Why Reviving The Iranian Nuclear Deal May Really Be Aimed At Russia — By Both Sides
The Biden administration's bid to revive a nuclear agreement with Iran is seen by some as a "weak" approach to exercising power in the Middle East. However, it may be an attempt to restrict Russia's strategic influence inside Iran, which may serve both the West and Tehran.
LONDON — Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has recently made public comments suggesting qualified backing for a revived nuclear deal with the West. It's a significant shift in Tehran's stance, but requires a closer look.
The bitter reality of Iran's nuclear program is that it has become a bargaining chip in Russia's hand. For years now, the Russians have deftly exploited every crisis involving the program, openly and secretly, and most notably in the talks leading to the 2015 pact with the 5+1 Powers. Iranian officials are fully aware of Russia's self-serving involvement in this strategic sector, which is in a state of technical dependence on Russia.
Like a bossy doorman, it controls all supplies and circulation in and out of the Iranian program. This is the result of the decisions taken by two of the Islamic Republic's policy-making bodies, namely the Supreme National Security Council over two periods, and the Foreign Policy Higher Council, which effectively gave Russia technical control of the nuclear program.
Khamenei may have had this dependency in mind when, in 2018, he ordered uranium to be enriched beyond 60% (closer to the grade needed for weaponry). Ostensibly the order was a response to U.S. pressures, but it may well have been a bid to recover some of the keys Russia has held in this sector for 30 years, in spite of the technical and financial challenges of doing so.
Reducing Russian dependence
Khamenei has also urged the Iranian nuclear agency (more than once) to boost enrichment capacity from 6,000 SWU (separative work units) to 190,000 SWU.
The regime wants to strengthen its own negotiating hand.
Political developments inside Tehran suggest the regime wants at least to reduce its Russian dependence, for evident, strategic reasons, although even if Tehran were to boost its stock of enriched uranium, this would ultimately suffice for no more than one or two warheads.
The regime wants to strengthen its own negotiating hand, using the nuclear breakout time. This means more of its own enriched uranium and safe, secure premises for its processing and possible use for military purposes, at a site like Fordow.
The United States is aware of Iran's eagerness to recover the "cards" currently in Russian hands. As it discreetly seeks to revive or recover a semblance of an accord with Tehran, it too wants to restrict Russian role-playing. Indeed, we might today qualify the 2015 pact as an attempt by the Obama administration to curb Russian influence in the region.
Iran's sudden flexibility at the time, which permitted a pact, possibly even angered the Russians. Thus swiftly, working hand in hand with the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, they began to thwart the pact and pave the way for its collapse. The Trump administration saw the pact as a lifeline that kept a mischievous regime alive, and kicking, but also a tool allowing the Russians to work against U.S. regional interests. Needless to say, the accord was never "for Iran" or the Iranians.
The West's two options
Ultimately, the Islamic Republic is incapable of faithfully implementing and respecting any agreement concerning its nuclear program, given the dependency cited above. The United States may seek an interim agreement in coming weeks as part of its plans to curb Russia's presence and power, but we may be sure right now, it will not prosper. The regime cannot move closer to the West even as it cannot resist it alone.
While a deal may avoid immediate strikes, it will, with its restrictions and inspections, complicate Russian technical support, and in time, make Iran's program less threatening to the West. This would both deprive Russia of its bargaining chip, and Tehran, of its "trump" card against Western powers it has no reason to trust. A deal is thus inevitably fragile, for its unequal benefits for sides involved. For Russia, involvement in Iran's program is an intrinsic part of its long-term presence and plans in the Middle East.
The West has two options for sidelining Russia here: One is a deal with Tehran and the other, permitting or implementing strikes on Iranian installations, and interrupting the enrichment chain.
Khamenei's public declarations are in fact directed at two parties
How does the Islamic Republic see these? Based on recent comments by Khamenei that an "agreement with the West, if nuclear installations are left untouched, is not a problem," the regime may see the first option as winning it time. Facing a restive and angry population, a deal would give it five or ten years of relative peace, while the release of blocked monies would provide badly needed cash.
July 19, 2022: The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran, Iran.
Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA
Shoring up support at home
In the second case, strikes on Iranian installations may well crush the Russian 'card' but also become Iran's excuse to play a victim now "forced" into seeking a nuclear deterrent. As Khamenei recently said, "if we wanted a nuclear weapon, they couldn't stop us." This suggests that Iran could take that path if Russia were removed from its program, knowing that strikes would not target its reserves of enriched uranium.
Khamenei's public declarations are in fact directed at two parties: The Kremlin, and secondly his own supporters among the Revolutionary guards and regime militias. Other, private views are meanwhile conveyed to the West by trusted regional leaders, in the secretive manner of 19th century diplomacy.
Beside the strategic and diplomatic considerations of course, we must consider if there can be benefits of any kind in striking a country that is turning itself into a repository of highly enriched uranium.
The Iranian regime has shown through its conduct on so many fronts that this program, like its diplomacy, strategic decisions and choice of alliances, is another tool to buttress and fortify it at home and abroad. It has nothing to do with Iran's technological, medical or scientific progress.
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