The Iranian regime’s narrative of safeguarding national sovereignty and national pride does not take into account the pain inflicted by layers of sanctions imposed on the country by the US and the UN alike. Instead of being subdued, the religious establishment doubles down by adopting an aggressive posture of defiance: The more Iran is attacked and cornered, the more resilient, reactive and aggressive it will become. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA has exposed Iran’s strategic ambitions, confirming earlier assessments about its aspirations. Writes Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Iran’s recent decision to further violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) uranium enrichment limit coincided with its plan to limit its nuclear inspection obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since January, Iran has produced about 65 kg of 20 percent highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be turned into weapons-grade quality within a few weeks. Iran is way past its pre-JCPOA enrichment stockpiles in qualitative terms, while quickly amassing further quantities. With the country capable of producing nine grams of HEU per hour, President Hassan Rouhani has boasted that Iran is capable of enriching up to 90 percent purity.
Why should the world worry that Tehran is taking all these steps in a blatant manner? Iran has significantly reduced its breakout time and is dashing toward developing a nuclear bomb.
It is telling how Iran claims that it is invincible amid multifaceted threats and crises. It recently announced its alleged ability to not only reactivate the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities soon, but also produce HEU up to 60 percent purity through two cascades of more advanced centrifuges. This morale-raising announcement reflects Iran’s national pride and the importance of its nuclear program. More than a sign of capability, the announcement is an expression of a strategic objective.
The Iranian regime’s narrative of safeguarding national sovereignty and national pride does not take into account the pain inflicted by layers of sanctions imposed on the country by the US and the UN alike. Instead of being subdued, the religious establishment doubles down by adopting an aggressive posture of defiance: The more Iran is attacked and cornered, the more resilient, reactive and aggressive it will become. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA has exposed Iran’s strategic ambitions, confirming earlier assessments about its aspirations.
In its 50-year-long history, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has not proven to be a thumping success. The IAEA safeguards failed to uncover nuclear weapon programs in Iraq, Libya and South Africa. Taiwan repeatedly dodged the world with its covert nuclear program until it was eventually caught and signed the NPT. The additional safeguard system of the IAEA was put in place to inspect and verify a range of sites and employ new sets of sampling methods, but the protocol is not mandatory. As feared in the case of Iran, an aspiring nuclear country can reach a level of threat while satisfying the IAEA’s safeguard merits. Some states, like Iran, question the preferential treatment given to certain other countries in relation to enriching and managing radioactive uranium without considering their own transparency and political commitment to non-proliferation. Tehran has admitted to having a covert nuclear program before dismantling it. Despite their technological advancements due to their vast industrial base, Japan and Sweden, for instance, have acted firmly against the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The swift decision to raise uranium enrichment up to 60 percent is evidently similar to the track followed by North Korea while being an NPT signatory. It is a separate debate if Pyongyang acquired nuclear weapons while being an NPT signatory or after exiting the treaty. Unlike Iran, North Korea does not have an expansionist and disruptive ideology.
The other question at hand is no less important: What can Iran achieve with HEU if it does not pursue a nuclear program? The NPT does not prohibit the use of nuclear energy (through smaller reactors) in submarines and ships. Hence, Tehran can remain a member of the NPT but continue to develop sophisticated nuclear reactors and amass HEU to power its submarines and, at some stage, large battleships. The IAEA forbids any use of nuclear propulsion or energy in weapon systems beyond the realm of peaceful use, so none of Iran’s missiles can be powered by small nuclear reactors, even if Tehran is able to overcome the mammoth technological challenges that even the US, Russia and China are attempting to get the better of.
The decision to raise the bar for HEU during the Vienna talks perfectly sums up Iran’s nuclear desperation. Instead of choosing to take the moral high ground at the negotiation table, it opted to justify its “victimhood” with another massive breach of the nuclear deal — the deal the meetings are intended to amend.
It is noteworthy that US policy over the last four years, coupled with Iran’s ongoing belligerency, has created a complex quagmire for global nuclear diplomacy. Since the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran’s nuclear enrichment and development activities have continued, while the deal’s sunset provision dates are fast approaching. The US returning to the JCPOA and Iran’s full compliance will not roll back the gains Tehran has made. Hence, a tense and complicated negotiation process will ensue. In the case of Washington and Tehran sticking firmly to their respective positions, the nuclear deal will be destined for the dustbin of history. In such an eventuality, not only would Iran be capable of enriching weapons-grade uranium, but it might be just a few weeks away from actually doing so.
While there appears to be much hype among the Khomeinists for defiant policies, some people are defecting due to the regime’s high-handed oppression and irrational policies. The low-profile community of defectors continues to leak vital information, while having the courage to carry out high-risk operations, ranging from smuggling the Stuxnet virus into Natanz to stealing a tranche of secret documents and smuggling them out of the country. It is also believed that these defectors informed a foreign agency about the late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani’s whereabouts, helped to plant a sophisticated bomb to assassinate Iran’s key nuclear scientist, and transported explosives into Natanz, the highly secure uranium enrichment facility. The most recent explosion inside Natanz was not a quick sabotage act, but was meticulously timed for the day after Iran activated its more advanced centrifuges. It does not seem far-fetched to believe that some defectors might be willing to provide enriched uranium to terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon or elsewhere. After all, the history of smuggling radioactive material is closely tied to Iran. When the motive is not money, it is revenge.
The Vienna talks must not appease Iran for its belligerent behavior. The forum must rightfully address the elephant in the room: Iran’s destabilizing and rogue behavior in the Middle East and beyond. US President Joe Biden might be keen to shift his administration’s geopolitical focus to China, but this must not happen by acting irresponsibly in one of the world’s most strategic and economically important regions. The White House must consider the risks of a covert Iranian nuclear program; its stockpiling of HEU under the NPT umbrella; increasing Iranian knowhow in designing and developing newer centrifuges; the prospect of Tehran creating smaller reactors; and, last but not least, its long-range, high-speed and heavy payload-carrying ballistic and cruise missiles. The US returning to the JCPOA against the backdrop of such Iranian aggression would further undermine the spirit of the flawed nuclear deal, which Iran’s neighbors have not found comforting.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah).