the regime, and had turned their ire on the United States.Archived Recording


You’re seeing these familiar views of American flags being burned in the streets.Archived Recording


This massive outpouring of mourners.

It’s certainly ramped up the anti-American sentiment in Iran.Archived Recording


Meanwhile, in Baghdad, you’re seeing similar outpourings of grief, but that’s been accompanied by the Iraqi Parliament voting unanimously this morning to expel the United States from Iraq. They didn’t put forth a timeline for withdrawal, so there’s still some wiggle room there. But particularly the Shiites and the Iraqi government are very, very angry at the United States right now.Archived Recording


You have to understand that Iraq is made up of three very distinct groups — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — but it is predominantly Shiite. Iran is Shiite as well, and the Iraqi government is very close to Iran. The Shiites in Iraq are particularly close to General Suleimani and view him, in many ways, as one of their own. They’re also upset, though, because this was a targeted killing in their country. So in much the same way that if something like this happened in the United States, the United States government would be upset. That’s another reason why the Iraqi government is so angry.Michael Barbaro

Helene, can Iraq and its legislature do that? Can they kick the U.S. troops out of the country?Helene Cooper

They can. Iraq can say, you are no longer welcome. Remember, we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, ostensibly to fight the Islamic State. That battle is largely over. So yes, the Iraqi government can kick the United States military out of Iraq. Whether they do or not, whether this is posturing, I don’t know yet. Every couple of hours, you see something else. Right after the Iraqi Parliament voted, we saw the Pentagon announced that it was suspending the anti-ISIS coalition effort in Iraq. There are 4,000 American troops who’ve been there, and that the troops who are in Iraq will be focused on protecting the American citizens who are still in the country, but who are being advised to leave as soon as possible. It’s like 2013 all over again, when the Obama administration ended combat and pulled troops out of Iraq. And you saw the rise of ISIS because once the United States is gone and out of the country, these other factions are given more room to maneuver and more room to thrive. And so you can see how these events could lead to a resurgence of ISIS if the ground becomes clear for them to move around more freely.Michael Barbaro

And wasn’t Suleimani also leading an Iranian militia that was an enemy of ISIS?Helene Cooper

Yes, there was a de facto cooperation between Suleimani and the United States in the fight against ISIS. They were both opposed to ISIS, and they were both fighting ISIS on the same turf.Michael Barbaro

Right, which would have made, in a very narrow and complicated way, Suleimani an ally in our fight against ISIS, even though he’s our enemy in many other respects.Helene Cooper

He was an ally in our fight against ISIS. That is correct.[Music]

Michael Barbaro

Helene, the ripple effects of all this are very complicated, but I wonder if there’s a simple way of thinking about this, which is that after all these months of provocation and response between the U.S. and Iran, that President Trump felt it was time for the U.S. to remind Iran that, at the end of the day, we are the military superpower, and our advantages over them are extraordinary and represent the kind of deterrent that means, whatever Iran’s ultimate response to this is, it will not be all that severe — that, in a sense, we just called Iran’s bluff.Helene Cooper

That would work if we hadn’t started this to begin with by pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015 under the Obama administration, and which was hated by President Trump and many Republicans.Archived Recording (Donald Trump)

I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making, and let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel, and for the whole of the Middle East.Helene Cooper

They viewed it as too weak, and said that it gave Iran rewards, as it did, by lifting sanctions for stopping their uranium enrichment, but did not address Iran’s misbehavior, and this is the General Suleimani-type misbehavior, in other areas.Archived Recording (Donald Trump)

The problem here is fundamental. We’ve rewarded the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with $150 billion, and we received absolutely nothing in return.Helene Cooper

When we pulled out of the nuclear deal, we reimposed sanctions on Iran, and put even stiffer sanctions on the country. We started to punish companies and basically told the world, you either do business with Iran, or you do business with America. And of course, most of the world chose America. That had the result of completely putting a strangle on the Iranian economy, and that is kind of what has led to the Iranian regime then starting escalating attacks against the United States, because this is a hard-line regime, and they clearly believe that if they’re hurting, they’re going to pull the United States down into the mud with them.Michael Barbaro

But doesn’t it still stand to reason that if that is the situation that we are in, in a post-nuclear deal world, where Iran decides that the only way that it can operate is with attacks through militias that it organizes against the U.S., that taking out a person like Suleimani is a reasonable option, given our superiority over Iran? We have nuclear weapons. They do not. We have superpower military capabilities. They do not. That doesn’t leave them with a whole lot of options. Does it?Helene Cooper

Back in the ‘80s, there was this tanker war, where Iran, Iraq and the U.S. were all going after each other. And they made the Persian Gulf an impossible place, and the price of oil went way up. And it ended up with the United States, by mistake, shooting down an Iranian passenger jet. And Iran made a lot of noise after that happened, and then they quieted down. So there is precedent for that, but I think it’s easily as much of a chance that they don’t quiet. Iran has a whole lot of options to make us hurt. Certainly, the United States is much better equipped, but unless we’re actually suggesting that we’re going to drop a nuclear bomb on downtown Tehran, it’s never that easy once you get into a conventional war. So we went to war in Iraq, which lasted years, and which we are still seeing some of the consequences from. A war with Iran would be so much worse than any kind of war with Iraq. They’re way more sophisticated than Iraq ever was. They have the ability to make it hurt. So the question can be phrased as, is the United States willing to give up the blood and treasure it would take to subdue Iran? Which of course, it could, but it’s going to cost us something. So are we willing to pay that fee?[Music]

Michael Barbaro

Helene, thank you. Thank you for talking to us on a Sunday. Thank you.Helene Cooper

Thank you, Michael.Michael Barbaro

For everything. We appreciate it.Helene Cooper

All right, bye-bye.Michael Barbaro

On Sunday, Iran’s leaders and their allies began to openly discuss plans for retaliation against the United States, saying that they would target America’s military bases and its soldiers. In an interview with CNN, a high-level adviser to Iran’s supreme leader said, quote, “The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow that they have inflicted.” On Twitter, President Trump warned Iran against such a response, writing, quote, “They attacked us, & we hit back. If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!”

