Iran’s Nuclear Quest in Recess
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

On July 2, some explosions at the nuclear component facility at Natanz in Iran appear to have damaged the crucial centrifuges delaying its programme by at least two years as per Iranian officials. Earlier, there was yet another blast said to be at the missile facility near Parchin military base. No one has claimed the responsibility nor has Iran officially blamed any one for this sabotage at least for now. However, the backdrop and the timing obviously gave vent to conspiracy theorists who could try put two plus two together pointing fingers at the US-Israel combine whose intelligence agencies and ever growing sanctions have been working to defeat or damage the Iranian capability to acquire weapons which could provide it parity with Jewish state and could be dangerous for US friends in the region while altering the power balance status quo between Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Tehran.

While one theory suggested that a bomb was planted another one attributed it to a cyber-attack of the kind that was engineered by the Israeli Mossad through Stuxnet malware on the Iranian nuclear facilities nearly a decade ago. It has been reported and documented that in the past decades both American and Israeli agencies have worked overtime to eliminate Iranian nuclear scientists, capabilities and collaborations. No doubt overtly US and the Jewish State would be pleased with the development since a disenchanted Iran has been continuing to work on boosting the nuclear enrichment beyond permissible limits in view of the nearly defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the “Iran Nuclear deal” negotiated and signed in 2015 by P5+1. Of course the Israeli Defence Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz dismissed such a theory stating that his country could not be blamed for every incident that happens in Iran even though his colleague the Foreign Minister reiterated that Iran can not be allowed to have nuclear weapons and they will take actions that are better “left unsaid”.

President Trump, during his election campaigns and to satisfy his Jewish supports, had vowed to leave this one sided JCPOA as it was giving too much to the Iranians with much less in return and did not address the issue of ballistic and payload carrier missile capability of Iran. For that matter, it also did not address Iran backed militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. He wants to renegotiate a new and more strictly enforceable and verifiable commitment on the part of Tehran before any kind of normalisation could ensue. Accordingly, he left JCPOA in 2018 and imposed increasingly harsher sanctions on the Gulf state debilitating its economy and weapon’s programme. It has become much worse as during the Covid-19 epidemic Iranian economy has taken the biggest hit in the region and the US refused to yield to Iranian request to IMF for $ 5 bn loan facility.

Both Saudis and the Israelis were somewhat assuaged as they had all along opposed any rapprochement or concessions to Iranians by the Obama Administration which could give more financial teeth to Tehran to pursue its vindictive agenda against them. As for Americans the continued pressure on Iran is the preferred way as their own Special Envoy Brian Hook mentioned that “timidity and weakness invites more aggression”. But whether this excessive pressure will not be counter-productive and make Iranians more intransigent remains to be seen as for them the sanctions regime seems to have become a “New Normal”. This obviously will have wide ranging destructive repercussions for the Middle East which has its own share of volatility and ever growing hot spots.

Of late even though high on tonal quality and decibels Iranians have avoided indulging in direct confrontation with the Americans when it appeared that killing of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq could trigger a hot war. Although, overtly purported yet calibrated missile attacks targeted US military facility it was understood that the Iraqis had shared the prior information with the US establishment to avoid any major casualties that could resulted in US retaliation. Even this time the Iranians have said that if the investigations conclude that foreign elements were involved there will be consequences. But Iran says it reserves the right to retaliate at the time and place of its choosing.

Perhaps in Iranian leaders’ assessment Trump might not return after November elections and Jo Biden might follow a more sombre approach. It feels that any military escalation on its part will provide Trump an opportunity to retaliate and potential political edge to take on Iran apart from tying the hands of the Europeans who still tend to adhere to the JCPOA. They feel it may not be perfect but any deal is better that no deal. Besides Iran also is suffering immensely due to the pandemic being the first country in the region to have been infected by the virus. It might pay back through a Cyber attack as it had done earlier in the past. Actually, only this week, the German Federal Intelligence Service in its annual report has warned of the increasing cyber espionage capabilities for accessing sensitive information of the Iranians aimed at circumventing the sanctions. Eat your pudding when cold might be the dictum followed by the Iranian leadership while it may berate the West for its forced decrepit military presence in the region.

Meanwhile, Iran is trying to stay afloat by supplying oil and gas and other assistance to the nemesis of the US and its allies in its backyard like Venezuela and in the region like Syria and Lebanon as well as Yemen. There has been no let-up in the intensity of conflicts in the region where Iran is pitted against the US and its allies. Region is also witnessing resurgence of Turkey and Russia who are wielding much more power and influence due to confusion on the part of US administration as far as their continued presence in the region is concerned.

China has been challenging US in every theatre and has violated and decried US sanctions not only on itself but on others including Iran. It continues to import the Iranian oil and gas even if the quantum may have increased. They have been discussing Sino-Iranian Economic and Security Treaty since the 2016 visit of President Xi Jin Ping to Tehran that seems to have been finalised and concurred last month by President Rouhani. Timing is right as both China and Iran want to beat the unilateralism of the US that directly hurts their critical interests. This treaty could be a game changer as China will get a strong foothold in the Gulf as it will also buy the Iranian oil and gas for next 25 years defying the prevalent US sanctions. The collaboration underscores joint exercises, training and research as well as development of weapon systems apart from intelligence sharing. Pakistan -China and Iran could be a new axis that might be supported by Turkey and Russia against the US hegemonistic adventure especially in the Indo-Pacific.

India needs to buckle up its belt to protect her strategic interests as the US sanctioned and alienated powers become united in purpose and acquire salience. Although China has hitherto tried to play a balancing card by investing in and keeping good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Qatar and Israel the new partnership with Iran may have its own dynamic and may create new fault and red lines which will make the region more volatile. Failure of the US efforts to keep the GCC and Arab Sunni leaders together by lifting of the three-year-old Qatar seize and the mis-calculation on the ongoing Israel -Palestine conflict may provide the necessary traction to alternate security arrangements and power equations in the region which might be counter-productive to peace.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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