Dhe crackdown on protests in Iran sheds light on the regime’s brutality. In foreign policy, too, Tehran’s rulers do not shy away from terror. At the same time, their chances are better than ever to underpin their claim to hegemony in the Gulf with their own nuclear weapons capability. As is their threat to destroy Israel.
Because for the first time Iran has enough highly enriched uranium for the first atomic bombs. In practice, Iran would probably enrich the material even higher; with the modern gas centrifuges that have recently been installed, this would only take weeks. Whether Iran has already mastered bomb construction is less certain. Only: who wanted to risk it?
The West has so far countered the threat with negotiated diplomacy, sanctions and sabotage. The strategy of the then American President Barack Obama, who forced Iran to the table in 2015 with an internationally well-secured sanctions policy, carried the furthest. There, America, the EU, China and Russia dropped their demand that Iran should not engage in any uranium enrichment and lifted many sanctions. To this end, Tehran submitted to strict, albeit time-limited, limits on enrichment.
The deadlines that allowed Iran to (re)build elaborate centrifuges from as early as 2024 and unlimited enrichment from 2031 seemed acceptable to Obama and his partners for one reason: they had unprecedentedly strict, permanent oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA) extorted.
“The agreement is dead – but we do not share it”
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, brought the construct to collapse. He wanted to force Iran to capitulate through “maximum pressure”. But even the occasional threat of military strikes could not make up for the fact that America’s former partners balked at the sanctions. The bottom line is that Iran has expanded its nuclear program and locked out the inspectors more and more.
The protest movement is unlikely to solve the problem for the West. Although it has been undermining the authority of the Tehran leadership for months, its rapid overthrow is unlikely. The West expresses solidarity with the demonstrators, but has no influence on the course of events. The protesters from Berlin to Washington are all the more zealous in protesting that, of course, they will no longer negotiate with the executioners in Tehran. Talks about returning to the nuclear deal, which had stalled before the protests began, were “not a priority.”
However, this means that the agreement is “dead”. That’s exactly what Joe Biden assured a citizen back in November, with the addition “but we won’t share that” – the president hadn’t noticed that he was being filmed. Iran is no longer in line, but at least on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. The Pact of 2015 is not made for that.
Return to the nuclear deal? Iran would have more to gain
In the West, the realization is secretly gaining ground that Iran would gain more from its revival than it would give up: easing sanctions against conditions that will soon be lifted again because of the deadlines agreed in 2015. Only the EU foreign policy representative is committed to trying to repair what Trump and Iran destroyed. Anyone who thinks there is an alternative to returning to the agreement is deluding themselves, said Josep Borrell recently. Unfortunately, he is probably right too – apart from military strikes.
The new Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu will probably not hesitate if Biden admits that diplomacy has failed. Although bombs cannot destroy the knowledge of nuclear researchers, they can at least destroy well-known nuclear facilities and thus buy time. Admittedly at a high price: Iran’s proxy militias are ready on a broad front to take revenge. And internally, an Israeli-American attack might even benefit the regime – if the populace closed ranks behind the leadership in the face of aggression. However, the window of opportunity for military “solutions” is also closing rapidly, because the less insight the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies gain into Iran’s nuclear facilities, the greater the risk that Iran will transport fissile material to an unknown location.
The White House is still insisting that it will continue to rely on diplomacy. But the hurdles keep getting higher. Russia, which has pulled together with America, Europe and China in the nuclear dispute, is currently strengthening its military cooperation with Tehran; Iranian drones have become one of Moscow’s main weapons in Ukraine. For this reason alone, any military action in the Gulf could have global consequences – just like an Iranian nuclear bomb.