The recent drone attacks on the Iranian defence forces’ installations are a stark reminder to the revolutionary regime that in the neighbourhood, especially in the Gulf region, countries are looking for an opportunity to sabotage the Iranian nuclear programme before it becomes a nuclear weapon state.
While Iran has not explained yet what the facility in the city of Isfahan manufactured, the assault threatened to again raise tensions in the region, with Tehran blaming Israel for the drone attack – a conclusion that United States officials also reached. While tensions between Iran and its Gulf rivals continue, reports suggest Iran’s supply of drones to Russia has added a dangerous dimension to the overall security situation in the region.
The yawning gap in negotiations between Iran and nuclear deal partners at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters gave credence to speculations that the US may have winked at the Israelis to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. In doing so, Israelis may bank on the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, if not the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, especially Qatar and Oman. The Israeli attack on the Iranian facility may also be a pointer to future events leading to a severe conflagration in the region.
It would be logical to question the rationale of delays in negotiations at the IAEA between Iran and the six signatories (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) of the JACPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). There was a glimmer of hope in August last year when the western media was excited about the possible deal. However, something went wrong, which pushed the dialogue to an uneasy suspension. It is intriguing that President Biden, who promised to join the JCPOA, has been reluctant to decide despite completing two years of his presidency.
The internal situation in Iran became precarious after September 12, when the whole country was engulfed in protests after the alleged killing of a young girl for not covering her hair. The protests were widespread, joined by students, labourers, and professionals demanding individual rights and political reforms – even an end to the Islamic Republic itself. Meanwhile, these protests served as an alibi for the US to drag the dialogue process, signalling support to the protesters.
It is also evident that the US has been mindful of Israeli sensitivities. Media reports suggest that the US told Israel that an Iranian nuclear deal was unlikely soon. The State Department said that Iran’s recent response to the EU draft was ‘not constructive’. The Iranian protests were a golden opportunity for the US to delay the dialogue on the JCPOA. At one point in time, the situation in Iran became so serious that even the cautious Iranian commentators started saying that the country was headed for a change.
However, the Iranian leadership maintained its composure and allowed demonstrations in various cities and towns without many crackdowns, which used to be the hallmark of the regime’s modus operandi in the past to curb dissent. Although four people were sentenced to death, a few hundred were arrested and given medium to long-term sentences; the regime played out with the demonstrators to enervate their agitational spirits. For the time being, the situation is under control. However, it may turn ugly if the government goes after people and victimise those behind protests.
Concurrently, the US may contemplate changing tactics with Iran. Instead of entering into a negotiated settlement with the clerical regime, it suits the US if Iran continues to simmer in tensions within and with the Gulf states. With stringent sanctions against Iran, the US may envision achieving its objectives more effectively than negotiating with the Iranian government as an equal. Already, American sanctions have plunged the Iranian currency to a new low – 40,000 Toman now equals one dollar.
Regarding Iran becoming a nuclear weapon state, Israel will not hesitate to target nuclear facilities through selected strikes, cyber-attacks and, where necessary, killing key scientists involved in the nuclear project. Direct attacks on nuclear installations would scale up the ongoing tensions. Iran may have been in a weaker position militarily a few months ago, but with the onset of the Ukrainian crisis, Iran has acquired greater strategic importance for the Russians; its supply of drones to Russia to use against Ukraine has shocked the Western world.
Media reports suggest that Russia has agreed to supply two dozen advanced Sukhoi Su-35 to Iran by March, apart from helicopters and an advanced S-400 air defence system, which is capable of tracking the US F-35 fighter jets. According to the Middle East expert Vali Nasr, “such acquisitions would significantly boost Iran’s military capability, enabling it to better counter Israeli air power in Syria and Iraq, as well as the US military pressure in the Persian Gulf.”
In the wake of stalled talks in Vienna, Iran may not be sitting idle for the JCPOA signatories to decide its fate. The natural result of the whole process for Iran would be to use its trump card and declare itself a nuclear weapon state. This question was partially answered by the former foreign minister of Iran and head of Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Kamal Kharrazi, who, in an interview with Al-Jazeera on July 17 last year, disclosed that: “It is no secret that we have the technical capabilities to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but we have no decision to do so.” He further added: “In a few days, we were able to enrich Uranium up to 60 per cent, and we can easily produce 90 per cent enriched Uranium”.
If Kharrazi’s message was intended to give a signal to the US that it could live without the JCPOA, the Israeli attacks on Iranian installations have been a stark reminder that Israel would use all resources to damage Iranian nuclear facilities to deny Iran the opportunity to become a nuclear weapon state. Iran will have to investigate the loopholes that allowed the Israeli drones to enter Iranian space and travel to Isfahan to hit the military targets.
Given the guessing game played by the Western powers in Vienna, Iran has consolidated its position by forging a closer alliance with Russia and China. Even if the IAEA takes Iran’s violation of the JCPOA safeguards commitments, including enrichment of uranium beyond 20 per cent, to the UN Security Council, Russia is most likely to block the move from the US, UK and France. In 2020, Russia and China did not agree to extend the arms embargo on Iran despite efforts by the US and other permanent European members of the UN Security Council.
Whatever plans Western countries may have about the Iranian nuclear programme, it is becoming clear that Iran has been determined to assert its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to access nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. It is beside the point that the West does not believe the Iranian assurances because of the dual uses of nuclear technology. The West fears that Iran’s intentions may change and switch over to weapon technology after gaining access to nuclear technology. If to go by the Western or Israeli logic, over 30 countries are just a screw-turn away from becoming nuclear weapon states. Not to forget Israel, already a nuclear weapon state under the benign patronage of the US. Therefore, the Western logic cannot stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Note: This article appeared in BOL, dated 12 February 2023.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.