Iranian Nuclear File: International Minimization and Regional Confrontational Strategy


Thu, 13-01-2022 08:25 PM, Aden

Nancy Zidan (South24) 

The Iranian Nuclear issue is among the most dangerous files at the international community's top priorities. This is in conjunction with unstable world circumstances as this file is related with security, political and economic impact along the Middle East and subsequently to the whole world. In 2021, the world witnessed a number of negotiation tours between Iran and the five states which signed the 2015 Nuclear Deal (France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China) with indirect American participation in order to revive it.

In the first half of 2021, the negotiations witnessed a good degree of consensus until the election of the hardliner Ibrahim Raisi as Iran’s new President in June 2021. He selected a more hardcore government than its predecessor so the changes of the political faces in the “Islamic Republic” stumbled the negotiations in spite of their utmost importance for all parties. [1]

Although the talks between the two sides were resumed in late November 2021 amid conflicting positions, the statements by Iranian officials were promising. On Dec 30th, 2021, in a video published by Iran's Tasnim News Agency, the Iranian Negotiator “Ali Bagheri" said that some changes related to lifting sanctions were written by the two sides adding that the first days in the 8th Tour of Negotiations [2] witnessed a relatively satisfactory progress.

On the same day, Iranian Defense Ministry spokesman Ahmad Hosseini said that the Simorgh or "Phoenix'' rocket was launched by a satellite carrier carrying three instruments into space to send them 470 kilometers (290 miles) away. Despite the failure of this experience, this move raised fears about whether the technology used in launching satellites could enhance the development of Iranian ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. [3]

This paper attempts to present a realistic reading for the transformations and the troubles accompanying the course of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file in light of the many regional and high-paced variables, as well as the goals that drive the Iranian policies. It attempts to avoid the exaggeration trap which usually dominates such a topic including its impact on the Yemeni file.

US withdrawal and Iranian recklessness

The Deal, officially known as “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) was the most important in terms of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It included Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia as equal partners while the USA enjoyed a virtual right to veto with the knowledge of Iran. 

The Deal has been activated for 2 years but after Donald Trump’s ascendance to the White House, and with being Influenced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Republican hawks, the US Administration announced its withdrawal from it in May 2018. [4]

The US then led a campaign to pressure Tehran on the diplomatic, economic and military levels known as “Maximum Pressure” [5]. The targets of the campaign included the Supreme Leader, the Foreign Minister, judges, Generals, scientists, banks, oil facilities, Shipping lines, airline, charities and trade allies such as Venezuelan President. 

Moreover, Trump Administration classified the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iran’s strongest military body, as a terrorist group in an unprecedented American measure against an army of any other countries [6]. First, after Trump's withdrawal, Iran adopted the "strategic patience" policy regarding its nuclear activities hoping that other parties of the deal-China-France-Germany-Russia-UK-could compensate it for economic loss caused by the American campaign. However, when promises of delivering the required support didn’t come true before the Iranian Presidential Elections, Tehran began adopting the “Maximum Resistance” policy by gradually lessening its commitment to the deal and increasing its military pressure in the areas of clashes with the United States [7] and its Middle Eastern allies.

After the election of Raisi, there was an apparent change in the Iranian policy as it signed a temporary deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency to implement the measure related with investigating Tehran’s nuclear activities. Meanwhile, the Conservative President announced that his government could adopt a more strict approach [8]. It is worth mentioning that Iran previously demanded compensation for the economic damages caused by Trump’s “Maximum Pressure’ campaign, which it estimated at the level of one trillion $. [9]

In April 2021, Iran announced It has enriched uranium to 60% or approximately 25 kilograms (55 pounds) [10]. This percentage far exceeds the threshold (3.67%) previously set by the Nuclear Deal, especially that Uranium enriched with purity (90%) is used to make nuclear weapons. The previous negotiations were mainly on lifting sanctions [11] ,which is a main aim of the Iranian Regime in order to integrate with the international community.

Israeli-American provocation and Iranian rage

The hostile activities between the US and Iran escalated and reached their peak in 2020 when trump ordered the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, the IRGC’s elite wing. Five days later, Iran launched 11 ballistic missiles- each carrying a warhead of at least 1,000 pounds- against the Ain al-Assad Air Base in Anbar and another air base in Kurdistan’s Erbil. The bombings, which lasted for hours, were called “Operation Martyr Soleimani” in the biggest ballistic missiles attack launched by any country against the US Forces. However, this didn’t cause any American casualties but 110 have incurred head injuries. 

