Editor’s note: In January 2021, the US Justice Department charged the author of this article, Kaveh Afrasiabi, with acting and conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the government of Iran, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The Justice Department asserted that from 2007 onward, Afrasiabi was secretly employed and paid at least $265,000 to advance the agenda of the Iranian government. According to the Justice Department, Afrasiabi lobbied a US congressman and the US Department of State to advocate for policies favorable to Iran; frequently appeared on English-language television programs; and wrote articles for many prominent news organizations and think tanks, including the The New York Times, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Bulletin. The Bulletin publishes a wide variety of views on issues of public concern—including the views of clearly identified government officials—and noted in the author biography for this article that Afrasiabi had acted as an advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team in 2004 and 2005. But the Bulletin was unaware of Afrasiabi’s alleged continuing employment by the Iranian government at the time this article was published. Those who read this article should take the criminal charges against Afrasiabi into account when doing so. A decision on continued publication of the article will be made once the charges are adjudicated.
Increasingly, Iran faces an existential threat from a wealth of adversaries led by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, that could push the country’s decision-makers in the direction of nuclearization.
Although officially, US officials deny that their aim is “regime change” in Iran and that they merely seek a “change of behavior” on the part of the Islamic Republic, these declarations are belied by their other incendiary statements that boast of “suffocating” Iran, “crippling” Iran’s economy, and promising to “overthrow them.” Some of the most bellicose of these statements were made by Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s own personal attorney, at a recent gathering of the Iran opposition group known as MEK in New York City, on the eve of the UN General Assembly summit; Giuliani’s timing was sure to enflame the situation, because his words were uttered the day after a terrorist attack occurred in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz.The attack happened on the anniversary of the bloody Iran-Iraq war, and was attributed to a Saudi-backed Arab separatist group operating in Iran’s oil province of Khuzestan; the incident escalated tensions in the Persian Gulf, with Iran threatening to retaliate against the “real perpetrators” who aim to bring instability to Iran and undermine its territorial integrity.
Hammered by US punitive sanctions—which have triggered a wholesale exodus of foreign companies from Iran since Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in early May—Iran’s options are limited. One of Tehran’s few ways of retaliating is to close the Strait of Hormuz (making it nearly impossible for some US allies in the Middle East to ship their oil); consequently, there is a real danger of war. Much depends on the present efforts of the other signatories to the Iran deal—France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Russia, and the European Union—to preserve the Iran agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
One possibility is for these signatories to forge ahead without the United States. To be successful, a ‘JCPOA minus US’ hinges first and foremost on Europe’s ability to produce the necessary deliverables that would simultaneously (a) protect their firms doing business in Iran, (b) guarantee Iran’s access to European banks and financial system, and (c) sustain Iran’s oil exports to Europe. So far, the verdict is uncertain and it remains to be seen if the European governments can muster the political will necessary to stand up to the United States with respect to Iran.
Equally important, from Iran’s point of view, is the new syndrome of insecurity triggered by the US’s overt hostility. This problem affects the country’s national security calculus, irrespective of whether or not other JCPOA parties uphold their obligations.
Indeed, there is a lively debate in Iran today on how best to respond to the bellicose US policy, which some Tehran pundits describe as the “Iraq war in slow motion.” Refusing to capitulate to US pressure and rejecting US “bullying” to renegotiate the JCPOA would in effect consign Iran to the rank of a second-class NPT member, permanently deprived of the right to enrich uranium (as per the 12 demands of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo).
With this in mind, Iran is mulling its options. These include relying on its arsenal of “asymmetrical warfare,” lodging a complaint to the International Court of Justice, and threatening to resume full-scale nuclear work.
Concerning the latter, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, has reacted to Trump’s JCPOA exit by ordering the country’s atomic energy organization to prepare for enhanced enrichment (through more advanced centrifuges). And the head of that organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, has assured the country that Western reports of the destruction of the reactor core at the Arak heavy water plant have been exaggerated, stating unequivocally that all Iran has done is to put “cement in some external pipelines” that can be easily replaced by new ones. Even before Trump took office, Tehran was unhappy with certain “unfriendly” aspects of US policy, such as the 10-year renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act under Obama’s watch, which prompted Tehran to order the design of nuclear-powered vessels for marine transportation.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to edge closer to Russia—its sole nuclear partner—with Russia constructing two new power plants in Iran, as well as joint projects between the two countries into stable isotopes and nuclear fuel.
