Iran leaders under pressure to react to Natanz explosion

Iran has taken on a two-pronged strategy in response to a convergence of pressures, upping diplomatic confrontations and moving forward on its nuclear program.

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks on during a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Russia December 30, 2019.  (photo credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)
FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks on during a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Russia December 30, 2019.
In a video that went viral, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif can be seen speaking in the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, as lawmakers shouted at him on Sunday.
“Soleimani the martyr and I had weekly meetings,” he said, referring to Qasem Soleimani, the arch-terrorist killed by the US earlier this year, adding that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and “Palestinian resistance,” among others, could confirm it.
Called a liar by shouting parliamentarians, Zarif invoked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “Whatever I said during negotiations, the supreme leader heard. If I lied, he heard and said it was the truth.”
Zarif, standing against a green marble background similar to that of the UN General Assembly, tried to convince his hecklers from the majority conservative faction: “We’re all in the same boat. The US does not recognize liberals, reformists, conservatives, revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries.”
A day later, Reuters reported that the same group of lawmakers plans to summon President Hassan Rouhani for questioning, a first step toward impeachment, though Khamenei could block the move.
The parliamentary rumblings against the Iranian executive – but not against Khamenei – come amid a deepening economic crisis since the US left the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and reimposed sanctions in 2018. Discouraging coronavirus numbers, increases in unemployment and rising inflation exacerbated the situation.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency rapped Iran repeatedly in recent weeks for its violations over the years. Those violations could be brought to the UN Security Council, which will discuss whether to renew the arms embargo on Iran under the JCPOA, which expires in October. The US and Israel have called for the embargo to be extended.
On Friday, Zarif triggered the JCPOA’s “dispute mechanism” over “implementation issues” with France, Germany and the UK. If those issues are not resolved within 30 days, the deal can be dissolved.
And then there is the series of mysterious explosions around the Islamic Republic, the most sensitive of which was last week at an advanced centrifuge production facility in Natanz, which The New York Times reported on Monday was caused by a bomb planted by Israel. The damage to the site is thought to have set Iran’s nuclear program back by months.
YAAKOV LAPPIN, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center and the MirYam Institute, said the poor economic situation means public opinion of the regime in Iran is the lowest it has been since the 1979 revolution.
“People who are fed up with the regime are also fed up with the reformers,” such as Rouhani, who campaigned on economic promises that were not fulfilled, Lappin said. “From street protests and slogans you hear that people are fed up with the entire Islamic Republic model of governing... and the West should take that into account.”
But electorally, the frustration with reformers empowered the hard-line anti-Western Principlists, also called Conservatives, who won 221 out of 279 Majlis seats in this year’s parliamentary election.
Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that from an Iranian perspective, “Khameinei said for many years that you can’t trust the US and all they want is regime change, so even compromises won’t stop their pressure.
Everything he said apparently happened. For the Iranians, they signed an agreement, agreed to major concessions, and then a new US president left it and put on sanctions.”
Both researchers said it seemed the Iranian regime was hoping to wait for the US presidential election in November to see if President Donald Trump is voted out of office, and they could renegotiate the nuclear deal with presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But now the regime faces pressure to respond in some way.
“Everything the regime does needs to be seen as them having their back against the wall,” Lappin said. “Iran doesn’t want to enter into a military escalation against the US – or Israel for that matter. I think that has not changed.”
Instead, the regime is taking two steps “in response to the confluence of pressure points coming to bear at the same time,” he said.
“What is changing is the willingness to respond to pressure with increased diplomatic confrontations and alarming progress on its nuclear program,” Lappin said.
Zimmt said: “Iranians are in a situation where they’re saying, ‘We’re disappointed in the Europeans; they may even be joining the Americans to continue the embargo. The IAEA accuses us of noncompliance; maybe the time has come to take more steps’ toward nuclear weapons.”
Zarif’s invocation of the JCPOA dispute mechanism is “another expression of the government’s need to do something,” he said.
Now, with the explosion in Natanz, there will be even more demands by the hard-line parliamentary majority to react, though Zimmt thinks the regime will be more cautious.
“They want to see what happens with the IAEA or the arms embargo and won’t do something dramatic before then,” he said. “But if it goes badly for them, they may make a more provocative move.”
Lappin expressed concern that in response to the blast at Natanz, the Iranian regime “may try to speed up the nuclear program or may up [increase sponsorship of] malign activity in the region, attacking US military, Saudi Arabia or Israeli interests internationally or from Syria.”
At the same time, he said, the Iranians are at a “sensitive junction” because they are “very aware that response can bring a counter-response and quickly snowball.”
“The coming weeks and months will reveal if Iran will take a calculated escalation route or reduce its profile,” Lappin said.