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THE IRAN PROJECT PART TWO: NUCLEAR PROGRAM COMPLICATIONS

Updated: Jul 26

Aimee Hanstein, Eleonore Thibaud, Marco Parks, CENTCOM Team

Week of Monday, May 24, 2021


Anti-aircraft guns guarding Natanz Nuclear Facility[1]


Part one of the Iran project focused on Iran’s nuclear program capabilities, why Iran wants to have a nuclear program, and the possibilities of Iran already having a nuclear weapon. The report looked at Iran’s nuclear program over the years, spanning from before the nuclear deal to current enrichment numbers. The report touched on some aspects covered in parts 2-4 such as the nuclear deal itself, relations with Israel and the US, and what to expect with Iran’s program moving forward. Iran seems to believe nuclear weapons would deter foreign military strikes targeting the Iranian homeland, making the Iranian use of conventional military force abroad less risky; possession of nuclear arms would allow Iran greater policy flexibility in the Middle East.[2] However, given the politics of the regime and current relations between Iran and the rest of the Middle East, most countries in the region are not likely to want Iran to have access to these types of weapons. This is evident through statements made by Israel, but also evident through their operations against Iran’s nuclear program.


Clandestine operations against Iran’s nuclear program have been occurring for at least two decades, including a range of operations, from cyber attacks to nuclear assassinations. Most of these operations are likely to be committed by Israel with some assistance by the United States in some incidents. Despite these consistent complications within their nuclear program, Iran has continued to further their program. While Israel and possibly Saudi Arabia, may see Iran’s nuclear program as a threat, the US has re-entered nuclear talks with Iran to develop a deal regarding nuclear weapon development. Since the US has publicly considered re-entering the talks, Israel has continuously spoken against the move, and given this, it is extremely likely Israel will continue clandestine operations against Iran’s program. Despite this, it is uncertain what effect that will have on the program.


As Iran neared the nuclear threshold, Israel repeatedly warned that it would do whatever necessary to stop the program outside of normal diplomatic cables.[3] Israel has seemingly followed through with these warnings, and as Israel’s new leadership takes place, these warnings are extremely likely to continue. As Iran also transitions into new leadership with a hardline President, tensions between the two countries are likely to rise. It is extremely unlikely that the new leadership will improve the relationship between Israel and Iran. Israel has employed kinetic, cyber, and covert operations to delay Iran's nuclear program.[4] These types of operations are likely to continue and possibly worsen. These operations include sabotage, bombings, and orchestrated malfunctions at multiple sites of Iran's nuclear and long-range missiles programs; disrupting operations at Iranian nuclear facilities, notably by cyberattacks such as Stuxnet and Duqu; espionage on Iranian nuclear facilities, notably through the use of Flame malware; and the assassination of Iranian officials involved in the nuclear program, primarily nuclear scientists.[5] While many of these complications occurred before 2013 when the parties of the JCPOA deal began talks, they have continued and seem to have worsened since the possibility of the US and Iran entering into a deal came to fruition.


In November 2020, Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated.[6] Though Israel has not claimed responsibility at the time of this report, Iran has accused Israel of the assassination as well as the killings of nuclear scientists over the last ten years including Masoud Ali Mohammadi, Professor Majid Shariari, Darioush Rezaeinejad, and Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan.[7] In July 2020, there was an explosion at Iran’s Natanz facility that caused major damage to the centrifuges, and while there does not seem to be any publicly released details on what caused the explosion, Iranian officials stated it could have been due to cyber-sabotage.[8] On April 11, 2021, there was a blackout at the Natanz nuclear facility. This attack started with a cyber attack followed by part of the plant's electrical components being compromised.[9] Iran called this incident “nuclear terrorism” and accused Israel of the attack due to new talks between the US and Iran. Iran’s accusation is likely accurate. Given that the talks between the US and Iran are similar to the talks regarding the 2015 nuclear deal, Israel is in a position to prevent the talks from being successful t and could encourage them to try to halt Iran’s capabilities with more covert operations.


These covert attacks, in conjunction with the sanctions imposed in recent years by the United States, have imposed setbacks on Iran but have not managed to convince the country to abandon its nuclear program altogether. They have likely strengthened Iran’s resolve to continue enriching uranium and thus achieve a “breakout” capacity for nuclear weapons.[10] However impressive Israel’s attacks, they do not seem to be a sustainable strategy.[11]


The alleged Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities have substantially delayed the production of uranium and other materials Iran needs to make a nuclear bomb. Of the many attacks said to be clandestinely perpetrated by Israel, the most damaging strikes in recent months include executing a cyberattack to corrupt Iranian computers that manage uranium centrifuges, deploying operatives months before plant explosives inside an Iranian nuclear facility, and assassinating Iran’s top nuclear scientist using a remote-controlled machine gun operating from a car. While the degree to which these attacks set back Iran’s nuclear program is unknown, it is clear that the effect was substantial given Iran’s need to temporarily halt nuclear operations. For example, after an explosion on April 11 caused a power blackout at the Natanz uranium enrichment site, nuclear activities there were halted anywhere from a few weeks to nine months, according to contradicting statements by Iranian, Israeli, and U.S. officials.[12] Moreover, in July 2020, a bomb exploded in a part of a facility that was producing a new set of centrifuges, delaying the program by a few months.[13] Although Israel’s alleged activities inside Iran have delayed production, these attacks have merely brought temporary nuclear halts, demonstrating the unsustainability of this strategy.


