Will Iran move from small nuke violations to the countdown to a bomb?

Security and Defense: From rocky to explosive?

A POSTER OF Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is seen while Iranian people commemorate the Shia Muslim holiday Arbaeen in Tehran, last week.  (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE/WANA VIA REUTERS)
A POSTER OF Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is seen while Iranian people commemorate the Shia Muslim holiday Arbaeen in Tehran, last week.
The problem with deadlines is that they force you either to act or look weak due to inaction.
Will Iran’s expected November deadline and expected new violation of the 2015 nuclear deal finally lead to speeding up the countdown toward Tehran breaking out to a nuclear weapon and a possible Israeli or US preemptive strike?
Iran’s three previous deadlines for the US to remove the sanctions against it and three recent minor violations of the deal have failed to pressure the US, Israel, the Saudis and most of the West into submitting to its positions.
The Islamic Republic wants the deal to remain as is.
In contrast, the other parties want a combination of extending the nuclear limits beyond the mid-2020s, new limits on Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and new limits on its ballistic missile program.
Will the first week of November be just one more marker in a slow-motion deterioration in the US-Iran nuclear standoff, where both sides are still trying to minimize any major escalation? Or will the cool and low-grade conflict finally explode into a full-fledged hot conflict?
As usual, the devil is in the details.
After the Islamic Republic’s September violation of the nuclear deal, there was speculation that Iran would finally up its uranium enrichment to the 20% level.
Many top experts say that this would be a game changer. Enrichment to the 20% level could cut Tehran’s timeline to a nuclear bomb from 12 months to six months. That kind of a moving of the goalposts would likely lead to at least getting preemptive strike options ready.
Another major escalation that could cut the timeline all the way down to six months would be if Iran were to reinstall and start operating most of its IR-2m centrifuges for enriching uranium. Its standard IR-1 centrifuges are much less efficient.
Iran’s increasingly aggressive behavior since its September deadline appears to indicate desperation and a greater readiness to let the standoff spin out of control.
It ordered or spearheaded an audacious and massive multifaceted attack on Saudi oil fields.
Also, it rejected a French compromise offer, which would have included a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Tehran’s attack on the Saudis was more brazen, and caused far more pressure on the Saudis and the world economy than its previous smaller and more camouflaged military moves against Saudi and US-allied oil tankers.
Searching for a diplomatic achievement in September, Trump appeared ready – against the advice of his advisers – to accept a French deal for dialing down the nuclear standoff.
France proposed that the US effectively roll back its sanctions by half in exchange for Iran returning to the nuclear deal limits as well as a $15 billion economic lifeline from the European Union.
But Trump wanted a summit and a photo-op, and Rouhani bristled at the idea of looking too cozy with Trump absent a broader deal that permanently removes US sanctions.
In addition, Trump’s withdrawal from Syria has caused worries in Israel that Iran would view the move as a sign of weakness and would become even more aggressive on all the possible playing fields.
And yet, Iranian officials signaled last week that its next violation would be another gradual escalation, not a major spike. They said that they may start placing limits on their cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Of course, we need to wait to see what these limits mean.
If the limits mean that the IAEA cannot monitor the areas where most of the Islamic Republic’s centrifuges for uranium enrichment are, this could be a major violation. If the IAEA cannot monitor the centrifuges, it would not even know if Tehran reinstalled the approximately 14,000 centrifuges (representing about 75% of the total) that it disconnected in 2015.
In that case, Israel and the US would need to start planning for the possibility that Iran is trying to clandestinely break out to a bomb without monitoring.
But chances are that Iran will not risk such an escalation. Restrictions on IAEA inspections will probably be more limited, so that Rouhani will not need to worry about unnecessarily scaring Israel or the US into action.
Signals along these lines come from a combination of Iran-promoted stories about new talks with the Saudis, and separate talks with China toward resolving the various standoffs.
After an Iranian ship was hit by missile strikes, it accused the US, Israel and the Saudis of cooperating, but has not rushed to retaliate.
A reported US cyberattack on Iran has left Tehran denying there was any attack, another likely sign of a desire to de-escalate and avoid further embarrassment.
Also, Rouhani may finally be facing real pressure from the EU.
Angered by the last four months of Iranian violations of the nuclear deal, harassment of EU ships and clandestine espionage operations on EU soil, France, England and Germany threatened Iran last month that they would pull out of the nuclear deal if the Islamic Republic were to go too far.
Iran is already not getting much business from the EU, due to US sanctions. But if that EU-3 group pulled out of the JCPOA, they could also trigger snap-back sanctions at the UN. Sanctions from the UN could force China and Russia to toe the sanctions line, something that would be a much bigger blow to Iran’s already shaky economy.
At the same time, Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Iraq are dealing with unprecedented protests from their own Shi’ite sector against the poor economic situation.
In this volatile mix, Rouhani and his boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may slow-walk any further escalations.
Until the US canceled waivers for eight countries in May – waivers that had allowed those countries to maintain business with Iran without getting sanctioned – Khamenei appeared ready to patiently wait out Trump until the November 2020 US election. 
From May to September, Khamenei ramped up the pressure, hoping to gain some ground in the nuclear standoff.
But now Iran may see that its successes over the last several months have only been tactical. Blowing up or commandeering US or US-allied assets has created some pressure on the West to cut a deal with Iran that would remove Trump’s sanctions, yet it has not changed America’s basic conditions for that to happen.
If increasing tensions at a low-grade level is starting to raise costs for Iran more than achieving benefits, then Khamenei is back to the choices of cutting a deal along the lines of what the US wants, waiting for the 2020 election, or breaking out to a nuclear weapon.
In a September exclusive about Mossad director Yossi Cohen, The Jerusalem Post reported that sources close to him expect that the US would participate with Israel in a preemptive strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities if Khamenei tried to dash toward a bomb. This despite Trump’s failure to use force to retaliate when Iran shot down an expensive US drone.
There may be some sense in the view that Trump sees an Iranian nuclear bomb as a redline that would change his approach, an approach that has otherwise deemphasized using US military force in the Middle East.
If Khamenei does not want to risk an attack on his nuclear facilities and is not ready at least for the French compromise (maybe he will unexpectedly become more open to this), then by the process of elimination, waiting and keeping the kettle at a low boil is his only option.
Of course, continued low-grade escalations have their own price in exposing that Iran keeps blinking first and that it will not yet go the mat to break the deadlock.
Come the first week of November, if Khamenei and Rouhani do not accomplish anything new strategically, they may wish that they had not set any deadlines.