By the end of 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the most important Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated by Israel. Prior to that, in September of the same year, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, claiming that Iran's nuclear program had "reached a turning point". Israel spoke indirectly about training operations for possible military strikes on Iran. During a visit to Washington in December of the same year, Defense Secretary Benny Gantz urged the Biden administration to conduct joint military exercises with Israel. [12]

In such a tense context, the US Defense Intelligence Agency said that Iran became one of the biggest producers of missiles in the world and that it owns the biggest and the most various arsenal in the Middle East. [13]

The Iranian Regime focused on developing missiles with higher range, more accuracy and bigger devastating capabilities. In 2019, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier general and former sniper commanding the Iranian Air Force said: “Everyone must know that all US bases and ships within a range of 2000 km away could be targeted by our missiles”. Hajizadeh, dubbed by Israelis as “the new Soleimani'' is the successor of General Hassan Moghadam, the founder of Iran's Missile and Drone Programs who died in 2011. 

Currently, Iran has the largest known underground complex in the Middle East including nuclear programs and missile development systems. Most of those tunnels are located in western areas in front of Israel, or on the Southern Coast in front of the KSA and other Gulf states. 

In the fall of 2021, Satellite images detected new underground building activities near Bakhtaran, the most complete complex. These tunnels have been dug in a hard rock layer with a depth of more than 16 hundred feet underground. The depths of some complexes are reported to reach several miles and they are called by Iran as “the Cities of Missiles”. [14] 

In October 2021, Iran launched a drone attack against Al-Tanf, a military site in Syria where American forces (about 200 personnel) are deployed. The attack came as part of the “Maximum Resistance” approach. The strategic value of Al-Tanf is attributed to its location on the vital highway between Baghdad and Damascus as well as the road to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Unofficially, through this deployment, the US aimed at obstructing arms transfers and Iranian influence. A news site, affiliated with Hezbollah, described the Iranian attack as representing a “new stage of confrontation” to drive the US out of the Middle East. [15]

It can be said that the American attempts to stifle the Iranian economy through penalties were the main reason behind Tehran’s low commitment to the JCPOA. However the Israeli-American insistence to chase Iran through assassination operations and the continuous adoption of “Maximum pressure” policy which depends on imposing severe economic pressure in light of the deterioration of the humanitarian conditions amid the Covid-19 crisis. [16]

All of such measures led to undermining the fragile confidence to the extent that Iranian President, Ibrahim Raisi in the second anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination demadned a trial for the former US President Donald Trump with murdering charges. He threaten that Iran will avenge Soleimani’s assassination. [17]

During the last period, Iran decided to accelerate the pace of its nuclear program as being its biggest strategic project which gives it multiple points of strengths. Moreover, it is the strongest way in all cases to enhance its influence and regional hegemony.

It seems that it is too late to attempt destroying Iran’s nuclear project for many reasons including Iran's heavy deployment of surface-to-air- units which rely mainly on (Russian S-300) and homemade systems such as (BAVAR 373) capable of protecting their airspace. Additionally, Iran’s program is contrary to those owned by Iraq and Syria that relied upon one nuclear reactor which facilitated the Israeli task to destroy them in 1981 and 2007.

Furthermore, the Iranian program relies on two highly protected and decentralized enrichment facilities. Iranian nuclear scientists also have advanced knowledge in the field of nuclear industries thanks to the experiences and knowledge they gained from the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb "Abdul Qadeer Khan". Thus, for all these reasons and considerations, any defect or sabotage in the nuclear program can be quickly corrected. [18]

Unlike the Israeli attacks against the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs, any attack on Iran will push it and its regional proxies, which are considered its wider fence, to vigorously respond. This makes the 1.5 Billion$ estimated by the US as a cost of any possible military strike against Iran just a tip of the iceberg of the real costs emanated from engaging in a comprehensive confrontation [18]. Through the JCPOA and the UN Security Council No. (2231) the world, including the US, allows Iran to enrich Uranium over its territories for peaceful purposes as long as it is under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Saudi-Iranian dialogue

Former Iranian President Ahmadi Nejad said that there is no way in front of Iran and the KSA but to engage in a dialogue and try to create a space of understanding even if the two sides prolong their rejection [19]. The statements came amid escalation of tension and clashes and a high-pace armament race in which everyone appears to run in a marathon of buying qualitative weapons, especially the Arab Gulf states that are trying to organize their military power under the framework of an entity dubbed as the “Unified Military Command”. [20]

Not long ago, the US Intelligence revealed that the KSA is developing Al-Wata Missile Base including facilities to produce and test Ballistic missile engines with the help of China which helped the KSA to build its own uranium enrichment plant near Al-Ula with a tacit green light of the Trump administration [21]. Despite all of this military power, any drifting towards a military confrontation will have dire consequences and will incur inevitable losses for all parties. 

