For the second year in a row, Iran finds itself facing a series of bad choices. Its Natanz nuclear facility, home to its advanced centrifuges, is in disarray yet again – another embarrassing incident for the Islamic Republic.
However, the regime has a serious problem because it has spent years boasting about its capabilities with little to show for it.
This puts Tehran in a bind. The more it shouts about what happened at Natanz, the more its inaction regarding what happened makes it seem weak. At the same time, it wants to seem weak to Western negotiators because it is now playing up the claim that it is suffering “sabotage” and “terrorism.”
Iran has a problem. On the one hand, its drive to create enriched material for a bomb has never brought it that close to a device. It has no way to deliver a nuclear weapon either, despite advances in missile technology. It uses uranium enrichment to pressure the signatories of the 2015 JCPOA.
In short, it uses uranium enrichment as global mafia-like blackmail. It says: “Look, we have enriched this to 20%; you better give us money, or we will enrich to 40%.” Tehran knows it can keep inching toward enough uranium for a weapon without ever building one.
Iran has cultivated a well-oiled propaganda machine in the West. It is made up of former officials, commentators, think-tank experts and shills for the regime who push narratives about how the West needs a “deal,” or else there will be war, and how a deal “prevents” it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Tehran trots out the Iran-deal crowd when it needs things. It tries to use the crowd to portray its adversaries, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, as roadblocks to amicable relations between it and the world.
Iran thus does two things at the same time: It threatens war and the bogeyman of nuclear weapons, while also presenting itself as the victim of Israel and Saudi Arabia, of sabotage and now of “nuclear terrorism.”
It invents mythical “hard-liners” and “moderates” to play good cop/bad cop with the West. It claims that if it doesn’t get another deal, then the bad hard-liners will come to power. But when it talks to Russia and China, Tehran doesn’t use the “hard-liner” threat.
There are no moderates in Iran. They only exist in the imagination of the West and as a talking point. Tehran has now trotted them out before elections to claim the West must give Iran a “deal” to boost President Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a “moderate.”
Iran now has to come up with a game plan after the latest Natanz incident. The incident has been too well reported to enable Tehran to pretend it didn’t happen, and it was Iran that revealed it in the first place.
However, Western media went further in describing details of the operation. For instance, Iran has vowed “revenge” via the foreign minister, the man least responsible for actually doing operations.
Then Ali Akbar Selahi, the nuclear chief, claimed sabotage took place. He also is not a military planner or cognizant of IRGC activity. In short, Tehran’s biggest complaints about Natanz come from people who may not even be familiar with current Iranian plans.
The Islamic Republic can read Western media and see that the West now believes it has suffered a serious setback in enrichment that reduces its leverage to get a new deal.
It also knows US officials may be pleased with the results of Natanz because pressure is reduced on the “need” for a new deal. It can also read the boasting of Israel’s prime minister, who says the fight against Iran and its proxies is a huge task.
It can read the media headlines that claim: “Western intelligence services tell Israel’s Channel 13 News that Israel’s Mossad agency was behind the ‘sabotage.’” And it can read that two intelligence officials told The New York Times the damage harmed the internal power system supporting the underground centrifuges.
In the past, Iran has attempted various types of retaliation. It fired salvos of rockets from Syria at Israel in 2018 and launched several small rocket attacks in 2019. It also sent a Hezbollah team with drones to an area near the Golan Heights in 2019.
It has allegedly attacked two ships linked to Israel. It has sent drones and missiles to the Houthis in Yemen. It has sought to move precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah and set up factories and networks to supply the terrorist group.
In 2018, it flew a drone into Israeli airspace from the T-4 base in Syria. It moved ballistic missiles to militias in Iraq in 2018 and 2019.
It has also targeted both Israelis and Israeli diplomatic posts abroad. For instance, reports on January 30 linked an incident in New Delhi to Iran, and Israel issued warnings in March. An Iranian attack in January was reportedly foiled, according to a report in February. There were even warnings about Iranian threats to the UAE in March.
Iran has not been successful so far, and it is grasping for something to do. It knows its infrastructure is lacking in abilities to strike at Israel, whether from its long-distance drones, ballistic missiles, ships or other methods.
Jerusalem announced new defensive capabilities over the last year, including air-defense successes against drones and cruise missiles, which Iran used to attack Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq in September 2019. Iran can read the reports and knows Israel’s capabilities likely outpace its own.
As such, Tehran’s threat of “revenge,” a vow it has made many times in the past, must be weighed against what its capabilities are, what it wants to accomplish and what its agenda regarding the international community is.