Vivek Y. Kelkar
The US sought to halt Iran’s nuclear program, weaken its economy, isolate it politically, and retain its influence over the Middle East. But Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning—and now the US has brought itself to the edge of the cliff.
Yesterday in Jerusalem, President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a statement affirming their “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” adding that the United States “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” The pledge was deliberately emotive to convey resolve.
Negotiations with Iran in Vienna earlier this month were inconclusive. The Americans were adamant that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would remain on the US terrorism list. Iran objected and walked away from the table.
When asked yesterday by Israel’s Channel 12 if he was still committed to keeping the IRGC on the terror list, even if it killed any possibility of a deal with Iran, Biden said tersely, “Yes”.
But Iran is the closest it has ever been to building a nuclear weapon. On May 8, 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally abrogated a deal with Iran that had been painstakingly negotiated by the five permanent members of the UN Security and Germany. Since then, Iran has done everything it can to build its nuclear capability very, very quickly. Immediately after Trump’s withdrawal, Tehran began furiously enriching and stockpiling uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency said this month that Iran is now weeks away from having enough to make a single nuclear bomb. Before Trump, the best estimates held that Iran was a year, at least, from enriching this much uranium. Fashioning it into a usable weapon might take another two years, but a number of rogue states have perfected their delivery systems and would probably be happy to sell them to Tehran off the shelf.
To match Biden’s stern pledges in Jerusalem, the US imposed fresh sanctions, ahead of the trip, on people and firms in Hong Kong, Iran, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. The US accuses them of facilitating the sale and delivery of Iranian oil and gas to East Asia, and has barred them from its financial system. Biden clearly seeks to pressure Tehran to return to the negotiating table.
But the world has changed since Trump withdrew from the deal. Russia has invaded Ukraine, among other events. Biden’s negotiators, with some assistance from the European Union, have been trying to coax Iran back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But the talks have stalled, and now Iran can play hardball.
Tehran has been boosted by China’s appetite for oil and gas and its investment in rail and road infrastructure. Iran is in a unique position to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It borders Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and the Caspian Sea connects it to Russia. In the Southeast, Iran nearly controls the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial link to the Arabian Sea.
Moscow, too, has given Iran critical support. In 2018, it entered several joint ventures with Iranian companies to invest in oil and gas exploration throughout the Islamic Republic. Russia has been helping Iran to forge trade links with Central Asia by means of the Eurasian Economic Union, which Moscow leads. In 2019, the EEU signed a preferential trade agreement with Iran, and trade volumes on both sides have quietly grown ever since. Moscow has also committed to building infrastructure along its land corridors to Iran and its Caspian Sea ports.
Then there is natural gas. Iran has the world’s second-largest proven reserves. This offers Europe a tempting option, now that it must wean itself off Russian gas. The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said as much in May: “[T]he situation has changed now … Now it would be very much interesting for us to have another [crude] supplier.”
In December last year, France, Germany, and the UK warned that time was running out, and the JCPOA would have to be restored in “weeks, not months,” or its key non-proliferation benefits would be lost.
The IRGC is at the core of Iran’s military command structure. It has considerable political clout. It’s unclear whether a compromise on the IRGC is even possible. It’s also unclear whether the US has a Plan B, and if so, whether that truly includes a military option. With one devastating war in Europe already underway and Biden declaring the US’ willingness to use “all elements of its national power,” the rhetoric has reached dangerous levels.
It need not have been this way.
US missteps didn’t begin with Trump. Hatred of the United States has been a central value of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, Iran was willing to ally with the US, at least in Afghanistan.
The somewhat-more-moderate figures then in control of Iran were willing to make overtures. Iran was one of the earliest countries to offer the US its condolences. Even the hardline supremo Ayatollah Khamenei summoned the decency to soften his rhetoric and offer his sympathies. The clergy temporarily suspended the weekly chants of “Death to America.”
In November 2001 at the UN headquarters in New York, Iran joined a working group made up of six of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the US, and Russia to discuss Afghanistan’s future after the Taliban. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously shook hands with Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who went on to publicly express his condolences to the American people. Powell thanked Iran and asked Kharrazi to pay his respects to Khamenei.
The Iranians were deeply involved in subsequent talks in Germany, and reportedly played a constructive role. At a conference in Tokyo on January 2, 2002, Iran pledged US$500 million to the allied forces in Afghanistan, the largest donation of any OECD country. Tehran facilitated allied passage through Iranian airspace and offered assistance in establishing supply lines. Iran also collaborated politically with the US to support Operation Enduring Freedom, because Iran had close relations with the Northern Alliance. Back then, Iran did not appear to be pursuing the Bomb with any special urgency.
