Will Iran Cross the Nuclear Threshold?

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by Mehwish Kiani    13 June 2023

The political demonstrations in Iran since September 2022, when a young Iranian woman, MahsaAmini, was jailed for not wearing the hijab and died in custody,[1]have confronted Iran’s leadership with its greatest challenge[2] as protestors demand individual rights, political reforms, and increasingly, an end to the Islamic Republic.[3]The harsh measures to quell the demonstrations[4]have only encouraged the protests to continue. The United States swiftly expressed support, denouncing Iran’s “vicious” response. President Biden has delayed negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015[5]after five years of intense negotiations with the P5+1 to restrict Iran’s enrichment program, and levied additional sanctions on Iran to apply maximum pressure and punishment for mishandling of demonstrations.[6]Iran’s economy is already reeling under crippling sanctions.

Iran claims that sanctions are aimed at pressuring Iran to suspend its nuclear programme which is seen as an “excruciating threat” by the US [7], and to bring about a regime change. However, Iran has demonstrated a high degree of resilience in refusing to capitulate to the US strategy of maximum pressure.[8]Basically,the US wants to bring Iran back into itsorbit of influence. Iran’s location at the Strait of Hormuz, from where 30% of world oil is transported, is of strategic importance.[9] The US wishes to ensure unrestricted navigation through the Straits,[10]as well asto preserve its influence in the Middle East.[11]If Iran does not fall in line with the US strategic interests, it will make every effort to prevent Iran from getting closer to either Russia or China.

For Iran, development of nuclear technology and nuclear programmeare a means to assert its sovereignty and consolidate its position at the international level.It is a signatory to the NPT[12](that allows Iran to develop nuclear technologyfor peaceful purposes) and has adopted the IAEA safeguards.[13]But the international community suspects Iran has expertise foradvanced nuclearcapabilities.[14]After the US withdrew from JCPOA in 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had expanded, especially in 2021 and 2022[15]and suspected that Iran possessed sufficient fissile material to develop a nuclear bomb soon.[16]IAEAalso claimed that Iran has increased weapons-grade uranium from25.2 kg to 87.5kg[17]and the centrifuges using the IR-2 that is against the JCPOA.[18]Moreover, the US is also suspicious ofIran’s ballistic missile programme.[19]

Iran’s civilizational past shapes its political outlook as a regional power.   Hence, its resolve to be recognized and accepted as such acts as a catalyst to develop its nuclear capability.

The US is constantly highlighting Iran’s nuclear weapons spectre as a threat to global peace to justify its strategy of maximum pressure, in the hope that it will abandon its nuclear programme.To counter the US, Iran is utilizing every opportunity to strengthen its relations with Russia and China. Being averse to US hegemony, Russia and China consider Iran as firmly embedded in their camp against the US.[20]Russia has signed a 20-year strategic partnership with Iran.[21]Both are working to establish new bilateral relationships.[22] The Ukraine war has also presented Iran with new opportunities. Iran has delivered several hundred drones to Russia in response to a potential $40 billion energy deal.[23]Both Iran and Russia believe that closer bilateral partnership is necessary to achieve a less “West-centric”world.[24]China signed a 25-year cooperation program with Iran in 2022.[25] President Raisi’srecent visit to China signals strengthening of economic and energy links along the “Belt and Road” initiative.[26]However, western analysts have presented the visit as significant only in optics without any concrete agreements on China’s investment in Iran.[27]

Iran’s civilizational past shapes its political outlook as a regional power.[28] Hence, its resolve to be recognized and accepted as such acts as a catalyst to develop its nuclear capability. The Abraham Accords 2020 and Negev Summit 2022[29] that helped mend ties between Israel and Arab countries, have further exacerbated rivalry between Iran and the Arab world meaning Saudi Arabia.[30]Iran is convinced that the West would ensure itdoes not feel secure enough to gain power and presence in the Persian Gulf region.Israel’s recent drone attacks,with a tacit US nod,[31]on Iran’s nuclear facility have confirmed its apprehensions.[32]Iran has declared it will respond to western pressures by increasing and improving its nuclear programme.[33]

The question is what would be the tipping point. The US will keep Iran under maximum pressure but not to the extent that Iran feels insecure enough to declare itself as a nuclear power. It will continue to use ambiguity as a bargaining chip with the European and the Middle Eastern countries to preserve its integrity and prestige and persuade the US to remove sanctions or offer rewards for remaining nuclear-free, as was done by North Korea and Pyongyang in the past.[34] Iran also wants the international world to recognize its nuclear program as a legitimate one. But if Iran is pushed to the wall, it willvery likely further advance its nuclear programme but may not cross the threshold for the time being.

Reference:

[1]Parham Ghobadi , “Iran Protests: ‘No Going Back’ As Unrest Hits 100 Days,” BBC News, last modified December 26, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-64062900.

[2] Ibid

[3] Vali Nasr , “Iran’s Hard-Liners Are Winning,” Foreign Affairs, last modified February 6, 2023,

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/iran/irans-hard-liners-are-winning.

