Every now and then diplomats slip, say what they really think, and reveal to the whole world some inconvenient truths that most would rather ignore.
Late Tuesday, Russia’s Permanent Representative to Vienna-based International Organizations Mikhail Ulyanov did just that in an interview with the publication Foreign Policy.
He remarked that now is not the time to threaten Iran with greater pressure because “even if they produce a significant amount of nuclear material, so what. It cannot be used without a warhead, and the Iranians do not have warheads.”
Rejecting the setting up of some deadlines at the Vienna talks, he added: “This sense of urgency is a little bit exaggerated. Yes, it’s urgent, but let’s be prudent; let’s [not] set up artificial deadlines.”
“So what” if Iran produces a significant amount of nuclear material – really?
So no one in the world should worry if next week or next month the Islamic Republic jumps to the 90% weaponized level because it has not yet solved the problem of how to deliver a nuclear weapon on a missile?
True, pretty much all nuclear experts acknowledge that Tehran has work to do in the areas of detonation and missile delivery. But the estimates for how long that would take – from six months to two years – are all guesses on the hopeful assumption that the regime has not advanced much in those areas clandestinely while the IAEA has been monitoring its declared facilities since 2015.
NORTH KOREA shocked the world in recent years, “suddenly” mastering a variety of nuclear skills that experts believed would take it several more years to nail down.
Now Pyongyang does not just have one nuclear bomb, but a nuclear arsenal estimated to include up to dozens of bombs.
Also, the whole reason the world has focused so much energy on monitoring uranium enrichment is that of the major nuclear weapons’ processes, enrichment is the easiest to monitor because it requires large facilities with thousands of centrifuges.
Working on the detonation and delivery issues is easier to hide, certainly until a nuclear test – and once a test has been performed, a country is considered to have crossed the nuclear threshold.
What is crucial about what Ulyanov said is that even if Russia opposes Iran getting a nuclear weapon, it is not as disturbed to the same degree as the US, let alone Israel.
It is willing to risk seeing the ayatollahs getting closer to a bomb than they are now without putting real pressure on them to cut a deal.
Why are the US and the EU pushing for the Islamic Republic to cut a deal “within weeks, not months”?
Because Iran is up to 60% nuclear uranium enrichment and could jump to 90% weaponized enrichment in a month or a bit less.
It is not that all nuclear issues must be resolved within weeks. Rather, it is that Tehran’s forward nuclear progress must be halted within that period to avoid a new level of risk from the regime.
RUSSIA is not the most problematic country concerning Iran – that would be China.
Moscow at least helped pressure Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into returning to the nuclear talks in the October-November period, publicly saying it was “high time” that talks be renewed after a several-month hiatus.
Beijing almost entirely blames US sanctions against Iran for the current nuclear standoff because it is angry at both the Trump and Biden administrations over sanctions, and wants to fight American sanctions in every arena.
All of this blows open the argument that the only thing the US needs to do is hold the line with its sanctions against Iran.
Ulyanov’s “so what” moment makes it clear that will not be enough.
As long as Russia and China are ready to tolerate Iran at its current advanced nuclear levels and even beyond, American pressure, even with the EU on board, will be insufficient to get an improved JCPOA nuclear deal.
A mix of US sanction pressure along with a viable US or Israeli military, covert or cyber threat against Iran that Beijing, Moscow and Khamenei all find believable, is likely the only way to fix the deal’s holes.
Since such a threat is likely not forthcoming, the more likely scenarios are a straight return to the JCPOA, a return to a slightly worse version of it, or some kind of interim deal that at least stops Iran’s forward progress.
But critics of US policy on Iran – and there is much to criticize in the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations – need to admit that without Russian and Chinese backing, even if Washington tries to hold the line diplomatically and with sanctions, a magically better JCPOA will not suddenly materialize.
In many ways at this stage, the road to Tehran is through Moscow and Beijing as much as through Washington.