Coronavirus, explosions and elections saved us from a nuclear Iran in 5780

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: IN MARCH, Israeli intelligence sources told The Jerusalem Post that due to the coronavirus crisis, Iran could not maintain the same pace of uranium enrichment.

FILE PHOTO: Members of the media and officials tour the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran December 23, 2019. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS  (photo credit: REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Members of the media and officials tour the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran December 23, 2019. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
(photo credit: REUTERS)
So this week’s grand battle over the Iran arms embargo and the US snapback sanctions will now reframe the entire nuclear standoff between the Islamic Republic and the US – right?
True, the fight over the arms embargo and the US snapback sanctions are big-ticket issues.
Anyone who blows off the US unilateral arms embargo as meaningless does not comprehend the unique economic power that America still wields. American sanctions have unquestionably reduced terrorist activities by Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias in Syria by partially closing the spigot of Iran’s terrorist funding.
US Special Representative for Iran Elliott Abrams has echoed numerous times in the past week that many EU and other global companies will follow US sanctions because of their own bottom line. He said this is true even if their governments did not help the US arms embargo campaign at the UN.
But neither the old nor the new sanctions are what saved the world from a nuclear Iran in 2020. The award for that achievement goes to a combination of the coronavirus, a series of summer explosions and the upcoming US elections.
IN MARCH, Israeli intelligence sources told The Jerusalem Post that due to the coronavirus crisis, Iran could not maintain the same pace of uranium enrichment and other related nuclear weapons program activities.
Sources said that Iran was among the hardest hit by the corona crisis, and that there was no part of the country or the leadership, including Iran’s nuclear experts, that was not compromised by the crisis.
Israel’s intelligence community has argued that the crisis was far worse than even official reports, which themselves painted a horrific picture of death and infection.
Recall that until corona in March, throughout the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, even though Iran’s footprint in Lebanon and Hezbollah had been shakier, its nuclear output and violations had actually increased.
From May 2019 until May 2020, Tehran progressively violated the 2015 nuclear deal’s limits – despite the sanctions. It went from breaking a 300-kilograms-of-enriched-uranium limit in May 2019 to dwarfing those numbers with a current total of over 3,000 kilograms of uranium, which is enough for three nuclear bombs, if Iran ever decides to start enriching uranium to higher purity levels and to weaponize it.
Why did it stop in May 2020?
One reason was that the ayatollahs likely balked at taking steps that would reduce its time to breakout to a nuclear weapon to less than four months (as it currently stands) for fear of bringing on an Israeli or US preemptive strike.
A New York Times report this week, also cited by the Mossad’s former Iran desk chief Sima Shine in an INSS position paper, said that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has frozen several initiatives to strike the US.
According to the report, he has approved only mild cyberattacks. The report also said that a Politico report about Iran trying to assassinate the US’s ambassador to Africa was among the plots that Khamenei rejected as too risky.
This presents a picture of Khamenei still shaken by the US assassination in January of his right-hand man, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani.
But Iran continued to escalate its nuclear violations between January and May. That means that concern about strikes was not the decisive factor. This makes sense because Iran has worked to insulate its nuclear program from other military and economic issues, including the various sanctions campaigns.
In contrast, corona is an issue that disregards efforts to limit its impact. Anywhere there are humans, and nuclear scientists are still key to advancing a nuclear program, there can be infection and the program can be slowed.
This is undoubtedly a big piece of the story of what slowed Iran’s nuclear march in 2020. But there were other big pieces.
Even after May 2020, the Islamic Republic continued to expand its use of advanced centrifuges. These advanced centrifuges were always an X factor that could potentially have allowed the ayatollahs to leapfrog forward past the expected time frames for uranium enrichment.
Another major concern until summer 2020 was that Iran had some major clandestine site where it was secretly breaking out to a nuclear weapon, while distracting the IAEA international inspectors with known nuclear sites.
