Long-running tensions over Iran’s nuclear capabilities may have reached a point of no return this week, thrusting the Middle East into uncharted waters.
Tehran has ramped up uranium enrichment at a pace not seen since the 2015 signing of a landmark deal, which saw Iran curb uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief, before former United States President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
Analysts believe that Tehran may have already attained the material needed to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
On Thursday, Iran switched off surveillance cameras used by the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, to monitor activity at the country’s key nuclear facilities. The move, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi warned, could deal a “fatal blow” to negotiations that seek to revive the nuclear deal.
The absence of footage from nuclear sites deprives the negotiators of the nuclear deal – known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – of data, making it “technically impossible to have an agreement,” IAEA chief Raphael Grossi told CNN Thursday.
“Or you could have (a deal) on the basis of no information, which I suppose is not going to happen,” said Grossi. “This is why we are saying it’s a very serious thing. It has consequences. Of course it does.”
Iran has also begun installing advanced centrifuges in a cluster at an underground enrichment plant, according to Reuters, which reported that it saw an IAEA report describing the escalated nuclear activity in Iran. The reported incident came after the governing body of the IAEA passed a resolution for failing to explain uranium traces found at three undeclared sites.
The acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program comes amid rising tensions between Iran and the US. Talks around the JCPOA are at a standstill over mounting pressure from Tehran to have the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – the elite branch of the Iranian Armed Forces – delisted as a terror organization. This is believed to be the final sticking point in nearly a year and a half of negotiations between the two countries.
Both sides have so far refused to budge on the issue, thanks to domestic political pressure in their respective countries.
Trump listed the IRGC as a foreign terror organization during his final weeks in office. The decision was called a “poison pill” by his critics, who accused Trump of throwing a wrench in the wheels of future negotiations over the restoration of the JCPOA.
The stalled negotiations have dangerous implications for the region.
“While both the US and Iran have dealt with most of the technicalities of returning to the nuclear deal, differences remain on areas that are largely symbolic,” said Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at Crisis Group.
“As a result, Iran is now lashing out by increasing the pressure,” she added.
When Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018, he unleashed a wave of crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy. The US government found, at the time, that Tehran continued to comply with the deal. But as with many Obama-era policies, Trump was intent on undoing the landmark nuclear agreement, citing Iran’s continued meddling in the Middle East through Tehran-aligned paramilitary groups.
An ardent opponent of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, US President Joe Biden revived the negotiations when he took office. But Biden’s policy has so far failed to resurrect the deal, and Iran has steadily upped the ante in violating its end of the agreement.
“The Iranians have seen no benefits from the JCPOA since 2018,” said Executive Vice President at the Quincy Institute Trita Parsi. “The IAEA has seen benefits for it. Others have seen benefits for it because the Iranians by and large have been in compliance.”
“It was only a question of time before this would come to an end, in which the Iranians would say ‘well if we’re not getting anything for it, why should you?’” Parsi added.
Iran remains roughly a year away from manufacturing a nuclear weapon, according to analysts, who say that the region could now move inexorably towards further escalation.
In 2019, satellite imagery showed the construction of an experimental nuclear reactor making “expedition” progress in Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates also has a nuclear program. Both of those countries’ nuclear activities appear to be happening with the safeguards of the IAEA. Yet the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran may prompt an already tenuous security situation to spiral, raising the specter of a nuclear arms race in the volatile region.
Meanwhile, Biden has run out of options, given that the US has already sanctioned Iran under the Trump administration.
The sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to its economy but have not destroyed it, and Iran is likely to be desensitized to further economic penalties. Israel’s assassinations in recent years of top officials – including a pre-eminent nuclear scientist – have also failed to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment.
This may lead the US and its allies to consider pursuing a military option.
A war on Iran may crush its nuclear program, but would wreak unspeakable havoc on the region as a whole, in addition to dragging the US into a region it has tried to disengage from.
“Some of the most aggressive escalation from the Iranian side in terms of ramping up the program happened under Biden’s watch, not Trump’s watch,” said Parsi. “That’s because Biden continued Trump’s policy.”