Talks between Iran and world powers headed by the United States over the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal have reached a critical junction. The talks appear to be at a dead end. Meanwhile, Iran continues to refuse to provide explanations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over previous nuclear activity at undeclared sites where uranium traces have been found.
Iran is sticking to its uncompromising demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) be removed from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization (FTO) list.
Iran’s response to a decision by the IAEA board of governors, which was supported by 30 countries, to condemn its lack of transparency was to shut off 30 surveillance cameras that the IAEA installed at Iranian uranium enrichment facilities. At the same time, the uranium enrichment process has accelerated, reaching the level of at least 60% enrichment, which brings Iran to a distance of a few weeks from stockpiling the needed amount of military-grade fissile material to produce their first atomic bomb and become an actual nuclear threshold state.
Should the Iranian weapons group, which is responsible for other aspects of the nuclear program, resume its activity, the production of an actual nuclear bomb is expected to take another two years.
The Iran nuclear program
Israel has, for many years, waged a covert campaign against Iran’s nuclear program that includes, according to international media reports, attacks on uranium enrichment sites and personnel linked to the project. While these attacks have led to delays in the program, in the modern age such acts cannot stop a state that is committed to building nuclear capabilities.
It seems that the professional knowledge needed to advance a nuclear program is in the hands of Iranian scientists. And while a first draft of a revived nuclear deal has been written up, it also seems that Iran is unwilling to compromise, choosing instead a defiant dialogue and brinkmanship, backed by the decisions of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the IRGC.
In this situation, the US and Western powers must formulate a clear policy on how to deal with Iran’s unilateral steps. It seems that the options at their disposal are rather limited.
The diplomatic path requires involving the United Nations Security Council and using the IAEA’s latest report as a basis for seeking condemnation of Iran for its lack of cooperation, and a recommendation to impose international sanctions on it. Yet, the chances of such a maneuver succeeding are slim due to the contrarian policies of Russia and China, which have interests in Iran, and would likely veto Security Council resolutions against it.
An initiated freeze of talks by Western powers would allow Iran to evade its responsibility for the failure of diplomacy, and create facts on the ground in the form of a nuclear threshold Iranian state as part of its ongoing efforts to become a regional hegemon.
ONE CANNOT rule out a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations as a result of a compromise, in the form of a solution separating the Quds Force from the rest of the IRGC to resolve the sanctions dispute. Still, it seems that the diplomatic path is blocked and is unlikely to provide the breakthrough that the Biden administration sought when it renewed talks and tried to shake off the 2018 decision by the Trump administration to place tough sanctions on Iran and leave the previous nuclear agreement.
Placing additional economic sanctions on Iran by the West as a sole response will only have a limited impact, since the Iranians have proven their impressive ability to adapt to a sanctions regime. Among other reasons, Iran is able to do this by exploiting Chinese assistance, as Beijing continues to purchase cheaper Iranian oil and invest in Iranian infrastructure.
In this context, it is worth pointing out that in recent weeks, demonstrations and public protests against the government’s economic policies have been growing in Iran, and it is reasonable to believe that the global food crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine will make Iran’s economic situation deteriorate further. In light of the above, the unavoidable alternative route is the creation of a credible, public military option led by the US, alongside the placement of additional sanctions that will make Western determination to prevent Iran from going nuclear clear.
It is worth recalling that in 2003, when Iran felt threatened by American military forces deployed close to its border in Iraq from the west and in Afghanistan from the east, Tehran froze the activity of its nuclear weapons group.
The US would do well to also rebuild its relations with Gulf States, foremost among them Saudi Arabia, which are threatened by Iran. A defensive alliance agreement could be signed between Washington and Gulf Sunni states to calm their fears of an American withdrawal from the region, in addition to the setting up of an advanced, joint air defense system by Gulf States, Israel and the US against Iranian threats.
Boosting intelligence and operational cooperation between the US and Israel is vital, particularly to coordinate their activities against the double threat that Iran poses through its goal of becoming a nuclear status country and its use of proxy organizations to seed terrorism and instability in the Middle East. This includes attacks on American targets in Iraq and eastern Syria.
From Israel’s perspective, the combination of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands and the extreme religious ideology of the ayatollah regime calling for Israel’s destruction constitutes an existential threat that Israel cannot accept. Hence, Israel, too, must build an independent credible military option for attacking Iranian nuclear targets, as it has done in the past in Iraq and Syria.
Israel must rely on its independent capabilities in dealing with Iran and be ready to activate them in coordination with the US if efforts by the powers to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons fail. In this context, it is worth pointing out that a military clash with Iran could spark a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as Hezbollah is a proxy organization that listens to instructions from the Iranian regime. Hezbollah would likely activate its large projectile arsenal (estimated at 70,000 rockets, including precise missiles supplied by Iran to attack Israel in the case of a clash between them).
The world must take into account the potential price of a failure to stop Iran from going nuclear through diplomacy or military means. With other countries in the region likely to also try to develop similar capabilities to create a balance of deterrence, this would spark a dangerous, uncontrollable and destabilizing nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The writer is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his intelligence career as deputy director of the Mossad in 2007.