Alleged Israeli covert strikes coupled with the imposition of sanctions in recent years by the US have impeded Iranian goals without managing to convince the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions altogether. As evident by Iran’s rapid nuclear escalation, these attacks have failed to capitulate Iran’s strategy for nuclear negotiations. Rather, Iran has strengthened its resolve to further enrich its uranium, nearing a ‘breakout’ time capable of nuclear weapon development. Not only have repeated alleged Israeli sabotages failed to convince Iran to capitulate, but they have also been unable to convince the US’s Biden administration to push a harder bargain in the recently renewed nuclear talks in Vienna.


In the ongoing Vienna talks, Iran and the United States, both desperate to return to the JCPOA for different reasons, have been plagued with attempts by Israel to derail the alleged progress the US and Iran have made. The reasons for Israel’s staunch opposition to the JCPOA are multidimensional. On the surface level, a return to the nuclear deal would free Iran from US sanctions, thus enabling Iran to increase its funding for regional proxies that threaten Israeli influence and national security. Sanctions relief will also enable Iran to funnel more money and resources towards its nuclear program—possibly even begin developing another secret nuclear facility under the radar of inspections imposed by the JCPOA. While the bolstering of Iranian proxies and nuclear capabilities serves as the source of Israel’s proclaimed opposition, another source is Israel’s fear of losing its full-fledged US loyalty. Less hostile Iran-US relations would make Israel’s promotion of everlasting alarm about Iran less effective, with Israel unable to pursue the belligerent foreign policy to which it has become accustomed. Therefore, Israel has endeavored to preserve its position as the US’s most dependable ally in the Middle East by precluding a US-Iranian agreement.


As the US-Iran talks have progressed, Iran has used alleged Israeli attacks to raise its uranium enrichment from 20 percent to 60 percent, further shortening the breakout time needed to build a nuclear weapon and pressuring US President Biden to acquiesce to Iranian demands. The effects of Israel’s alleged attacks are not only impermanent and unsustainable: if continued, they will weaken the JCPOA provisions impeding Iran’s nuclear development. This is due to Israel’s strong ties with the US, strong enough that Israeli actions in the region are often blamed in part on the US. Alleged Israeli attacks on Iranian assets provide Iran with more leverage and pressure President Biden to make more concessions in nuclear negotiations. The second implication of Israeli aggression is on Iranian domestic politics. Alleged Israeli attacks will likely continue to strengthen Iranian hard-liners who are pushing for the development of a nuclear weapon and increase funding for their regional proxies. This will further complicate JCPOA negotiations and make Iran less amenable to accepting the far-reaching nuclear restrictions desired by regional and international actors.


The complications regarding Iran’s nuclear program have been mitigated under the 2015 JCPOA which has strived to implement a more robust verification system, notably through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Between 2013 and 2017, the IAEA increased the surveillance cameras installed in Iran’s nuclear facilities up to 89%, their verification activities and presence on the field up to 152%, and conducted complimentary inspections with access in any locations in Iran.[14] These inspections and increased surveillance by the international community reflected two key roles: ensuring Iran’s compliance to the nuclear deal’s limit in uranium enrichment and mitigating threats perceived by other states in the region, such as Israel, which could easily lead to an arms race and escalation between the two antagonist powers. Given its violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well as its history of undisclosed nuclear facilities, Iran’s threat to the stability of the region has rapidly escalated in the sphere of nuclear activity. The international community understands that such levels of enrichment are far from peaceful and aim at being used for military purposes.


With the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran has sought this perception as a threat from the international community to obtain leverage in diplomatic matters. As Iran enhanced its enriched uranium production, previous economic sanctions that had been lifted by the nuclear deal were reinstalled by the US and expanded in the following years.[15] These sanctions diminished the nuclear program’s capabilities by targeting investments in oil, gas, and petrochemicals, and the importation of oil, as well as preventing exports and business arrangements with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).[16] Iran’s nuclear threat was therefore decreased by a significant economic recession. In addition to severely delaying Iran’s nuclear program and technological advancements, the US and its allies halted Iranian oil imports. Although the JCPOA had been implemented as a means to contain Iran’s nuclear threat, it also strongly benefited the Iranian economy which suffered years of recession, economic depreciation, and inflation before the deal. The 2015 nuclear deal enabled the economy to stabilize, inflation to slow, and exports to grow. The restoration of foreign sanctions impacted the main source of national revenue: oil and petroleum products, accounting for 80% of Iran’s exports.[17]


Consequently, the JCPOA’s return this year shows strong advantages to both sides. The US is willing to lift sanctions, which will likely have similar economic benefits for Iran, increasing exports and stabilizing its currency, whilst the US will ensure low levels of enrichment, representing less of a threat for Western powers and Israel in the region.[18] However, Israel opposes the US re-entering the nuclear deal agreement as the current debate is deemed unrealistic and loose in stopping the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing nuclear weapons and prohibiting its terrorism-sponsorship in proxy wars. [19] Israel is also dissatisfied with the lack of provisions regarding Iran’s weaponization and missile program development. Iran has repeatedly said in the past that it will not try to make a bomb, but this statement has been broken in the past and was exposed later by Israel, revealing undeclared nuclear sites and showing evidence that Iran did not stop its nuclear weapon program.[20] Despite the international community’s effort to contain the Iranian threat, it is unlikely that Iran will comply with any restrictions preventing its goal.


