Iran Really Has Only One Option: Return To Talks With The West

Iranian officials have reacted cautiously to a string of strikes, killings and acts of sabotage against the regime in past months. Do they fear retaliating against the West could hasten the Islamic Republic's demise?

Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a meeting with the government
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a meeting with the government
Ahmad Ra'fat

LONDON — Iranian officials have reacted mildly, and even cautiously, to last month's killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, described in domestic media as an expert in fields including medicine, nuclear physics and ballistics.

A spokesman for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ventured to contradict harsher words by the Guards' commander, Hossein Salami. Meanwhile, instead of vowing bloody vengeance, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for "those who ordered and perpetrated" the act be found and punished. No doubt Iranian officials will once more invoke the need for "strategic patience," to cover their strategic weakness.

Loss of symbols

From early 2020, at least four symbols of the Islamic Republic have been toppled, though "strategic patience" has dissuaded the regime from reacting firmly. In January, near Baghdad, drones struck Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani alongside Abu Muhandis al-Mahdi, the head of an Iraqi militia beholden to Tehran. Soleimani was a symbol of the Islamic Republic's power in the region. In return, it rained mortars on an American base in Iraq, though nobody was killed. Indeed, Iraqi officials were said to have been warned of the attack beforehand, so they could pass the information onto the Americans!

It can no longer bank on the support of the Lebanese and Iraqis.

On July 2, a large explosion damaged the Natanz nuclear plant in Iran, a symbol of the regime's nuclear program. The Islamic Republic made threats again, and went no further. On August 7, a father and daughter were reported killed in one of Tehran's busy avenues, Pasdaran. At the time it was said they were Lebanese. In November, it became clear the two were the deputy-head of al-Qaeda, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and his daughter, the widow of Hamza bin Laden, son of the terror's group's founder Osama bin Laden.

Systemic weakness

Then came this latest killing on Nov. 27. Fakhrizadeh was known for years to UN bodies, Western governments and Israel as a senior figure in Tehran's nuclear and ballistic programs. He was another symbol, and now too is gone.

Strategic patience is espoused by numerous officials, politicians and partisans of the Islamic Republic who are all mindful of the regime's systemic and strategic weakness. They are concerned that a vigorous reaction might provoke a war with Israel, backed by the United States, which they know the regime could not withstand. Others, who it must be said have little role in shaping regime policies, like the prominent newspaper editor Hossein Shariatmadari, want a firm response. They believe such patience is useless and will only encourage Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to up the pressures on Tehran, if it does not open the way to wider operations inside Iran.

Phony power

Since 2019, the regime's regional power has been challenged by ordinary folk in Lebanon and Iraq. The Islamic Republic knows it can no longer bank on the support of the Lebanese and Iraqi public opinion and governments. A while back the Iraqi government rejected its proposals for military and armaments cooperation, as Lebanon had done months before.

During the funeral of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — Photo: Imago via ZUMA Press

For Iranian reformists and their supporters outside Iran, Fakhrizadeh's killing is seen as a plot, intended to sabotage the prospects of talks between the regime and the next U.S. administration. That would mean the operation was planned after Joe Biden was declared the winner! But assuming such an operation requires months of planning, not weeks, and could not have been planned after the November 3 elections, one then wonders whether eliminating these symbols is not as much a potential aid as it is an apparent obstacle to talks.

Future talks

Biden recently cited conditions for the United States' return to negotiations linked to the 2015 nuclear pact, abandoned by President Donald Trump, which may complicate that return. He told CNN that reentering the pact should pave the way for talks on other issues like Iranian ballistic activities and regional interference. The elimination of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh could facilitate talks on those areas.

Talks are the only way forward for a cash-strapped regime.

Meanwhile Iran's regime has problems on all sides. Its weakness in Syria has become evident, with Israel carrying out more than 300 strikes on targets there without Tehran reacting. The regime's intelligence and security force have shown their weaknesses in their repeated inability to prevent targeted killings or sabotage of installations. The security apparatus has shed some of its own personnel, with dozens of agents arrested in recent years on charges of spying for foreign powers.

Popular protests in 2018 and 2019 were also an alarm bell for the authorities, while some of the information emerging from Iran suggests the authorities may be hard pressed to quell another round of mass protests. And then, well, there's the economy ...

The only way

Talks then are the only way forward for a cash-strapped regime to recover $70 billion of funds blocked in foreign banks. This time around it would be in a weaker position than in 2015. Gestures like a recent parliamentary bill ordering the government to rev up enrichment activities and block the entry of UN inspectors will not work, and may be further proof of its weakness.

The Islamic Republic currently has no strategy to extricate itself from its economic, military, diplomatic and legitimacy crises. It has little to gain from threatening the West with nuclear activities. The only way to prolong its life a little more is to talk to the West — and the only doubts left are who will be sent to represent the regime, and when.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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