​Iran: Potential for Deterioration under the Shadow of Worsening Conflict on a Diplomatic and Covert Playing Field


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | July 6, 2020

IAEA meeting
Photos: Nuclear Regulatory Commission | CC BY 2.0


In the wake of the targeted killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January of this year, there has been a noticeable reduction in the scope and force of Iranian military actions designed to put counter pressure on the United States and its allies, and to deter them. Despite an incident of harassment of American vessels in the Persian Gulf in April and sporadic attacks of militias in Iraq, Iran has ceased sabotage operations against tankers in the region, has not renewed attacks on oil infrastructure (such as those carried out against Saudi Arabia in September), and a relative drop in friction has been apparent in Iraq, as well.


Due to this, in recent months it seems that the struggle between Iran and the United States has shifted to take place in the political arena, with a focus on the nuclear issue. In recent days, following the targeting of sites linked to Iran's missile and nuclear programs – first of all, the explosion in an outer building at the site of the nuclear facility at Natanz – the name of Israel has been mentioned as an entity possibly involved.


All signs suggest the explosion at the facility at Natanz was a sabotage operation. The regime claims that it understands what caused the fire but declined to reveal details at this time "for security reasons". A Middle Eastern intelligence official was quoted in The New York Times claiming Israel stood behind the strike, which was carried out with a high-power charge. A spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) admitted that advanced centrifuges were being assembled and calibrated at the facility, and that the strike was expected to slow down the development process.


It should be stressed: The issue of next-generation centrifuges R&D is one of the severe flaws of the Nuclear Agreement. Development and production of advanced centrifuges with a much higher capacity than the ones in use today, would give Iran the capability to produce enriched uranium at a faster rate and in larger quantities with a small number of centrifuges that could be more easily hidden.


In the meantime, the regime has refrained from officially blaming Israel or the United States for this sabotage operation. At the same time, the official Iranian news agency IRNA published commentary that warned: if it turns out that Israel and the United States were behind the action, this would be a 'red line' [crossed] that would demand an Iranian response and a change in Iranian policy, as well. In addition, the head of Iran's civil defense network warned that Iran would respond to any cyber attack against its nuclear facilities.


In the political realm, tensions are rising between Teheran and Washington and disagreements within the fractured international arena on the Iran issue are increasing. In concrete terms:


  1. The resolution of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). On June 19 the Agency's board members adopted a short resolution initiated and submitted by Britain, France and Germany. The resolution – the likes of which are unprecedented since 2012 – "calls on Iran immediately to cooperate fully with the Agency, including by providing prompt access to the locations specified by the Agency in accordance with its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol" (i.e. Iran's commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or NPT). The backdrop to the resolution is a recently-submitted IAEA report that states that in recent months Iran has been hiding evidence, refused to answer questions regarding its activities tied to nuclear weaponization it carried out at the beginning of the 2000s at three suspected sites and prevented access to UN inspectors at two of them. The resolution was adopted by a majority of 25 in favor, and 2 against – Russia and China (who thus supported Iran's refusal to provide access to IAEA inspectors).

  2. The confrontation on the UN arms embargo. Recently, the United States circulated a draft resolution to members of the Security Council, for extension of the UN arms embargo on Iran (which stands to expire in October of this year). The five-year embargo - that prohibits Iran exporting or importing arms and military equipment – is included in Security Council Resolution 2231 that endorsed the Nuclear Agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - JCPOA) of 2015. The prospect the United States will be successful in passage of the resolution are slim. Russia and China have already clarified that they are determined to veto the resolution that calls (among other things) for member states of the United Nations to supervise and thwart shipments of arms from Iran.

  3. The United States threat to "Snapback" international sanctions. The American Administration threatens that if the arms embargo is not extended, it will activate the mechanism embedded within Resolution 2231 triggering a process that compels all United Nations Member States without exception to reinstate international sanctions against Iran. These sanctions were lifted following the implementation of the Nuclear Agreement, and their return is expected to bring about its complete collapse. The American threat is subject of deep legal controversy among the other nations party to the Nuclear Agreement (the Permanent Members of the Security Council and Germany) who argue that the United States does not have the authority to activate the mechanism after the United States itself unilaterally withdrew from the Nuclear Agreement in May 2018.

  4. Ending sanctions waivers – another significant move by the Trump administration was its decision to end the waivers that allow the implementation of elements in the Nuclear Agreement. This measure is expected to weaken and undermine the agreement. Ending the waivers – a step that was fiercely debated in Washington over the past year – will expose to American sanctions nations / companies (Russian, Chinese, and European) that are assisting Iran realize parts of the Agreement. Among the waivers that will be ended (within 60 days of the decision) are exemption on importing enriched uranium (20 percent purity) to the research reactor in Teheran (TRR) – what is liable to provide Iran with an excuse to return to enrichment at a 20 percent level (while today it is enriching to less than 5 percent).


