Diplomacy is at an impasse
The Biden administration expected Iran to quickly return to compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, including a reduction in the percentage of uranium enrichment to 3.67% and the admission of IAEA observers to nuclear facilities. However, since April 2021, six rounds of negotiations have taken place in Vienna, but the parties have failed to find mutual understanding. The Iranian leadership refuses to speak directly with the Americans, and the talks were held with the participation of diplomats from Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
The Iranians insist that they will return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan only after the restrictive measures are lifted. After all, ex-President Donald Trump imposed sanctions not because Iran violated the terms of the nuclear deal, but in order to force the Islamic Republic to take on additional obligations and abandon the development of ballistic missiles, stop financing terrorist organizations in the Middle East and interfere in internal affairs to make a niche for American companies in the global oil market.
However, Biden does not want to make unilateral concessions to Iran and insists on the opposite: first, a return to compliance with the nuclear deal, and then the lifting of sanctions. The nuclear deal is unpopular among American regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and they are more attracted to Trump's tough approach.
Iran did not want to take on additional obligations and has by now increased its uranium enrichment to 60%. For the manufacture of nuclear weapons, uranium enriched to 90% is required. The Ayatollah regime assures that the creation of a nuclear bomb is not included in their plans. Nevertheless, according to information from Israeli intelligence, Iranian nuclear scientists have the necessary technologies and capabilities for this. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz believe that several weeks are enough for Iran to produce nuclear weapons.
One gets the impression that the new Iranian leadership does not even consider the nuclear deal among the top foreign policy priorities. Recently, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi chaired the first meeting of the new government. Among the main priorities were the fight against coronavirus, corruption, strengthening relations with neighboring countries and Asian states. After the last presidential elections in Iran in June 2021, all branches of government came under the control of the conservatives, who have a peculiar attitude towards the US sanctions policy.
Despite the fact that the sanctions caused damage to the Iranian economy in the amount of $ 200 billion and led to a reduction in oil exports, Raisi considers them useful for the country. The Iranian president is confident that the sanctions will reduce dependence on foreign companies and create conditions for paying more attention to agriculture and deeper Islamization of the education system.
Sanctions do not prevent Iran's political and military elite from enriching themselves. The backbone of the Ayatollah regime, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is strengthening its influence in Iran's government and economy. Raisi appointed General Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the IRGC, as Vice President for Economic Affairs. According to unofficial information, the IRGC's arbitrariness reaches the point that officers use electricity intended for the population to extract cryptocurrency. Iranian power grids cannot withstand such a load, which leads to systematic power outages in populated areas. Meanwhile, the coronavirus is raging in Iran, there is a shortage of water, food, medicine. The Arab-populated Iranian province of Khuzestan, Iranian Kurdistan and Iranian Azerbaijan are covered by protests.
As the Vienna talks stalled, discussions in Israel have intensified over the so-called Plan B - a strategy for Iran in case Raisi cannot be persuaded to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Bennett and Biden paid attention to this issue during their meeting on August 27 in the White House. After the talks, the American president said that for now he would rely on diplomacy, but in case of failure, the United States is ready to resort to other methods of influencing Iran. Biden and Bennett didn't go into the details of Plan B.
But Iran's nuclear program will end only if the country loses its ability to enrich and produce weapons-grade uranium, loses technology carriers, and fails to produce nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, primarily ballistic missiles. All this can be achieved, if not through negotiations, then with the help of sabotage.
The Israeli military and intelligence services have extensive experience in conducting such operations. Defense Minister Benny Gantz does not rule out the possibility of a military strike on Iran in order to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. The Israel Air Force successfully destroyed nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, putting an end to the nuclear programs of these countries. But in the case of Iran, everything is much more complicated: nuclear facilities are located in different parts of the country, and not in the same area, as in Syria and Iraq. Some of them are located in hard-to-reach areas.
For example, the Fordow uranium enrichment plant is located at a depth of 80-90 m under the rocks near the city of Qom, and it will not be possible to destroy it with the help of bunker bombs in service with Israel. It could be destroyed by the world's most powerful American aerial bomb GBU-43 / B, nicknamed "the mother of all bombs." In 2017, with its help, the ISIS underground complex was destroyed in Afghanistan, located in some places at a depth of up to 300 m. In addition, secret facilities in Iran are under the cover of anti-aircraft missile systems, which complicates the task for the pilots. If Israel acts alone, there could be problems with refueling, as the planes will not have enough fuel to get to and from Iran.
The alternative is hacker attacks on nuclear facilities and enterprises involved in the missile program. In particular, in 2009-2010, there were three attacks using the Stuxnet virus, which disabled the centrifuges. There is an opinion that it was a joint American-Israeli special operation and the damage caused is tantamount to a military strike. Also, Israeli special services kill Iranian nuclear scientists using small arms and explosive devices. One of the latest such actions was the shooting of nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who led the Amad project to create a nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles.
Israel is interested in the actions against Iran with the participation of the countries of the Middle East, but this is unlikely. In the face of a reduction in the US military presence in the region, Arab countries are trying to rethink relations with Iran and achieve a cold peace. For example, Iraq is developing the role of a mediator in resolving the contradictions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A summit on regional issues was held in Baghdad on August 27, which was attended by President of Egypt Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, King of Jordan Abdullah II, President of France Emmanuel Macron. The reputation of mediators between the West and Iran was earned by Oman and Qatar, which have been maintaining constructive relations with the Islamic republic for a long time.
Plan B may not work as sabotage and it has a temporary effect. Iran has sufficient resources to rebuild nuclear facilities, and sabotage of the past years did not prevent Iran from progressing in uranium enrichment technology. In response to any sabotage, Iran uses sponsored terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, South Lebanon, Shiite organizations in Syria to launch missile attacks on Israel. Confrontation with Iran will continue for more than one year, and its behavior will remain dangerous and unpredictable for the international community. A new major war in the Middle East is unlikely because the Biden administration is not interested in this.
There might not have been any talk of Plan B if the participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action had taken a more principled position in negotiations with Iran. For example, China is working with Iran despite the fact that negotiations on a nuclear deal are doomed to failure. In March 2021, Iran and China entered into an agreement on political, strategic and economic cooperation, which provides for Chinese investments in infrastructure, industry, petrochemicals in exchange for stable supplies of Persian oil, strengthening cooperation in the field of security, defense, and exploration. China is strengthening its presence in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and seeks to tie these regions through the Belt and Road Global Infrastructure and Investment Initiative. In the current conditions, Beijing does not benefit from a confrontation with Tehran.
The Iranian leadership will not tolerate Russia's attempts to influence decisions on the nuclear program. Even before taking office as Iranian Foreign Minister, Hussein Amir-Abdollahian called the photo of the meeting of the Russian and British ambassadors Levan Jagaryan and Simon Sherkliffe on the stairs of the building where the 1943 Tehran conference was held as non-diplomatic action. In his opinion, the photo demonstrates the disregard for diplomatic etiquette and national pride of the Iranians. In Iranian society, the events of those years evoke unpleasant associations with the Soviet-British occupation.
The attempts of the Europeans to force the Iranians to sit at the negotiating table are also doubtful. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell called on Amir-Abdollahian during a telephone conversation to resume negotiations in Vienna. In response, the Iranian Foreign Minister stressed that the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan must truly confirm the fulfillment of their obligations in the negotiation process. In other words, Tehran will not curtail its nuclear program and agree on anything as long as the American sanctions remain in place.
The problem with the ongoing crisis over the Iranian nuclear program is that the participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan lack the political will to force the Ayatollah regime to adopt a more accommodating position.