Iran and the Nuclear Option

[I am resuming my blog, but intermittently rather than daily.]

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog departed London after his state visit. He came on a high-level mission to the U.K. to strengthen Israel-UK ties, reinforce the image of Israel’s commitment to tackling climate change, honour Jewish Olympians murdered in the Munich Olympic Games as well as a Holocaust survivor, Sir Ben Helfgott, who became a world weightlifting champion. But his most important reason was to send a clear and unequivocal message. Herzog declared, “I shall make clear that Israel cannot allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability and it expects its allies to be tough and assertive toward the Iranians, including in their dialogue with them. Israel makes this position clear to all its friends and, of course, makes clear that it reserves all options to defend itself.” Finally, he claimed that Iran was simply stalling and had no intention of reigning in its nuclear program. Iran is simply playing for time. Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Studies, concurred in the view that the new Iranian government was more hardline than the old one. Iran was simply wasting time as it sought a shorter time gap for a breakthrough to becoming a nuclear power.

This past Sunday, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and Haaretz jointly sponsored a conference on Israeli national security. The conference with a star line-up of academic and political speakers focused largely on the nuclear threat of Iran to Israel. What was surprising to me is that, as I periodically glanced at the numbers watching, the peak audience was 270. When Senator Ben Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke at the end, there were only 27 tuned in. Shocking! For such a high level and politically and militarily critical conference that was well publicized? Fortunately, it is available on the websites of both Haaretz and the UCLA Center for Israeli studies.

My impression was that the politicians and speakers shared an overwhelming consensus about Iran and its nuclear program. Benny Gantz, Israel’s Defence Minister, in his opening remarks, zeroed in on Iran’s quest to become a regional hegemon. But Iran presented a global as well as regional threat. However, the nuclear threat provided the umbrella for its conventional disruptive activities on the ground, whether with respect to maritime shipping, the democratic process in Iraq or the effort to make the regimes in Syria and Lebanon satraps of Iran. In addition to Assad and Hezbollah, all the satraps are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or ‘Etelaat’). The satraps include the Popular Mobilization Units/Shia militias in Iraq, the Ansar Allah/Houthis movement in Yemen, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and, to some extent, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, and in opposition, Israel seeks to forge alliances rather than develop proxies in the Middle East.

However, the nuclear threat posed the most significant existential threat to Israel. In contrast, for the U.S., Iran was a threat to international peace but not an existential one. Only Israel had been singled out by Iran for elimination. The U.S. could afford to allow Iran to become an almost-nuclear power. Israel could not. Thus, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, reiterated America’s longstanding insistence that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned against Iran being allowed to become a nuclear threshold country. The difficulties focused on forging a united front that would be both effective as well as furthering both the security interests of Israel and the peace policies of the U.S. in the Gulf. There was a shadow of darkness between the Israeli policy committed to Iran never becoming a power capable of producing a nuclear bomb within a short time frame and the American determination that Iran never become an actual nuclear power. A goal of “no daylight between the U.S. and Israel is a chimera. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, emphasized this difference but insisted that the Bennett government would strenuously avoid a public confrontation with the Biden government even though Israel could not tolerate Iran even becoming a potential nuclear power.

The facts are ominous. Iran has now acquired nuclear material purified to 60%, well beyond the 3.67% permitted under JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action negotiated by the Obama regime. Further, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 17.7 kg (39 pounds) of the material enriched to 60% fissile purity and eighty-four times the limit set under the JCPOA. When the isotope U-235 is enriched to 90% (now needing only a short time), with more efficient bombs, Iran will have sufficient to make almost 2 bombs and more than double the amount it had only three months previously. (“Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 64 kg of highly enriched uranium.)

Further, Iran already has a stockpile of over 210 KG of 20% enriched uranium. More ominous, Iran is now using its advanced much faster centrifuges to purify instead of the older models. In addition, Iran is now building centrifuges capable of operating at six times the speed of even its existing new array of advanced centrifuges. Iran will soon be able to make a breakthrough to nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks rather than a year. Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to its centrifuge workshop and the TESA Karaj workshop which manufactures parts for the centrifuges and nuclear enrichment machines.

The IAEA has had no access to Iranian nuclear sites or enrichment processes since February according to the agency’s chief, Rafael Mariano Grossi. Yossi Cohen, former head of Mossad, stressed that Israel could not afford to allow Iran to become a power with the capacity to make nuclear weapons let alone just prevent Iran from actually acquiring such weapons. The core issue was nuclear capability not just a nuclear breakthrough. Cohen insisted that Israel was still capable of crippling Iran’s nuclear program by military means. Israel recently launched its public relations campaign to emphasize that the military option is on the table, that it is developing military scenarios, making contingency plans and providing a budget. Is this smoke and mirrors or the promise of real action?

