by Shireen T. Hunter
With the failure of the latest mediation efforts between Iran and the United States by the prime minister of Japan, followed by attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Iran has decided to speed up the process of reducing its commitments under the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).
First, Iran practiced what it termed “strategic patience” in the face of the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and Europe’s inability or unwillingness to shoulder its own commitments under the agreement. Now, Tehran has begun gradually to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond 300 kilograms.
It also announced recently that if Europe does not take immediate action to ease trade at least in essential goods such as food, medicine, and airplane parts, it would stop the process of transforming the Arak heavy water reactor, which was also part of the nuclear deal. Iran has taken pains to explain that all its actions are within the provisions of the nuclear deal and thus totally legal. Perhaps more important, some politicians, including Hojjat al-Islam Mojtaba Zolnour, a representative of the Supreme leader to the Revolutionary Guards Corp, hinted that if restrictions on Iran are not eased Tehran would consider withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
From a purely logical and legal perspective, Iran’s actions are not only understandable but also quite justifiable. In an agreement based on mutual concessions, if one side reneges on its commitments, the other side cannot be expected to continue adhering to its part of the bargain. But the real question here is not whether Iran is justified in reducing and perhaps eventually abandoning its commitments under the JCPOA and potentially even the NPT. The important question is whether these Iranian actions can force America and Europe to fulfill their part of the bargain or merely lead them to increase pressure on Tehran even further and thus increase the risk of military confrontation.
Incremental Increases in Enriched Uranium Production
Unless Iran has the required knowledge and the determination to produce a nuclear device quickly, something that it denies, then such incremental actions as noted above should not produce a drastic change in American behavior towards Tehran. But it would give further ammunition to Iran’s detractors in the West and also in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East to say that “we told you so” that Iran had not given up its ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity. Some regional countries and U.S. hawks will clamor for military attacks at least on Iran’s sensitive military sites, which the U.S. military has already prepared to do, on the pretext that they might be hidden centers for nuclear weapons production. Should such attacks take place they are unlikely to remain limited to those sites, because often military operations have a way of acquiring their own independent momentum and going beyond their initial objectives.
Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would intensify such concerns and might prompt an even harsher U.S. reaction. It would certainly increase pressure for some sort of preemptive strike on sensitive Iranian military and industrial centers. Moreover, Iran does not have the knowhow and ability to produce a viable system of nuclear deterrence or even a dirty bomb without lengthy efforts. Despite hyperbolic assertions since 1993 that Iran is only a year or six months away from having a nuclear device, it is unlikely that Tehran has such knowledge and certainly not the fissionable material. Given Iran’s strategic vulnerabilities, notwithstanding the claim that Islamic beliefs have prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons, if Tehran had the capacity, most probably it would have been sorely tempted secretly to develop such a device.
After all, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and other majority Muslim states like Saudi Arabia would love to have them if they could. More to the point, if the United States and Israel were convinced that Iran could produce nuclear weapons and was determined to do so, they would have already attacked certain Iranian sites. Iran’s hint at producing a bomb, when it doesn’t have the capacity to produce a credible nuclear deterrence in secret, only increases the risk that others will take preemptive action to thwart such plans.
The Risks Involved in Sabotage
Some hardliners in Iran still continue to say that if Iran cannot export its oil, others will not be able to do so either. But this, too, is a risky position. The identity of those involved in the sabotage of several oil tankers in recent weeks in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman is not yet clear. It doesn’t make much sense that Iran had been involved in these actions, especially the attacks on the Japanese ships, as it was trying to get Japan to invest in its ports on the Sea of Oman. But many of Iran’s actions over the years have not made sense in terms of its own interests. In fact, the Revolutionary Guard might have been involved in these operations outside the control of the Iranian government. Certain elements in the country thrive on turmoil and brinkmanship and are dead set against the normalization of Iran’s relations with the outside world for they see it as threatening their hold on power.
Thus far, Western and other reactions to recent events in the Persian Gulf have been muted. Not wanting to help ignite a war, they have refused to lay the blame squarely on Iran’s doorstep. Indeed, there is not yet sufficient proof of Tehran’s guilt. But neither has anyone done much to ease pressure on Tehran.
Should such events occur again and if there is even a whiff of Iranian involvement, the risk of U.S. action against Iran and an outbreak of war would increase exponentially. Already, President Donald Trump has ordered more troops for the Middle East region, justifying it in terms of an increased Iranian threat. He might be pressed by his hawkish advisers to squeeze Iran even more.
What Should Iran Do?
Since a strategy of escalation is unlikely to pay off, Iran should opt for a policy of engagement abroad and reform within. Domestically, reducing some cultural and other restrictions would ease psychological pressures on the people and might help them cope better with material difficulties. More serious reforms in the running of the country—better managing the economy, improving the professionalism of various institutions, and curbing corruption—would not be easy, since powerful interest groups have stakes in opposing such reforms.
Despite the uncertainties involved in any future agreements and compromises with the United States , Iran must bite the bullet and talk to America. It does not make sense for a country like Iran not to talk to the key international player no matter how bad it thinks it is. Iran talks even to those countries that insult it. Nor is the United States the only country that has reneged on its promise to Tehran. Russia and China have also done so many times, but Iran still courts them. To get a better deal internationally, Iran must expand its options by engaging with all major international and regional players. Obsessive anti-Americanism and the pursuit of unrealistic and unrealizable revolutionary goals have seriously narrowed Tehran’s diplomatic and economic options.
Iran needs to secure its national interests as opposed to chasing after revolutionary illusions. Will Iran’s hardliners pay any attention to the country’s national interest, or will they persist in their revolutionary delusions? Even the hardliners must recognize that the status quo is untenable. Even if there is no war with America, the continuation of current conditions will eventually hollow out Iran from within and even undermine its people’s physical and mental health.