To prevent an even greater escalation between Israel and Iran, current negotiations need to address the JCPOA differently. The current negotiation seems to revisit previous debates that are inadequate in today’s climate. The US and Iran need to consider the current instability in the region to contain the emergence of conflicts.[21]The US and its allies assume that this agreement will be a first step in achieving stability, yet it does not address the future shift in military balance the deal is bringing about in the region. However, nothing ensures that a revised JCPOA will halt Iran's nuclear weapon development. If anything, it is likely that Iran will increase their nuclear development activities if the US does not offer sanction relief. Since Israel's alleged attacks on the Iranian nuclear centrifuge facility in Natanz on April 11, 2021, it is likely that, even under an agreement, Israel and Iran will continue their nuclear conflict at covert levels.[22] Iran’s major progress in centrifuges development and its overall fast weaponization program (precision-strike missile capabilities) emphasizes the idea that no matter the agreement, Iran depends on its threat status, having a near-term nuclear breakout capability, and other strategic means that would have strong repercussions on the US and Israel in their region.[23] This power is giving Iran leverage in diplomatic matters and although lifting sanctions would relieve the state’s economy, the Islamic Republic perceives the strong advantages of nuclear development in the long term.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor the dynamics between Iran, Israel, and the IAEA. CTG recommends that, if an agreement is reached, Iran complies with all clauses established by the parties involved to prevent future escalation with Israel. CTG will also continue to monitor Israel’s behavior towards Iran, notably regarding attacks on nuclear facilities such as Natanz. CTG recommends that Israel and Iran de-escalate their current confrontations to focus on an agreement. CTG’s CENTCOM team will continue to monitor Iran’s nuclear developments, including weaponization and uranium enrichment programs, potential attacks from Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities, and the current negotiations.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Anti-aircraft guns guarding Natanz Nuclear Facility” by Hamed Saber, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] The real reasons Iran is so committed to its nuclear program, Vox, February 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/2/25/8101383/iran-nuclear-reasons

[3] Israeli Campaign to Stop Iran's Nuclear Program, The Iran Primer (USIP), July 2020. https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/jul/15/israeli-campaign-stop-irans-nuclear-program

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Assassination of Iranian Nuclear Scientist: Regional and Global Implications, The Counterterrorism Group, December 2020. https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6740920122086576128/

[7] Part 5: Assassinations of Iran Nuclear Scientists, The Iran Primer (USIP), December 2020. https://iranprimer.usip.org/index.php/blog/2020/dec/02/part-5-assassinations-iran-nuclear-scientists

[8] Fire at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage, Al Jazeera, July 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/7/5/fire-at-irans-natanz-nuclear-facility-caused-significant-damage

[9] Iran calls blackout at Natanz atomic site ‘nuclear terrorism’, Al Jazeera, April 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/11/incident-at-iranian-nuclear-site-targeted-by-blast-last-year

[10] Israel’s Attacks on Iran Are Not Working, Foreign Policy, April 2021.https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/27/israels-attacks-on-iran-are-not-working/

[11] Ibid.

[12] Israel’s Attacks on Iran Are Not Working, Foreign Policy, April 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/27/israels-attacks-on-iran-are-not-working/

[13] “Israeli Sabotage of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” The Iran Primer, April 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/apr/12/israeli-sabotage-iran%E2%80%99s-nuclear-program

[14] Verification and Monitoring in Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iran

[15] Timeline of Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran, Arms Control Association, July 2021. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Timeline-of-Nuclear-Diplomacy-With-Iran

[16] What is the Iran nuclear deal?, Council on Foreign Relations, February 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal

[17] Transition 2021: The Looming Iran Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations, December 2020, https://www.cfr.org/blog/transition-2021-looming-iran-crisis

[18] The Case Against The Iran Deal, The Atlantic, January 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/case-against-iran-deal/617755/

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Other Side of Renegotiating the JCPOA Iran Nuclear Agreement, Center for Strategic & International Studies, April 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/other-sides-renegotiating-jcpoa-iran-nuclear-agreement

[22] Blackout Hits Iran Nuclear Site in What Appears to Be Israeli Sabotage, The New York Times, April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/11/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-natanz.html

[23] The Other Side of Renegotiating the JCPOA Iran Nuclear Agreement, Center for Strategic & International Studies, April 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/other-sides-renegotiating-jcpoa-iran-nuclear-agreement

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