But how could such an Iranian capability be eliminated once the knowledge and technology are mastered? Only if its high-speed centrifuges are destroyed. Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons had to be eliminated, preferably through diplomacy but, if necessary, by the use of military force according to these specialists.  If negotiations provide the route, the sunset clauses of the JCPOA have to be greatly extended.  In its current form, the JCPOA was a sanctions relief deal not an agreement to end Iran’s capability of producing nuclear weapons. Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani of Iran heading the Iranian negotiating team in fact insisted that the imminent resumption of talks would not be about the nuclear issue but about the lifting of sanctions.

The original Mark Kirk (Rep.) and Robert Menendez (Dem.) amendment to the 2011 annual defence budget imposing sanctions on the economic lifeline of Iran received unanimous Senate support and was the catalyst for the 2015 agreement. But the JCPOA is just an agreement that allows subsequent presidents to change course and even abrogate the deal; it is not a treaty requiring two-thirds support in the Senate. And it is almost certain that Iran would not be able to secure a treaty that would prevent a Trump from abrogating the agreement.

In addition, the weaponization and militarization of its program also had to end as well. Iran has developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit central Europe and eventually North America. The evidence suggests that Iran did not even want to go back to the flawed JCPOA even as Sima Shine, the head of the Iran program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, stressed Israel’s great fear that this would be the outcome of renewed negotiations. Iran is demanding not only the removal of ALL sanctions, including the sanctions for Iran’s human rights violations and its support of terrorism, but the payment of compensation for the past losses that Iran suffered as a result of those sanctions.  These claims were not just a bluff but an attempt at sneaking towards nuclear weapons with salami slicing tactics. First jump to 5%. Then 20%. Then 60% enrichment. The U.S. may not wish to join Israel in a military attack, but would it provide the logistic and diplomatic clout and legal right to defend Israel’s right to do so?

Doesn’t the position of the new Israeli Bennett government sound remarkably akin to the position of the Netanyahu regime? Yes, but with one major difference. Bibi made a fateful alliance with Trump and made the Democrats his enemy. The Bennett government through a diplomatic offensive is seeking to rebuild joint support across the aisle for its position. Bennett is committed to dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation. The Israeli intelligence and military establishment, in contrast to Netanyahu generally, agreed with Likud former defence minister, Moshe Yalon, that, “The Iran deal was a mistake; withdrawing from it was even worse” [my own position in retrospect]. The Israelis do not support a renewed JCPOA. They want a preventive program. They want to ensure that Iran no longer has the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons even as the political climate in the U.S. in the Democratic Party has shifted further away from support for Israel, particularly in the views of young people even within the Jewish community. But it is a shift of a minority within the Democratic Party. However, the shift is also taking place among young evangelicals as well according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

The black cloud that hangs over closer cooperation on Iranian policy between Israel and the U.S. is the lack of progress towards a two-state solution and the successive failures of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Micah Goodman may advise shrinking the conflict, but the number of voices advocating alternative solutions, such as the one-state proposal of people like Peter Beinart or the confederation push of Ameer Fakhoury, director of the research center at Neve Shalom (Wahat al Salam), has increased.

At the same time, Iran has been attempting to paper over its differences with the Saudis and the other Gulf states, particularly over Yemen. It has already forged an agreement with the UAE that led to that country’s withdrawal from Yemen in return for immunity from Houthi attacks on its ports and shipping. But political movements in the Middle East have also undermined the Iranian position. In Lebanon, Hezbollah now confronts resistance in the streets. Hamas is openly negotiating for improved relations between Israel and Gaza. In the recent elections in Iraq, Iran’s influence considerably diminished.

On the other hand, Iran has significantly improved its connections with China and China has become increasingly dependent on Iranian oil as it flouts the sanctions openly. Last month, half of Iran’s exported 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil went to China. After the UAE, China has become Iran’s largest trading partner. China entered into an economic agreement with Iran to invest over $400 billion over 25 years. Further, as the U.S. continues to pivot to the Far East and disengage increasingly from the Middle East through military withdrawals and drawdowns, its leverage on Iran has diminished as well as any impression that the U.S. is willing to resort to military force to advance its position in that area of the world.

Iran also feels that North Korea has provided a lesson on how to resist America as it slices its way forward with its nuclear program.  After all, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya under pressure both gave up their nuclear program. They are both dead. In contrast Kim Jung-un remains alive and seemingly untouchable.

