Simmering Beneath the Surface in Iran

By Dov Katzenstein

Khorramshahr-4 missile is launched at an undisclosed location, Iran. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

For over 20 years, Iran has occupied a mercurial presence on the diplomatic scene. Its importance and perceived threat to western interests appears and disappears as it dances in and out of the international spotlight.

Sometimes the focus is of America’s choosing like when former President Barak Obama brought a decade of negotiations to a head with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which mostly dropped the west’s sanctions regime in exchange for a system designed to hold Iran’ atomic development far below weapons-grade levels. The Islamic Republic was again the subject of attention when former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal citing non-compliance, regional mischief, and ballistic missile development — re-establishing sanctions in a “maximum pressure campaign.”

President Joseph Biden campaigned on a promise to reinstate a “longer and stronger” version of the JCPOA. While not explicitly stated, many experts suggested that the dash for a renewed agreement was not only an attempt to reinstate a policy it thought was sound, but to put the Iran issue to bed as the administration shifted its focus away from the Middle East, placing it more squarely on China. 

Shortly after talks began in Vienna, using European nations as moderators, those conditions were dropped, and bars were lowered. Yet mutually acceptable terms were never found and both sides walked away from the table. Since then, it seemed as if the Biden administration and to an extent the nation hoped that Iran would simply go away and decide to stop being a nuisance.

Iran, though, has not complied, chiefly in racing ahead with its atomic development, enriching nuclear material to the cusp of weapons grade.

Noting that high-profile talks led to a dead end, the U.S. and its allies might be up to something new, a quiet Iran deal.

The Biden administration’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, took a leave of absence following the breakdown of talks. Now, however, one of several flags that the U.S. and Iran are up to something are reports that he conducted multiple recent meetings with Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., Amir Saeid Iravani. With no formal diplomatic relations between the two states, lines of communication are limited, but Mr. Iravani, who formerly served as a senior official on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, would likely be an effective backchannel to the authorities in Tehran.

Pressed several times on the issue, State Department spokesman Mathew Miller declined to confirm or deny any specific discussions with Iran, but said, “we have always said that we maintain the ability to communicate with Iran and deliver messages to them when it is in the United States best interest to do so.”

Administrations officials, most recently Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have repeated that they are committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and take no “options off the table.” Yet, a failure to return to the JCPOA has complicated their “plan A.”

“We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way, as I just said, to verifiably and durably ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, and it is a priority of this administration to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon,” said the State Department’s Mr. Mathews. “We believe diplomacy is the best way to accomplish that.”

Another sign some posited that board pieces are being moved towards some new diplomatic route was the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) decision to close years-long investigations into mysterious nuclear particles found at some of Iran’s undeclared facilities.

The IAEA said it closed the probe after Iran gave what it deemed a “possible explanation” for the presence of the enriched uranium, claiming it dated back to when the site (a mine and laboratory) were operated by the Soviet Union over three decades ago.

Such a turn of events raised obvious questions, chiefly why the agency now chose to accept an explanation that Iran presumably could have given years ago. The decision to close the investigation is doubly dubious as, according to leaks from the Vienna talks, a demand to close the IAEA probes were a key sticking point that prevented a deal from advancing.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Iran’s defense “technically impossible” and criticized the IAEA’s acceptance, saying “the agency’s capitulation to Iranian pressure is a black stain on its record.”

The IAEA’s Director General, Rafael Grossi, deflected the accusation saying the organization would “never, ever water down our standards.”

“We are used to this. One day it’s one side which says one thing, and another day it’s another side. We are neutral, we are technical… I would never comment on a government’s opinions,… this is technical work, what we are saying is technically correct,” he said.

Closing the probes are not the only IAEA moves that might show shifting groundwork on Iran. Last week, the agency announced that it would be allowed to re-install cameras and enrichment monitors at two major Iranian atomic facilities.

Still, Mr. Grossi cautioned in his annual report to the agency’s Board of Governors, that these steps were but a small portion of the oversight desired.

“But this is a fraction of what we envisaged, and what needs to happen now is a sustained and uninterrupted process that leads to all the commitments contained in the Joint Statement being fulfilled without further delay,” he said. Mr. Grossi also added that the agency had little way of retroactively tracking what has been done since Iran removed most surveillance equipment over the past few years. 

