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Opinion: Iran's calculated escalation in the Persian Gulf

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Opinion: Irans calculated escalation in the Persian Gulf
Opinion: Iran's calculated escalation in the Persian Gulf. AFP/A.Kenare
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Tensions with Iran are escalating, and the Iranian nuclear deal, signed four years ago, appears to be on its last legs. The US has unilaterally withdrawn from the treaty and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, which has, in turn, gradually begun violating some of the treaty's terms. On Thursday, Iranian vessels attempted to take control of a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz following an incident in which the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar a week ago.

All is not lost

None of this is good news, by any standard. But things could be much worse. So far, the actors involved are still following the rules of rational conflict management. And while Iran has begun breaching some the terms of the nuclear deal, it has not turned its back on the treaty entirely. There is still hope.

Read more: Tensions run high after Iran shoots down US drone

Step by step, Iran has been breaking more and more terms of the nuclear treaty, though it could still swiftly reverse its course and undo these steps. Iran is not interested in ratcheting up tensions and provoking war — otherwise, it would have abandoned the nuclear treaty altogether, banned the International Atomic Energy Agency from inspecting its nuclear facilities and ramped up its nuclear weapons program.

Thankfully, Tehran has done none of this. It has, however, begun enriching uranium to 5%, breaking the limit of 3.67% agreed in the nuclear treaty. Even so, this is just a gradual step. Enriching uranium to, say, 20% would have represented a far greater provocation. And Iran's attempt to seize a British oil tanker merely mirrors the seizure of its own tanker last week.

Iran is apparently signaling that it remains open to dialogue. Indeed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron spoke on the phone on July 6. Iran's strategy: To drive a wedge between Europe and the US, which has threatened to impose even harsher sanctions. Tehran hopes Europe will want to pursue a diplomatic solution, and that this will slow the US drive to levy sanctions.

Read more: What's at stake in Iran-US tensions in Persian Gulf

Emulating North Korean model?

Tehran's strategy of cautiously escalating the conflict is intended to create some breathing space. It's not looking to provoke a war, as it could never win. In the long run, Iran's leadership is looking to copy the North Korean model.

Conspicuously, Iranian media has been repeatedly reporting that North Korean long-range missiles are now capable of striking anywhere in the US. Iran, meanwhile, is devoting considerable energy to developing a long-range missile program of its own. As such, it looks likely that US President Donald Trump will respond by imposing even harsher sanctions on the country.

Much therefore depends on the Europeans and whether they will manage to keep trading with Iran. If this trade arrangement falls apart, the Iran nuclear deal will most certainly die. In which case Iran has threatened to start up its nuclear weapons program. Which, in turn, would dangerously escalate the Iranian conflict.

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