Take Biden’s resolve to prevent the militarization of Iran’s nuclear program and the reluctance of the American regime to threaten the use of military force let alone use it is consistent with his failure to enforce many of the economic sanctions on the books.  The regime of “maximal sanctions” is over. Further, unlike Obama, Biden no longer insists that “all options” are on the table. Further, Biden’s freedom to act is far more limited than Trump’s. However, Trump’s Iranian strategy, developed as a result of pressure from Netanyahu, had been an abject failure. If Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and failed to live up to its “red lines” with respect to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013, Trump twice announced withdrawals from Syria, failed to take any action when Iran openly advanced its nuclear program and ignored the terms of the JCPOA, and failed to do anything when Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais Saudi oil-processing facilities on 14 September 2019. In the 12 May 2019 Fujayrah Iranian attack on an Emirati registered vessel, two Saudi registered oil tankers and a Norwegian registered oil tanker, the U.S., as the maritime police of the Gulf region, failed to respond. Trump was only willing to support a maximum economic sanctions program but without the backing of a credible military threat. However, he did order the assassination of Qasem Suleimani.

The U.S. Navy jointly with six other countries in the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) through its operational arm, the Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel, and the larger Combined Maritime Forces, is charged with ensuring freedom of navigation in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility where the Iranians have been involved in tanker hijackings. In June, Iran seized the tanker Winsome and the Oman Pride in Sohar. Last July (2020), Iran seized the tanker Gulf Sky in Emirati waters. However, in August, the U.S. Navy responded and seized more than 1 million barrels of Iranian gasoline bound for Venezuela aboard four tankers. Iran responded in turn by attempting to seize other tankers.

Iran may not actually become a nuclear power. However, it may be sufficient to develop the capacity to be a nuclear power within a short timeframe.

In the meanwhile, Iran has tremendously advanced its conventional military capabilities. Its anti-aircraft defences have greatly improved, and its nuclear production facilities have become even more protected from an aerial attack as they have been buried even deeper. Its maritime military capabilities have certainly advanced. At the same time, it is not clear that any military action could significantly set back its nuclear program. Certainly, many U.S. strategic military experts have warned Israel that any military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be counterproductive leading Iran to speed up its nuclear program even more.

There is one additional significant change. Though not yet a major player compared to Israel, Iran has developed its cyber military capabilities compared to when the Stuxnet Worm attack seriously set back Iran’s facilities twelve years ago. However, Israel has also advanced enormously, not only on the cyber front – note the cyberattack on Iran’s Mahan Air on 21 November. Mahan Air has been a target of the West ever since the U.S. blacklisted the airline in 2011 for allegedly “providing financial, material and technological support” to the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and ferrying weapons and personnel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although the air carrier claimed that it had “thwarted” the attack and that its flight schedule was not affected, messages sent by hackers to its passengers told a different story.  

Cyberattacks on Iran have become more frequent. In October, its gas stations were struck resulting in drivers joining long lineups for hours to get gas for their cars. Trains have been delayed and even cancelled as a result of cyber attacks. As an Iran openly committed to supporting terror in the region and the destruction of Israel approaches the nuclear threshold, the threat of Israel using military force may just be a mask to hide its enormous increase in capacity to employ cyber warfare.  At the same time, Iran’s ability to defend its nuclear program against cyber attacks has also greatly improved. Officials in the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command have insisted that Tehran’s improved defences against cyberattacks means that Israel would not be able to cripple Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site as it did a decade ago. Iran is now employing its advanced centrifuges at Fordow in open defiance of the JCPOA. However, when military action, however limited, is fronted by cyber warfare and sabotage, perhaps the Israeli threat could be credible.

Thus, as Iran resumes its negotiations with the West on 29 November, pessimism clouds the discussions. Coercive diplomacy does not seem to be part of the negotiations. Iran continues its efforts to widen the gap between the American policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a bomb and the Israeli policy of eliminating Iran’s capability of making a bomb. The latter goal seems like pie-in-the-sky to many American Iranian specialists. They seem willing to ease economic sanctions and simply freeze Iran’s nuclear program in place. On the other hand, some hope for a partial agreement, limited in both time and scope to get around the deadlock. Others call for a longer and stronger JCPOA. In that case, the Raisi government is likely to head for the exit and continue its efforts to obscure its clandestine nuclear program and prevent any meaningful inspections. The prospects for successful talks are very dim indeed. If so, the prospect of a military attack by Israel increases and cyber attacks will certainly escalate.

One comment on “Iran and the Nuclear Option

  1. Kelly says:

    Very happy to see you back!:)

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