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today.Archived Recording (Elizabeth Warren)

Look, it was a targeted attack on a government official, a high-ranking military official for the government of Iran, and what it’s done has moved this country closer to war. We are not safer today than we were before Donald Trump acted.Michael Barbaro

In interviews on Sunday, the leading Democratic candidates for president, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, on CNN, challenged the Trump administration’s rationale for killing General Suleimani and predicted that it could backfire on the U.S.Archived Recording (Pete Buttigieg)

Now, let’s be clear, Qassim Suleimani was a bad figure. He has American blood on his hands. None of us should shed a tear for his death. But just because he deserved it doesn’t mean it was the right strategic move. This is about consequences.Michael Barbaro

In a statement, former Vice President Joe Biden said that the president, quote, “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” and Senator Bernie Sanders, at a campaign stop, accused the president of violating his campaign pledge.Archived Recording (Bernie Sanders)

Trump promised to end endless wars. Tragically, his actions now put us on the path to another war, potentially one that could be even worse than before.Michael Barbaro

And Australia’s government said that it would deploy the country’s military to fight a set of catastrophic fires that have already burned more than 12 million acres, an area larger than Switzerland, killed at least 24 people, and killed or injured hundreds of millions of animals. The Times reports that the fires are now so large and hot that they are creating their own weather patterns, further fueling the blazes. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

Listen 29:58

The president’s unilateral action started a sequence of events — the re-imposition of American sanctions, Iran’s gradual return to nuclear activity over the past year, actions that led to the targeting of General Suleimani — that could be speeding the two countries toward conflict.

Iran’s announcement means that it will no longer observe any limits on the number of centrifuges it can install to enrich uranium or the level to which it enriches it.

Iran did not say if it would resume production at 20 percent, a major leap toward bomb-grade uranium, or beyond. But by allowing inspectors to remain in the country, as the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Tehran would, Iran will have witnesses to its own “maximum pressure” campaign against the West.

The primary American objective in the 2015 agreement was to keep Iran at least a year away from getting enough fuel to fashion a warhead.

Even before Sunday’s announcement, a series of steps by Tehran discarding elements of the agreement had reduced that warning time to a matter of months. The risk now is that uncertainties about how close the Iranians are to their first weapon will grow, and perhaps become fodder for calls in the United States and Israel to take military action.

In essence, Iran is saying it now can produce whatever kind of nuclear fuel it wants, including bomb-grade material.

Now, the United States and Israel must confront the big question: Will they take military or cyberwarfare action to try to cripple those production facilities?

More than a decade ago the United States and Israel cooperated on a mission code-named Olympic Games, the most sophisticated cyberattack in history, to get into the computer code driving the centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear enrichment site and make them blow up.

The Iranians recovered, and rebuilt the facility, tripling the number of centrifuges that existed before the cyberattack and opening a new centrifuge center deep in a mountain called Fordow, which is far harder to bomb. Israel repeatedly considered bombing the facilities, but was stopped by the United States and internal warnings about starting a war.

Now, after the killing of General Suleimani, those restraints could evaporate.

The nuclear deal also laid out unusually stringent scrutiny for all of Iran’s main nuclear facilities — “including daily access” if international atomic inspectors requested it.

Sunday’s announcement left unclear whether Tehran intends to obey that heightened scrutiny or will lower its adherence to the standard level. In a Twitter post, Mr. Zarif, the foreign minister, said “Iran’s full cooperation” with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency “will continue.”

Mr. Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said that reduced visibility into the Iranian nuclear program could end up increasing fears of worst-case scenarios — and, perhaps, miscalculations — related to military strikes and war.

“They were added to gain comfort,” Mr. Albright said of the strengthened inspections. “Having daily access reduced suspicions and the chance of conspiracy theories taking root.”

For example, Mr. Albright said, new ambiguity could darken views in the West on how long it would take Iran to make enough fuel for a single atomic bomb — what nuclear experts call “breakout.” Such estimates are based on the number and efficiency of the whirling machines that concentrate a rare isotope of uranium to levels high enough to make weapon fuel.

The Iran deal was designed to keep Tehran a year or more away from getting enough highly enriched uranium to fashion a single warhead — what international inspectors call “a significant quantity.”

Mr. Albright said his group’s worst-case estimate for an Iranian breakout is four to five months. But some experts, he added, have estimated as little as two months.

He noted that the international inspectors still would have regular access to Iran’s nuclear facilities as part of the safeguard agreements of nuclear nations.

But if “the high level of transparency that the nuclear deal provided” should come to an end, Mr. Albright added, “it could undermine confidence” in the West’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear acts and intentions.

Source: Strategic Study India
Click to read article at Source Iran Challenges Trump, Announcing End of Nuclear Restrictions

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