The regime in Teheran responded to the American moves in a series of threats to limit the cooperation with the international arena. The regime's warnings appear to be a coordinated campaign. They were delivered through multiple channels: declarations and interviews by senior officials, backed up by commentary in official media, and actions in the parliament. In concrete terms, the Iranians threatened "to kill" the Nuclear Agreement if the embargo will be extended; to weigh withdrawal from the NPT if the international community will decide to refer the dispute over IAEA inspections to the Security Council; and to respond to the decision of the IAEA's board in "a proportional fashion" by suspending voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol (that strengthens verification capabilities and access by IAEA to nuclear sites and data).



Assessment and Implications


As we have concluded in the past, rehabilitation of America's deterrence vis-à-vis Iran in the wake of Soleimani's killing, and a string of incidents that have deepened the apprehension of the two sides from loss of control that could lead to a flare-up in escalation that neither of them desires - have shifted the struggle between the United States and Iran to the diplomatic and the covert planes. At its core – the nuclear issue.


To date, the dominant assessment has been that Iran would not embark on extreme steps prior to November presidential elections in the United States. Teheran is hoping for a victory by the Democratic candidate Biden, who has declared his intent to return to the Nuclear Agreement. At the same time, political pressure tactics towards Teheran, combined with the regime's severe distress in the shadow of its unprecedented economic and health crisis, and the damage inflicted on it in the cyber and covert dimensions might push Teheran towards responses and mistakes under pressure, and trigger 'surprises'.


Possible courses of action Iran could take under such new circumstances include:


  1. A Cyber Campaign. As noted, according to media reports Iran recently attacked water and sewage infrastructure in Israel. The tension this possible mode of action entails from the perspective of the Iranian regime resides in the possibility that it will fail to cause any significant damage, but will, as a result, expose Iran itself to a painful retaliatory attack.

  2. Back to Kinetic Military Actions. Iran could return to operations designed to disrupt flow of oil in the Gulf or to strike at allies of the United States. There is also the possibility that Iran will attempt to respond to the United States / Israel by targeting them in Iraq or from Syria, or through terrorist attacks abroad. In such settings, Iran also stands in danger of paying a heavy price, primarily should it hurt Americans.

  3. A Response on the Political Plane. Among the moves that Iran could take, one can numerate expansion of its violations of the Nuclear Agreement such as jacking up enrichment to 20% or installing next-generation centrifuges; piling on difficulties and obstacles – bureaucratic and other, to the work of IAEA inspection teams on site, or officially suspending voluntary cooperation with the Agency according to the Additional Protocol.


Declaration on withdrawal from the NPT seems less probable at the present stage due to Russia's and China's adamant opposition to such a step, and the Iranian interest not to initiate a 'meltdown' while anticipating Biden will be elected. Such an assessment looks plausible in light of the measured and cautious modus operandi Iran has exhibited since embarking on gradual violation of the Nuclear Agreement. In addition, it should be kept in mind that the Iranian regime has threatened more than once over the past two decades to withdraw from NPT – concretely, two years ago on the eve of the Trump Administration's withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement.


A significant blow by Iran to the IAEA inspection capabilities is liable to create an information gap as to Iran's nuclear program, to worsen tensions between Iran and the United States and the nations of Europe, and even escalate the conflict between the sides to an operational level. This would be played out in the zone stretching between covert action and return to conflict in the regional arena, primarily in the Gulf and in Iraq.


Under such circumstances. Israel needs to prepare for possible Iranian responses in the cybernetic realm and in the field; to sharpen vigilance in intelligence regarding the possibility of damage to cooperation with the IAEA, and closely monitor Iran to pinpoint any move to expand its nuclear program. In the political realm, Israel needs to place the Iranian nuclear challenge at the top of its foreign policy priorities, at the expense of other topics – first of all, annexation, and embark on a diplomatic campaign, focusing its endeavors on the European nations and Russia.


The objective of this campaign needs to be (among others) to promote adoption of a harsh resolution (non compliance) against Iran at the upcoming September IAEA conference; to push the international arena to amplify pressure on Iran to deter it from putting obstacles in front of the Agency's mission; and to assist the United States in mobilizing support behind extension of the arms embargo against Iran, or at least to crystallize a voluntary coalition of countries that will continue the embargo in practice outside the framework of the Security Council. In this context, Israel needs a special diplomatic effort vis-à-vis Moscow, to convince Russia to refrain from selling advanced and game-changing weapons systems to Iran including in the alleged defensive domain, such as air defense systems and anti-ship cruse missiles.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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