Coordinated warnings last week from the US, Israel and the EU that “time is short” to revive an agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear activities raise a disturbing question: what will opposing governments do if, as seems likely, Tehran’s hardline regime continues to drag its feet while accumulating the wherewithal to build a nuclear weapon?
Israel’s leaders, as usual, are not mincing words. “Every day that passes, every delay in the negotiations, brings Iran closer to a nuclear bomb. If a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon, we must act. We must make clear that the civilised world won’t allow it,” said foreign minister Yair Lapid.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, was more circumspect. “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course … [but] we continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way,” he said. Visiting Jerusalem, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, predicted stalled negotiations were approaching a “decisive” moment.
The very last thing US president Joe Biden wants, as he tries to disengage from the Middle East and focus on China, is Israeli military action against Iran that sets the region ablaze. Yet an anxious Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, doesn’t rule it out. “The world waits, the Iranians delay, and the centrifuges spin,” he said.
The fear is real. Most Jewish Israelis – 51% – believe Israel should have attacked Iran years ago during the “early stages” of its nuclear development, rather than wait for a negotiated settlement, a new survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found. Plans for military action against Iran have been “greatly accelerated”, Israel’s top general, Aviv Kochavi, said last month.
The dangers are clear. Less so is how Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s arch-conservative president, will react to western pressure. Since his election victory in June, Raisi has refused to rejoin the Vienna talks on resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the 2015 nuclear deal arbitrarily wrecked by Donald Trump – limited UN inspections, and stepped up nuclear-related activities.
His hardline allies, who control all of Iran’s power centres, say the talks will resume “soon” but have set no date. Ominously, lead nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi has been replaced by a sceptical rival, Ali Bagheri Kani.
“Bagheri was a senior member of the Iranian negotiating team under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad … He is a staunch opponent of the JCPOA, believing [it] violates Iran’s national rights and undermines the country’s independence,” said analyst Saheb Sadeghi.
Western governments pushing for business as usual in Vienna face a more fundamental obstacle. For Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, obtaining sanctions relief by reviving the nuclear deal is not their top priority. If necessary, they believe, Iran can get by without it.
“Raisi’s administration has focused on a strategy that prioritises ‘neutralising the impact of sanctions’ by strengthening economic ties with neighbours and countries such as Russia and China,” Sadeghi wrote. It believes the US, determined to contain Iran, would always find reasons to maintain sanctions, even if all its demands were met.
Observers expect Raisi to press ahead with a strategic partnership with Beijing, which is avid for Iran’s oil and gas. The so-called “look east” policy also envisages expanded relationships with countries such as Pakistan, ostracised by the US, and states in central and east Asia.
To this end, Mehdi Safari, a former ambassador to China and Russia, has been appointed to a senior post of deputy foreign minister for economic diplomacy.
Iran badly needs new trading partners. But it is benefiting hugely from rocketing international oil prices, while its isolated, Covid-hit economy is reportedly showing signs of recovery. Regional states such as Lebanon, enduring ruinous energy shortages, grow more, not less, dependent.
This points to a second strand in Raisi’s strategy: a determined attempt to repair or cement relations across the Arab world. Amir-Abdollahian recently visited Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, and has met leaders of the UAE. After months of secretive talks with Saudi Arabia, hosted by Iraq, limited diplomatic relations may soon be restored.
If that happens, it would be a big step towards Iran’s rehabilitation. The US and Israeli-backed anti-Iran regional coalition may implode as other Gulf states follow suit. Given Washington’s attention is slipping, and notwithstanding the “Abraham Accords”, Israel could end up feeling more vulnerable than ever – and more easily triggered.
Alternatively, the Emirates Policy Centre thinktank in Abu Dhabi suggests, Iran’s shift has not been thought through. While Riyadh and Tehran share an interest in safe sea lanes and de-escalating the Yemen conflict, Raisi’s insistence on continued region-wide support for “resistance movements” (Shia militias and proxy forces in Iraq and elsewhere) is a big block to any rapprochement.
It’s unlikely, thirdly, that Raisi will abandon the Vienna process unilaterally, which would play into his enemies’ hands. Instead, when Iran’s negotiators eventually return, they will set stiffer terms, such as measurable, near-term economic benefits, in return for compliance.
They will insist on separating the nuclear file from issues such as ballistic missiles and regional security. Meanwhile, as talks drag on, Iran’s nuclear capabilities will inexorably expand. At some point, frustrated western leaders may call a halt and switch to what they call “plan B”.
No one seems to know what that entails – but it’s probably bad news.
Given Israel’s visceral (and fully reciprocated) enmity, past American duplicity, and European impotence and vacillation, Raisi’s approach has a certain grim logic. But it ignores the plight of Iranian citizens impoverished by sanctions. It ignores nuclear proliferation concerns. It threatens a permanent rift with the western democracies.
Worse still, it opens the door to hawks on all sides who recklessly promote military solutions when, in reality, no such “solutions” exist. War with Iran? Just because it hasn’t happened yet does not mean it won’t.