Iran: A strategic challenge in the Coronavirus era, as well


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | April 17, 2020

Centrifuges in Natazh

Despite the catastrophe with which it is dealing due to the spread out of control of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Iranian regime continues to build its strategic capabilities in the nuclear realm and surface-to-surface missiles, and to pursue its malign activities across the Middle East.


Of late, the regime has declared 'around-the-clock' effort to complete development and operation of advanced centrifuges. Parallel to this, Iran made public a project to increase the destructive power of its surface-to-surface missiles' warheads.


At the beginning of March the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has deepened its breach of the nuclear agreement, and among other things, has enlarged its stockpile of low enriched uranium (to 1020 kg) and operated six cascades of centrifuges at its reinforced facility at Fordow. Although it appears Iran is expanding its nuclear project gradually, in a measured and cautious fashion, its progress has led to a substantive cut in its breakout time (BOT) to amass enough fissionable material for one nuclear device, if it decides to do so in a worst-case-scenario.


There are apprehensions that in the framework of its efforts to expand its nuclear program, Iran might take advantage of the world's focus on the battle with the Coronavirus and the difficulties that the pandemic presents in the ability of the IAEA to carry out its monitoring role effectively in Iranian territory.


During Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day marked on 8 April, the Iranian Organization for Atomic Energy announced far-reaching plans. The Organization's spokesperson clarified that Iran is manufacturing 60 advanced centrifuges daily, "towards reaching enrichment capacity of 250,000 SWU" [compared to 6000-7000 today] "on the road to a million SWU".


From a regional perspective, the regime 'has not taken its hands off the steering wheel', while the central battle arena is Iraq. Iran strives to realize the objective it set in the wake of the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani three months ago: to oust American forces from the country.


Ever since the targeting of Soleimani, and with him the strongman of the Shi'ite militias Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, some 20 attacks have been carried out against bases and other American interests in Iraq, most with katyusha rockets. In response to the death of two American soldiers and a British soldier in one of the strikes, on 12 March the United States attacked five targets of Shi'ite militias in the country supported by Iran. Among those killed in the American strike were operatives from security forces of Iraq, what prompted renewed calls for removal of all American forces from the country.


In the course of protecting its forces, the United States evacuated a number of small bases in the north and west of Iraq and in the vicinity of Baghdad, transferring the troops to larger bases. Parallel to this, for the first time, the U.S. deployed Patriot missiles in the country - at the Ayn al-Asad airbase (which had been attacked by an Iranian surface-to-surface missiles in response to the elimination of Soleimani) and in the Kurdish region. This step may suggest there are American apprehensions of attacks on its bases using short range missiles that Iran has transferred to Shi'ite militias in Iraq. President Trump warned in a tweet that Iran and its proxies would pay a "heavy price" if they attacked American interests.


In the meantime, the spokesperson for the international coalition in Iraq announced that some of its members would temporarily suspend training missions of Iraqi forces and evacuate hundreds of soldiers from the country due to spread of the Coronavirus. This was in contrast to the United States, which did not reduce the number of its soldiers, and continues to bear most of the military burden in Iraq.


In the political domain as well, Iran maintains deep involvement in Iraq. Teheran has made extraordinary efforts to counter negative developments: splits and disputes in the ranks of the Shi'ite militias and possible appointment of an anti-Iranian prime minister. Chief of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, and Soleimani's replacement as commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani arrived separately to Bagdad, and have succeeded to thwart, the establishment of the government of acting Prime Minister Adnan al-Zurfi.


Israel cannot afford to cease its treatment of the growing challenges and threats Iran continues to present, the first – expansion of its nuclear project. When a new government is finally formed in Israel, it must define this issue as the top priority, side-by-side with the battle against Coronavirus. In this framework, the government must initiate an in-depth dialogue with the American government in order to reach a common language and agreement on these challenges and how they should be met.


In the nuclear domain, Israel and the United States must strive to prevent an impasse that would gradually take them back to a situation where the military option, whose feasibility and price are high, becomes the only alternative to stopping Iran's nuclear progress. The deep and multifaceted crisis the Iranian regime is experiencing constitutes an opportunity to try and bring Iran back to the negotiating table. The objective would be to try and use 'creative diplomacy' that would focus on correcting significant flaws in the nuclear agreement - starting with the "sunset" clauses and the IAEA's right to inspect and verify compliance in nuclear weapons' related activities and sites.


Following Bernie Sanders dropping out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Israel should invest in amplifying the dialogue on the Iran question with the Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his foreign policy advisors. Biden promised that if elected, he would return to the original nuclear agreement, provided Iran goes back to strict compliance with the terms of the agreement. Biden ignores the dangerous flaws in the agreement, promising that after returning to the agreement (and removal of sanctions), he would work to strengthen and expand it.


Commitment to return to the original agreement encourages the Iranian regime to wait and avoid returning to negotiations before presidential election in the United States. Moreover, in practice, return to the original agreement and removal of sanctions without this being tied to substantive revisions in the agreement, would be a waste of the significant leverage against Teheran that the Trump administration created through sanctions.


In relation to the region, since the elimination of Soleimani, Iran is grappling with far from simple challenges in Iraq: Facing splits in the ranks of Shi'ite militias; anti-Iranian sentiment expressed, among others, in candidates to head the Iraqi government who are distasteful to Iran; the supreme Shia religious authority in Iraq Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's lack of support of Iran's objective to oust American forces from Iraq; continued American attacks in response to casualties; and the reinforcement of American forces in Iraq with Patriot missiles—apparently with the consent of Baghdad.


Still, it appears that the battle has yet to be decided, and might close with a resounding gain for Iran. This is likely to be the outcome, should the repositioning and redeployment of the United States in Iraq lead to a complete or partial American withdrawal, even if such transpires after exacting an additional toll from the militias. A decision to withdraw from Iraq - which constitutes the heart of the battle over Iran's broadening influence in the region - would be perceived as but another American withdrawal under military pressure from the Middle East as a whole. Such an outcome would fracture trust in the United States as a credible player in the region and deepen doubts about the resoluteness of America to rein-in Iran, including in the nuclear realm.


Israel and the United States need to also coordinate the struggle against Iran's efforts to establish itself in Syria and to improve Hezbollah's capabilities to present a grave and increasingly precision-based threat to Israel's Homefront. The two allies must examine whether the Coronavirus crisis in Syria and the challenges it presents Russia with in this respect, can create an opportunity for understandings with Moscow, in exchange for increasing pressure on Iran to withdraw its forces and proxies from Syria.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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