Does Soleimani assassination make nuke conflict more likely? - analysis

Iran was already expected to announce new nuclear deal violation.

Qasem Soleimani, commander of IRGC Quds Force (photo credit: SAYYED SHAHAB-O-DIN VAJEDI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Qasem Soleimani, commander of IRGC Quds Force
Has the assassination of top Iranian IRGC official Qasem Soleimani made a nuclear conflict more likely? And if there was a conflict related to Iran’s nuclear weapons would it be more likely to be between Israel and Iran, or the US and Iran?
Nothing can be known for sure during such a volatile period. Yet if Iran continues to act strategically – as it has since May – it will likely retaliate on a non-nuclear plane and keep the nuclear standoff as a source of gradual, but not spiking, pressure on the US.
In the short time since Soleimani met his end on Friday, scores of articles have been written about some of the contradictory pressures the Islamic Republic is trying to balance.
On one hand, it must respond. Soleimani was probably the most important figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself.
From Tehran’s perspective, its international credibility as a significant and potentially dominant regional actor are at stake. In the past, Iran has always been meticulous to respond to any moderate perceived effrontery. So killing the man who was effectively its number two leader demands an even deadlier response than usual. And if Iran fails to respond, its adversaries in a host of countries may suddenly view it as faltering and vulnerable.
But there are major problems with responding, maybe more so in the nuclear sphere than anywhere else.
The nuclear sphere is more of a zero-sum than escalating a conflict with the US in Iraq, Syria or against some other overseas US asset. An attack on one or two US assets can potentially be circumscribed to that particular arena. The nuclear sphere is also more zero-sum than retaliating against a US ally, like Israeli or Saudi Arabia.
In other words, most of Iran’s options in the nuclear sphere make it more likely that its nuclear program would be struck preemptively and make a more general war more likely.
What are Khamenei’s options in the nuclear sphere?
One option is that he can speed up Iran’s push toward a nuclear bomb and dare the US to do something about it.
There are multiple problems here. As problematic as the Islamic Republic’s four prior violations of the nuclear deal since May have been, they still left it around six to 10 months away from having enough enriched uranium for a weapon.
Even after that, Iran would likely need between a few additional months to two years to be able to perfect its ability to deliver a nuclear warhead using one of its ballistic missiles.
And at that point, Iran still could not strike the US itself. Unlike North Korea, which may have an intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile capability to hit the US, Iran at most could hit Israel, the Saudis and parts of Europe.
So even a “rush” to a nuclear bomb would be a very delayed and a potentially underwhelming response – certainly regarding the US.
Moreover, any rush toward a nuclear weapon would not only make an Israeli preemptive strike likely, but might even raise the possibility of a US preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities – something that until now was believed unlikely.
This is important strategically, but also because – as The Jerusalem Post reported on Friday – even in 2020 it remains unclear whether Israel has the capacity to destroy the Islamic Republic’s heavily fortified underground Fordow nuclear facility without US help.
Any scenario that provokes the US or Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities also makes a general war far more likely.
In contrast, if Tehran does more of the same: if it continues a slow and gradual roll toward a nuclear weapon – the US may return to its general slumber about what happens in the Middle East.
Israel might still strike Iran at some point if its slow progress toward a weapon gets too close. However, without a loud fast push, as long as Iran moves slowly and under the radar, even Israel will find it harder to launch a preemptive strike. Israel would also likely wait longer and generally have trouble deciding when to pull the trigger.
So Khamenei is likely to take the slow and less risky option of continued gradual violations of the nuclear deal.
Yet, avoiding a rush to a bomb and a quiet and gradual strategy is a pretty lame response to the killing of Soleimani.
Slow and gradual are not in the dictionary definition of the “tough revenge” that a slew of Iranian leaders have been threatening now for more than two days.
Rather, Iran has reacted slowly in terms of using force and Khamenei and his crew appeared shocked that the US would act so aggressively against Iran following its provocative attacks on US bases in Iraq. This suggests the main reaction will be against US assets overseas.
This does not mean that Khamenei may not make a louder and angrier statement about the next Iranian violation of the nuclear deal, due to be announced late Sunday or soon after.
In fact, one of Iran’s most recent violations, announcing work on a highly advanced IR-9 centrifuge, was made in the most dramatic fashion possible.
But just as the IR-9 announcement was close to meaningless in substance since it is nowhere near ready for use, any immediate Iranian nuclear announcement is likely to be large on drama and short on substance.