But this summer saw around a dozen explosions at Iranian facilities, several of them likely nuclear-related.
The July 2 explosion at Natanz set back Tehran’s advanced centrifuge program by one year or more, as confirmed by both official and nongovernment sources. This removed from the table a major Iranian tool for shortening the time to breakout to a nuclear weapon.
In September 2019, sources close to Mossad director Yossi Cohen told the Post that the real achievement of the January 2018 Mossad raid on the Iranian nuclear archive was that it produced a map of all of the unknown sites.
The impact of this “map” was fully revealed when installations blew up right and left this summer.
Last month, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told the Post, “We know what is happening everywhere” in Iran.
After this summer’s Iran “light show,” the chances of Iran successfully sneaking a major breakthrough past Israel in 2020 are much lower.
Ironically, the US elections have also restrained Khamenei.
At earlier stages, he may have considered major attacks to try to embarrass US President Donald Trump, leading into the November election.
Yet the Times report said that Khamenei later concluded that any such moves might accidentally aid in Trump’s reelection.
Numerous reports have shown Iran is trying to undermine Trump, using the same kind of social media tactics that Russia continues to use to help him. But overall, Khamenei is too worried about unintended consequences to change the nuclear balance.
The other important elections that could keep Iran restrained temporarily are its own presidential elections in June 2021.
The arch conservatives who already took over the Iranian parliament are looking to beat Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who in Iranian terms is considered more pragmatic and open to global dialogue.
A major conflict with the US could upset their plans.
And what about 2021 more broadly?
This week the Jewish Institute for National Security in America said highlighting a more credible military threat was key to obtaining Iranian consent to more nuclear limits in 2021.
Citing cases from 1988, 2003 and 2012, the report said that credible military threats have forced Iran to change “where sanctions alone could not.”
Further, the report said “the Pentagon should make clear it is updating contingency planning, both to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities and to counter potential retaliation by Iran and/or its proxies in response to Israeli military action.”
In addition, the report said that the US should “prepare contingency plans to defend the United States and its allies from Iranian tests of nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles, including visible demonstrations of US missile defense interceptors and clear threats to shoot down these tests.”
While less specific, Shine’s position paper also noted the importance of a credible military threat in 2021.
Much has been written to guess whether Iran or Trump would blink first to end their game of chicken if he wins reelection.
A lot has also been written about whether a theoretical future US President Joe Biden would be able to succeed in getting Iran to agree to new nuclear limits and other limits on its behavior. His September 13 CNN op-ed did little to clarify that crucial point.
But one key actor in 2020 has already made it clear that he will remain relevant and influential in 2021.
Unlike his predecessor Yukiya Amano, who was both passive and fell over backward to avoid any tensions with Iran, current IAEA chief Rafael Grossi made it clear, in a comprehensive interview with the BBC last week, that he wants to be a trendsetter.
From March until August 26, Grossi was in an extended public war of words with Iran over Khamenei declining to give him access to two nuclear sites which Mossad-obtained evidence had flagged as suspicious.
The sides appeared to be on a path to a conflict at the UN Security Council. This would have been problematic for Iran, as the issue was coming to a head just as the fight over the arms embargo was coming up for key UN votes.
However, during his late August visit, Iran agreed to his terms of visiting the two nuclear sites to clear up certain discrepancies.
Amano would not have gone public and might not have gotten the access to the sites. If he had, he would likely have declared that Iran was now a model nuclear citizen.
In contrast, Grossi was careful to keep the pressure on Iran in his BBC interview. He made it clear that nuclear inspections are a constant process, and that the fact that Iran had returned to compliance on the specific issue of the two sites did not give it a free hand from future clarifications or to continue its current enrichment violations.
Essentially, Grossi is not aligned with Israel, and will still disappoint Jerusalem sometimes with his limits as a neutral observer who feels compelled to take Iranian representations at face value. But he can also help, and his strength in handling issues over the last six months may deter Iran from more blatant violations which they might have gotten away with under Amano.