[4]Iran International Newsroom, “As Opposition Grows, Iranian Hardliners Claim Protests Help Them,” Iran International, last modified February 10, 2023, https://www.iranintl.com/en/202302102912.

[5] Kali Robinson, “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified April 11, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal.

[6]John Irish, “No Push for Iran Nuclear Talks, U.S. Envoy Says, Due to Protests, Drone Sales,” Reuters, last modified November 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/no-push-iran-nuclear-talks-us-envoy-says-due-protests-drone-sales-2022-11-14/.

[7] Kali Robinson, “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified July 20, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal.

[8]SaeidGolkar and Asha Sawhney, “Dictators and Civilizational Thinking in Iran: From the Great Civilization to Islamic Civilization,” Middle East Institute, last modified September 28, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/dictators-and-civilizational-thinking-iran-great-civilization-islamic-civilization.

[9]“Confrontation with Iran,” Global Conflict Tracker, last modified January 6, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/confrontation-between-united-states-and-iran.

[10]ibid

[11] ibid

[12]ShivaniSingh , “Will Iran Leave the NPT?,” IPCS | Institute Of Peace & Conflict Studies, last modified June 17, 2021, https://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5771.

[13]“Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: Iran,” Arms Control Association | The Authoritative Source on Arms Control Since 1971, last modified December 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/iranprofile.

[14]Kali Robinson , “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified July 20, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal.

[15]AmnahIbraheem and William Alberque, “Iran Approaches the Nuclear Threshold,” IISS, last modified November 10, 2022, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2022/11/iran-approaches-the-nuclear-threshold.

[16]Amnahibraeem , “Iran Approaches the Nuclear Threshold,” IISS, last modified November 10, 2022, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2022/11/iran-approaches-the-nuclear-threshold.

[17]Adam Pourahmadi, “Near Bomb-grade Level Uranium Found in Iranian Nuclear Plant, Says IAEA Report,” CNN, last modified March 1, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/01/middleeast/iran-uranium-enrichment-iaea-intl/index.html.

[18] ibid

[19] ibid

[20]“Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East,” Crisis Group, last modified April 23, 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/184-irans-priorities-turbulent-middle-east.

[21]  Helena Legarda , “From Marriage of Convenience to Strategic Partnership: China-Russia Relations and the Fight for Global Influence,” Merics, last modified August 24, 2021, https://merics.org/en/short-analysis/marriage-convenience-strategic-partnership-china-russia-relations-and-fight-global.

[22]Yun Sun, “All Style, No Substance for Iran in China,” Asia Times, last modified February 24, 2023, https://asiatimes.com/2023/02/all-style-no-substance-for-iran-in-china/.

[23] ibid

[24]Giorgio Cafiero , “Iran’s Indispensable Role for Russia in the Ukraine War,” Gulf International Forum, last modified February 20, 2023, https://gulfif.org/irans-indispensable-role-for-russia-in-the-ukraine-war/.

[25] Ghazal Vaisi, “The 25-year Iran-China agreement, endangering 2,500 years of heritage”, March 1st, 2022,Middle East Institute, https://www.mei.edu/publications/25-year-iran-china-agreement-endangering-2500-years-heritage

[26] Shannon Tiezzi, “China’s Balancing Act in Iran,” The Diplomat, last modified January 26, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/01/chinas-balancing-act-in-iran/

[27]Yun Sun, “All Style, No Substance for Iran in China,” Asia Times, last modified February 24, 2023, https://asiatimes.com/2023/02/all-style-no-substance-for-iran-in-china/.

[28]SaeidGolkar and Asha Sawhney, “Dictators and civilizational thinking in Iran: From the Great Civilization to Islamic Civilization”, September 28, 2020, Middle East Institute,

https://www.mei.edu/publications/dictators-and-civilizational-thinking-iran-great-civilization-islamic-civilization

[29]LahavHarkov , “Negev Summit succeeded beyond expectations, Israel envoy tells ‘Post’,” The Jerusalem post, last modified March 31, 2022, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/article-702907.

[30] Ibid

[31]Asif Durrani, “Iran an undeniable nuclear state”, 12 February, 2023, bol news, Iran – an undeniable nuclear state (bolnews.com)

[32] Raffi Berg, “Iran Blames Israel for Isfahan Drone Attack, Warning of Revenge,” BBC News, last modified February 2, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-64460139.

[33]  Andrea Stricker and Anthony Ruggiero , “Iran Approaches the Nuclear Threshold,” FDD, last modified March 3,2022, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2022/03/03/iran-approaches-the-nuclear-threshold/#easy-footnote-bottom-2-127215.

[34]  Mayumi Fukushima , “Why Iran May Be in No Hurry to Get Nuclear Weapons Even Without a Nuclear Deal,” RAND Corporation Provides Objective Research Services and Public Policy Analysis | RAND, last modified June 28, 2020, https://www.rand.org/blog/2021/06/why-iran-may-be-in-no-hurry-to-get-nuclear-weapons.html.