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Relations Between Iran and the West are Crumbling

With negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme stalled, international monitoring abilities degraded, and China now mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what options do the US and Europe have for containing Tehran?

Keeping diplomacy alive: International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi meets with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on 4 March

Earlier this month, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi travelled to Tehran to meet with Iranian officials in a bid to resolve outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear work. The session occurred at an especially important time in the nearly two decade-long saga that is the Iranian nuclear file, and two days before an IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting where Tehran’s stonewalling of the Agency’s investigation was to be front-and-centre of the discussion. Grossi’s sojourn to the Iranian capital also came weeks after his inspectors detected uranium particles enriched to 84% purity at Iran’s underground enrichment facility at Fordow. Iranian officials, aware that such a discovery could have significant repercussions at a time when Iran is under strong economic sanctions and experiencing the largest protests since the Islamic Republic’s foundation in 1979, responded in short order by committing to additional inspections at the underground facility and agreeing in principle to reinstalling the IAEA monitoring equipment that was removed last year.

The latest news is a welcome step from the Iranians, assuming technical arrangements with the IAEA can be made quickly and Tehran actually implements what it has agreed to (previous arrangements with the IAEA have been delayed to the point of irrelevancy). Even so, the recent cautious optimism is still outweighed by a general sense of despondency in interactions between Iran and the West. Relations grew more antagonistic during the latter half of 2022, when the US publicised intelligence that Tehran was assisting Russian President Vladimir Putin with his war effort in Ukraine through the sale of hundreds of armed unmanned aerial vehicles. The Iranians are reportedly working with Russia to establish a drone manufacturing base on Russian soil that can produce 6,000 Iranian-designed drones for use on the battlefield in Ukraine. According to CIA Director William Burns, the Russia–Iran defence partnership has grown in both scale and scope. ‘We know that they’ve [Iran] provided ammunition for artillery and for tanks’, Burns told CBS on 27 February. ‘And what we also see are signs that Russia is proposing to help the Iranians on their missile programme and also at least considering the possibility of providing fighter aircraft to Iran as well’.

The domestic protests against the Iranian government – sparked by the death last September of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman arrested by the Morality Police for dressing immodestly – have further toughened the West’s stance on the Islamic Republic in the months since. Iran has refused to compromise with the protesters, many of whom want nothing less than the downfall of the regime after months in which the police have gone on a rampage in dozens of cities across the country. Iranian authorities are utilising the state’s security apparatus to crack down harshly on dissent. Hundreds of Iranian protesters have been killed, dozens have been executed, and nearly 20,000 (and counting) have been arrested. The US and Europe are responding to the violence with sanctions on Iranian officials, officers and entities responsible for Tehran’s repression, the latest round of which were imposed on 20 February, when the EU designated 32 individuals and two entities for human rights violations.

There is a sense of urgency on the part of non-proliferation experts as well as some officials who wish to keep nuclear diplomacy with Iran alive for as long as possible

Iran’s nuclear programme, meanwhile, continues to produce and stockpile highly enriched uranium without the slightest limitations, courtesy of the Trump administration’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw Washington from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump, whose national security team included Iran hardliners like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, was never a fan of the agreement and believed the US could leverage its dominance of the international financial system to push Tehran into adopting a whole new set of maximalist US objectives. The assumption underlying the so-called ‘maximum pressure strategy’ was that further stress on the Iranian economy would over time force Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to make a choice: authorise negotiations with the West on less favourable terms or watch the Islamic Republic’s wealth evaporate. Tehran, in other words, would modify its foreign policy out of pure economic desperation.

Of course, that assumption was flat-out incorrect and betrayed a poor understanding of how the Islamic Republic operates. The Iranians used the US abrogation of the JCPOA to free themselves from the enrichment caps and centrifuge restrictions spelled out in the accord. Iran has been producing 60% enriched uranium for nearly two years, is using more advanced centrifuges to do it, and has accumulated an enriched uranium stockpile more than 18 times larger than what it possessed under the JCPOA. US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl assessed during congressional testimony in February that it would take Iran 12 days to assemble the fuel needed for one bomb. The IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear activity is degraded, with the Agency’s cameras having been turned off for nearly a year. ‘As a consequence, the Agency has not been able to perform JCPOA verification and monitoring activities in relation to the production and inventory of centrifuges, rotors and bellows, heavy water and uranium ore concentrate for almost two years’, the IAEA assessed in its most recent public report issued in November.