Then, despite Iran’s obvious desire for an entente with the US, the then President George Bush Jr. dropped a bombshell in a speech on January 29, 2002, including Iran in the infamous Axis of Evil. Bush had been persuaded by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Iran could not be trusted.
After the Taliban was defeated in early 2002, Iran arrested al Qaeda terrorists who fled to Iran, and offered evidence of this at the UN. But Rumsfeld publicly refused to believe it. “There’s no question but that there have been and are today senior al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy,” he said, quite forgetting that al Qaeda was Sunni and linked to the Saudis, while Iran was Shia, and there had never been any love lost between the two.
About a year later, Iran again proposed back-channel talks with the US. Cheney and Rumsfeld declined. The hidebound Bush administration had neither the ability nor the wisdom to recognize that Iran was reaching out. The rebuff rekindled considerable ill-feeling toward Washington in Tehran. Then the invasion of Iraq inflamed Iranian sentiment, becoming a talking point for regime hardliners. This was at least partly responsible for the election to the presidency, in 2005, of the severely intransigent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
President Barack Obama’s six-nation deal with Iran in 2015 was hard-fought. It might not have been ideal, but it gave rise to optimism that a nuclear Iran could be somewhat forestalled. Iran, according to the IAEA, was largely adhering to the deal. Then came Donald Trump.
Today, Iran is emboldened by the support it has received from China and Russia. When Trump rescinded the JCPOA, Russia began making deals with Iran. Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, Lukoil, Rosneft, Tatneft, and Zarubezhneft all signed agreements with Iran to explore for oil, swap petrochemicals, and manufacture equipment. Although US pressure slowed Russia’s implementation of these agreements, they’re still in place.
A preferential free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union had been in the works since 2016, and was effectively implemented in 2019. It’s due for renewal this coming October. Little stops it from being renewed and transformed into a full-fledged trade agreement with non-dollar currency options. Russia will also partly finance the Rasht-Astara railway line linking Iran to Russia via Azerbaijan.
Sergei Lavrov, the much-reviled Russian foreign minister, visited Tehran last month. Iran used his visit to emphasize the urgency of getting the oil sector projects off the ground, shrewdly letting Moscow know that it was in a hurry. Iran suggested its willingness to collaborate with Russia in the petrochemicals sector. Underlying this was another message: Tehran is keen to extract from Russia commitments to the security of Iran’s position in Syria and Yemen, as well as that of its client, Hezbollah.
It’s not clear what cards the US has to play to match its resolute rhetoric in Jerusalem. If it does have a Plan B, and if that is a military option via airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, it won’t be simple. Iran is reckoned to have a competent air defense system that will have to be countered. The country’s command-and-control structures will have to be targeted. This will be complicated.
Iran will retaliate. It could use its proxies in the Middle East to terrorize US allies. It may disrupt the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most critical chokepoint for shipping, including crude oil. Tens of thousands of US troops in the region may become targets. A full-scale regional war may erupt.
But all this might be avoided if Iran can entice Europe with its oil and gas to stall the US and find a deal. The EU can deliver money and technology. It can finance and build infrastructure. The EU has economic reasons to ensure that war in the Middle East never comes to pass. Berlin, Brussels, and Paris would have to lift their gazes from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to thrash out solutions.
Aware of the global shortage of natural gas, Iran recently announced that it would expand the Azadegan oil and gas field—a supergiant, one of the biggest in the world. Iran is betting that since Qatar and other gas producers are unable completely to replace Russian gas to the EU, any additional gas it can offer will make it more attractive to Europe. Finance may well come from China, or if the EU is willing to overlook stalling on the JCPOA, from Germany, Italy, or other Europeans.
But this depends upon Iran doing nothing rash. On July 12, the White House released intelligence that Iran was expected to supply Russia with “hundreds” of drones, many of them weapons capable. If Iran follows through, Europe may balk at further trade ties, especially natural gas. Tehran could lose the advantages it’s gained in recent years.
There are other dynamics to watch. Recently, Kazakhstan has shown that it isn’t entirely keen to toe Moscow’s line. It may balk at further connecting Iran to Moscow. But Kazakhstan depends extensively on China for economic support; the BRI links are crucial for China’s economy, and Beijing will very much have a say. An additional link to China’s BRI, from Iran to Kazakhstan via Turkmenistan could only help.
US sanctions have never stopped China from trading with Iran or investing in its infrastructure. The new US sanctions might be inconvenient to Iran, but they’re not an immovable obstacle. China needs Iran for the BRI and in its battle for supremacy with the US. Iran’s location and resources make it vital to Russia’s plans for rebuilding its own economy, even if sanctions are still in place.
The original goal of US sanctions was to halt Iran’s nuclear program, weaken its economy, isolate it politically, and retain US influence over the Middle East. But today, Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning—and now the US has brought itself to the edge of the cliff.
Vivek Y. Kelkar is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.