Back to the past. Lest we forget, the JCPOA was a landmark achievement of multilateral diplomacy that was widely hailed as a “net nonproliferation plus.” Under the terms of the JCPOA, which blocked Iran’s uranium and plutonium paths to bombs by restricting and dismantling aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and imposing an unprecedented inspection regime, Iran was nonetheless able to maintain its basic nuclear infrastructure. From the US point of view, the goal of the JCPOA was to delay or extend Iran’s “breakout time” from a precious few months to over a year, while Iran was allowed to retain its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle. Salehi and other Iranian officials have recently gone on record claiming that Iran can return quickly to its pre-JCPOA nuclear level if need be; in essence, that would mean scrapping the agreed-upon ceiling on the number of centrifuges and going beyond the previous 20 percent level of enrichment.
Not only is the physical infrastructure in place, there is growing pressure by Iran’s hard-liners on moderate President Rouhani to withdraw Iran from the JCPOA as well as from the IAEA and even the NPT. From the hard-liners’ point of view, these actions would be a justifiable response to the perceived US “betrayal” of the agreement, in which Iran’s faithful implementation of its onerous obligations under the JCPOA were met with “maximum sanctions”—to paraphrase hawkish US National Security Adviser John Bolton, whose earlier blueprint for “How to get out of the Iran Nuclear Deal” has been seemingly put into practice by the Trump administration.
In addition, there is also a growing Iranian disquiet about Saudi Arabia’s nascent nuclear program, which in a few years will grow radically in dimension and confront Iran with the kind of national insecurity it faced with neighboring Iraq before Iraq was invaded in 2003. (Iran actually considered the development and use of nuclear weapons during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, a former president of Iran said in 2011.) Without doubt, Iran’s nuclear program followed to some extent the classic action-reaction dynamic in typical proliferation scenarios, turned dormant by the neutralization of Iraq’s nuclear threat and, yet somehow, capable of being reintroduced by the Saudi nuclear program; this is not to mention Israel’s nuclear arsenal and Israel’s thinly-veiled nuclear threats, despite Iran’s distance from Israel and the prevailing perception in Iran that Israel is “out of area.”
As a result, in terms of both near-term and long-term Iranian defense strategy, the present multiplication of national security threats may soon warrant a fresh re-thinking of the Supreme Leader’s famous edict, or fatwa, which banned the manufacturing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons on moral and religious grounds. The latter are now trumped by purely national security concerns, raising the specter of a nuclear deterrent shield for a country under siege. Inevitably, this would mean an Iran nuclear crisis II—though it may not be identical in all respects with the initial nuclear crisis that ran from 2003 to 2015, which saw overt military threats, sabotage through cyberwarfare, assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and punitive sanctions.
Needless to say, should Iran opt for a new march toward nuclear weapons, there are formidable technical, security-related, and military challenges to overcome. To solve these problems, it is possible that Tehran may be forced into closer cooperation with another pariah state: North Korea. There could be, for example, an oil for nuclear assistance deal between Iran and North Korea—whose foreign minister was in Tehran recently. Given Iran’s proud self-perception as a regional fulcrum and its perception of mounting foreign threats to its very existence, the country’s leadership is now on the cusp of making a historic decision: Should it forego any hesitation and pay the likely exorbitant short-term price, in order to have a long-term national security insurance policy in the form of a deterrent nuclear capability?
In this ongoing internal debate, the chips are increasingly piling in favor of those who draw comparisons between North Korea (i.e., successful nuclearization) on the one hand and, on the other Iraq and Libya (disarmament). Concerned that the Rouhani administration may have been excessively compromising Iran’s national security interests, Iran’s hard-liners have been pressing to dispossess the Rouhani administration of control of the nuclear file; they are elated that the Supreme Leader himself has admitted to “mistakes” in negotiating for the JCPOA.
There is a real prospect of a probable—though by no means imminent—”North-Koreaizing” of Iran. It is to some extent dependent on the success of any JCPOA-minus-US salvage operation. With the United States and its regional allies in the Middle East locking horns with Iran, however, the dark clouds of close combat are thickening in the Persian Gulf. Unless there is real progress in conflict-prevention, chances are that the moderates in Iran will lose the nuclear national security debate in Iran to their hard-line opponents.
Therefore, so far as the outside world is concerned, saving and preserving the JCPOA is only half the battle. The other half is addressing Iran’s growing national security paranoia, which could easily translate into clandestine nuclear activities if these (by and large legitimate) worries are not quieted somehow—perhaps through a US turnaround from its present confrontational approach toward Iran.
Many pundits inside Iran view the current US approach as part of a broader Trump administration attempt to upend the post-World War II international order, thus adding to the rather anarchic state of international affairs that is conducive to realpolitik—and detrimental to weaker powers such as Iran.
Iran today faces a predicament much like that of the city-state of Melos in the Peloponnesian War, recalling Thucydides’ famous dictum: “The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.”
The big difference, however, is Iran’s potential nuclear card. This card will become much more tempting to play in the future, if the United States continues with its efforts to inflict pain on Iran.
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