Simultaneously, other signs emerged from Iran that make it difficult to ascertain whether it intends to move closer or farther from a deal with the U.S.

The U.S. Navy reported earlier this week, Iranian naval vessels “harassed” a Marshall Islands flagged ship causing American and British craft to respond.

On Tuesday, Iran grabbed headlines by announcing that it had successfully developed a hypersonic missile, a type of rocket that flies at very high speeds as to evade detection and defense systems. If indeed operational, the missile poses a new threat to the region.

In its unique presentation of world affairs, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi cast the missile as a blanket of peacekeeping for the Middle East. 

“Today we feel that the deterrent power has been formed,” he said at an event announcing the missile. “This power is an anchor of lasting security and peace for the regional countries.”

These moves also come as Iran and Saudi Arabia finalize an agreement to reestablish relations, which were broken off in 2016. The two nations still view each other as archrivals, but their cold war thawed somewhat since their proxy war in Yemen has moved towards resolution.

Catching the world very much off guard and somewhat incredulous, was an announcement by an Iranian official that Iran planned to form a naval alliance with the Saudis, three other Gulf states, India, and Pakistan. None of the other nations made any comment and the veracity of the unofficial announcement was questioned.

“It defies reason that Iran, the number-one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens,” U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces spokesperson Commander Tim Hawkins told Breaking Defense.

Another sign up for interpretation were reports showing that the Islamic Republic is actively building a new nuclear development facility deep underground beneath the range of America’s most advanced bunker buster bomb.

With many uncertainties flying about, it is unclear if the underground construction is an attempt to hide future production under a new deal or a bargaining chip to get a better deal.

Since the U.S. left the JCPOA, a series of sabotage operations, likely committed by Israel and supported by American intelligence, have set Iran back to some degree. Still, amid the computer viruses, explosions, and assassinations, Iran’s enrichment marched on. 

“Sabotage may roll back Iran’s nuclear program in the short-term, but it is not a viable, long-term strategy for guarding against a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told Associated Press. “Driving Iran’s nuclear program further underground increases the proliferation risk.”

Biden administration officials would undoubtedly like to find a way back to an agreement, but Vienna’s failure taught them that Iran has grown less flexible than it was in 2015. The U.S. said that a factor in dropping negotiations was Iran’s crackdown against protesters last year and its drone supplies to Russia.

“It’s important to take a bit of a step back and remember that a lot has happened since last September when Iran turned its back on the deal that was on the table,” said a State Department spokesman at a recent briefing. “Mahsa Amini is dead, along with 500 other Iranians killed by the Iranian regime — killed by the authorities in the course of a violent crackdown against peaceful protesters outraged by Mahsa’s death and by the regime’s other human rights abusers. Iranian has also — and we spoke a little bit about this yesterday — been transferring UAVs and other weapons to Russia, helping Russia target civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and kill civilians, and they continue to do this. And Iran continues to rapidly advance its nuclear program in alarming ways.”

Those reasons might be window dressing as Iran’s human rights record was grim to begin with. More likely the reported impasses, IAEA inspections, terror categorization for the IRGC, and Tehran’s insistence on guarantees for a freer economic hand in the west stood in the way.

At the same time, revamped sanctions have done little to hold Iran back, especially as China, Russia, and others have been enthusiastic oil purchasers.

Against a background of failures, some fear Iran’s close proximity to weaponization poses a growing regional threat.

“Given how close Iran is to a bomb, it has very little room to ratchet up its program without tripping U.S. and Israeli red lines. So, at this point, any further escalation increases the risk of conflict,” Mr. Davenport told the Associated Press.

With those growing risks, but an impasse at how to reach a comprehensive agreement, some posit that the Biden administration wants to work towards a modest agreement under which Iran would freeze its nuclear development in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

According to some reports, European partners are eager to enter such a deal, but that the U.S. is held back by political considerations.

“The E3 is mostly looking to Washington to see if the Biden administration makes a decision, but they are frustrated because the U.S. just wants to put a lid on this until after the 2024 elections. The primary concern here is the president’s re-election,” Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group, told the Financial Times.

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