Iran renews nuclear work, but will it dash for a bomb?
ince the United States pulled out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iranian nuclear deal, Tehran has taken care not to stretch its provocations too far. The leadership has announced several violations of the treaty, but most were in the spirit of “look what you’re making us do, Mr. Trump.” In short, the moves were designed to pressure the United States to back the deal once more.
But in the past few weeks, something has changed. In addition to enriching uranium at higher levels and increasing its uranium stockpile, Iran has restarted its underground Fordow nuclear facility. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently found trace elements of uranium at an undeclared Iranian site in Tehran, one that Israel discovered and brought to the agency’s attention. All these moves point to the likelihood that Iran believes the nuclear deal is history, and is trying to produce a bomb before the economic sanctions cause irreparable damage to its economy.
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., said Iran’s actions recall its behavior pre-JCPOA.
“This is what happened last time they moved ahead with their nuclear program while sanctions were taking a real bite out of their accessible cash reserves,” he said. “The question is what else the United States can do to apply pressure to Iran’s economy, to sway them. Right now, it is very much a race between Iranian physics and American sanctions.”
The Iranians are exploiting the prolonged interregnum in Israel, along with President Trump’s disinclination to go to war in the Middle East, to pose a real dilemma: Stop us if you can. It’s not all clear that military action could destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, which are spread throughout the country and well protected. But even if a military solution is still possible, it seems unlikely that Israel and America would want to go to war.
Schanzer suggested that a joint United States–European Union policy to stop Iran might be effective. However, he is uncertain the Europeans will bite: “I know that they are as concerned about Iran’s nuclear program as the United States, and are as eager to halt that program. So it will be interesting to watch them, and even to a certain extent the Russians and the Chinese. I don’t think anyone wants to see an Iranian breakout.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu has stressed for years that Israel will act alone against Iran if necessary. In this instance, too, Schanzer sees a real possibility that Israel may act to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, which it sees as an existential threat.
“When Iran makes advances like this, it usually provokes some kind of [Israeli] response,” he said. “We saw in the past that Israel deployed cyber weapons to disrupt or derail Iran’s nuclear progress and assassinated nuclear scientists. So with Iran officially back in the nuclear game, one gets a sense that Israel cannot stand by.”
Ned Price, a lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former spokesperson for the National Security Council i n the Obama administration, told Mishpacha that Iran’s recent provocations are intended primarily for the Europeans.
“[They are] signaling that Europe needs to come to the table,” he said. “Iran has probably correctly calculated that there is very little need to message to the Trump administration at this point, since it, together with Israel, has signaled that maximum pressure will be the policy as long as President Trump is in office.”
All the more so as the United States enters an election year in which Trump is unlikely to make concessions to an Iranian nemesis, Price said. “They have much more interest in signaling to European capitals as well as to Beijing, to Moscow, that those parties need to come to the table with a serious offer in terms of sanctions relief that will deliver what Tehran believes it was promised in the context of the nuclear deal.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 786)