The attempt to make further contemplation in this comprehensive picture of the scene leads us to understand the motive behind the reaction of President Biden in October 2021 in response to the decision of “OPEC+ led by the KSA regarding oil production when he lifted the sanctions against the two most important Iranian companies involved and specialized in manufacturing Iranian nuclear missiles. It seemed like an American support card that stipulated the release of Iranian oil in exchange to balance the Saudi control over the oil market and the export of fuel. [22]

Actually, the US, especially the Biden Administration, does not care by preserving such a kind of balance in the Middle East in light of its new tendencies to focus all efforts on Asia and the South China Sea amid almost full withdrawal from the Middle East. 

The threads of this high cost-trend began to emerge with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in addition to several indicators for a similar withdrawal from the Iraqi File and the liquidation of the American military bases in the KSA which are in charge of the logistical planning for the Yemen War [23] and Iran knows that well. 

On the other hand, Iran does not let anything slip out of its claws, as it created a basis for mutual interests with the Taliban. Furthermore, it has deepened the strength of its regional arms: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. All of this increases the necessity and the importance of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue to reach understandings that could make wider balance and regional operation. Such a wish appears obviously in the latest Ahmadi Nejad’s statements. [24]

In spite of the several diligent Iranian tactics and bargaining, it won’t be a surprise if we see an imminent announcement of signing an updated version of the Nuclear Deal (JCPOA-Plus) between Iran and the five countries as a result of Vienna Talks to act as a new and a more lasting deal between Washington and Tehran, at least during the remaining period of the Biden’s first term. 

This will allow each party to claim that it has achieved a better deal and forces the other to give concessions. Both of them could use this to score points in the internal political competition within each country. Such a deal, if it happened, could lead to the exclusion of the Iranian Nuclear File from the other current negotiation tables as a main source of regional tensions. [25]

Yemen: the past’s mirror is the future’s solution

Yemen is no longer the same country it was at the beginning of War. The continuous conflict distributed power in the ground among several armed forces. Over the last few years, all resources that were providing the simplest basic living needs were devastated. Yemen is witnessing the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian disaster. Approximately 250000 people lost their lives in the conflict. According to the United Nations, about half of those casualties died due to indirect reasons such as malnutrition and diseases. As power is dispersed among an increasing number of Yemeni actors on the ground, resolving the conflict has become more difficult.

Since January 2021, the Houthis have enhanced their control over the Northwest of Yemen. Currently, 60-70% of Yemen's population is governed by the Houthis who also pose a big threat against the government’s bastion in Marib. It is clear that the situation in Yemen won’t reach any degree of stability with the continuity of such acceleration of conflict pace. One of the possible steps for reaching a solution to end the War and prevail peace falls on the shoulders of the UN Envoy. He has to encourage efforts to launch a serious dialogue between the KSA and Iran while the UAE could join them. This should happen even if it would require restoring Yemen to its past form; North Yemen and South Yemen. The latter is in a dire need to be alienated from the Houthi conflicts. 

On the other hand, initiatives and economic partnerships could pave the way for a long-term integration between the KSA and the UAE on the one side, and Iran on the other side by enhancing the language of joint interests and the personal ties which could soften the sharpness of future disputes. As for military power, this will ensure a degree of balance among all parties without the dominance of one over the other. The regional situation will require a high degree of smartness and political pragmatism. 

Non-resident fellow at South24 Center for News and Studies, researcher in political science and media analysis. 
Photo: Ahead of the Joint Commission meetings in Vienna, April 2021 (Reuters)

[6] Robin Wright, op.cite. 
[7] Between war and peace there is an ambiguous area in which concepts differ and rules are mixed, and it has come to be known as the “gray area” and is represented by the activities carried out by one country that harm another, and it is ostensibly considered acts of war, but legally they are not acts of war.
[8] Farzan Sabet, op.cite. 
[9] Ibid. 
[11] AFP, op.cite.
[12] Robin Wright, op.cite.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Farzan Sabet, op.cite. 
[25] Farzan Sabet, op.cite.

IranSaudi ArabiaHouthisViennaBallistic MissileUAEYemenUSA