There is a sense of urgency on the part of non-proliferation experts as well as some officials, like EU foreign policy commissioner Josep Borrell, who wish to keep nuclear diplomacy with Iran alive for as long as possible. Yet the Biden administration does not seem to share the same urgency, a curious development given that Biden himself strongly opposed the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign and committed to a mutual return to the JCPOA. US officials are increasingly frustrated by what they regard as Iran’s total lack of cooperation on the nuclear file since the summer, when an agreement was close at hand. Tehran’s refusal to drop some of its demands, foremost among them the termination of the IAEA’s investigation into its past nuclear work, is convincing Washington and some of its European allies that Iran is no longer serious about striking a deal. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has downgraded negotiations as a US foreign policy priority: ‘the JCPOA has not been on the agenda as a practical matter for many months now. It’s not our focus’.

There is a years-long track record of sanctions failing to accomplish the actual policy objective the US seeks to achieve

If diplomacy is now seen as a feckless exercise, the question is what other options the US and Europe have to contain Iran’s nuclear programme. The choices lie somewhere between ineffective and dangerous. Washington and European capitals could strengthen enforcement of the current sanctions regime or bolster it with additional designations against third parties that are caught undermining it. But it is highly unlikely such financial mechanisms would do much, if anything, to push Iranian officials back into a substantive diplomatic process. Sanctions alone can certainly take Iranian crude oil off the market and deter businesses around the world from investing in the Iranian marketplace, as the world saw at the peak of the maximum pressure campaign between 2018 and 2020. But there is a years-long track record of sanctions failing to accomplish the actual policy objective the US seeks to achieve: forcing Iran to, at the very least, embrace a serious negotiation process, preferably on Washington’s terms. Instead, Iran has met maximum pressure with maximum resistance – escalating its nuclear work, devising increasingly ingenious ways of getting around the US sanctions regime, and leaning on Russia and China to an ever-greater degree.

Covert operations and sabotage are on the table as well. Israel, which views the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat to its own security, has spent more than a decade employing a number of covert means – from cyber attacks and drone strikes to assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists – to delay Tehran’s weapons programmes (the latest was a January drone strike on an Iranian missile facility in Isfahan). The Israelis have demonstrated a degree of tactical proficiency that has forced Tehran to enhance security measures across its entire nuclear infrastructure, from facilities all the way down to personnel. But sabotage is at best a ‘mowing the grass’ strategy, requiring constant pressure over an undefined period. The covert operations are not cost-free either; with every successful strike, Iran responds by hardening its programme and taking forceful measures of its own. A February 2023 drone strike against an Israeli-owned civilian vessel in the Persian Gulf is just the most recent example.

A conventional military operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains a part of the US playbook. US and Israeli fighter and bomber aircraft engaged in mock exercises in January, designed in part to bolster interoperability between the two countries’ air, naval and land forces. The exercises sent a very simple message to the Iranian political leadership: that the military option is a live one. However, while an airstrike campaign could succeed in degrading Iran’s nuclear capacity for a short time, the risks are also considerable – including but not limited to the inevitable Iranian retaliation against Western targets in the Middle East, a diplomatic crisis arising between Washington and European governments who do not support military action, and a formal order by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei post-strike for Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb (an order the US intelligence community assesses has not been given yet). Counterproductively, there is also the possibility of the Iranian regime capitalising on the strike to increase its support among large swaths of the Iranian population.

The US and Europe should therefore be wary of giving up on diplomacy with Iran completely. Unfortunately, this appears to be where the situation is headed, barring a change of course. The other options are at best holding patterns and at worst preludes to a larger conflict.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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