Diplomacy, according to history, is more efficient than deception

April 24, 2021 - 19:50

TEHRAN— Nearly two weeks have passed since an act of sabotage disrupted the power system at the Natanz nuclear facility. After receiving many reports and claims, and after observing the recent round of negotiations in Vienna, several questions that have been raised can be answered much easier.

After the act of sabotage destroyed the power system in the Natanz nuclear site, Iranian officials identified an Iranian suspect, named Reza Karimi for the attack widely attributed to Mossad.

Alireza Zakani, a senior Iranian MP, claimed that “several thousand” centrifuges were affected. The New York Times quoted U.S. intelligence sources as estimating that the repairs could take Iran nine months. These claims were widely contrasted when Iran started enriching uranium to up to 60% within two days.

“Replaced centrifuges are among the most advanced centrifuges, and we are definitely moving towards 60% enrichment,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) director.

However, there are several questions to be answered. How will this attack affect Iran’s obligations and aptitude to expand its nuclear program? How will the attack influence the likelihood that the United States and Iran can reach an agreement on reviving the Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — or JCPOA, for short? Will Iran succumb its nuclear program, right after enriching uranium to up to 60%? Here are the answers, based on research.

Sabotage attempts have a short-term impact.

The history of Iran’s nuclear program suggests any impact on expansion capacity will be restricted. In fact, it seems that the Islamic Republic’s motive to expand its capability will probably increase — at least until the United States agrees to remove all sanctions and move back toward the JCPOA.

U.S. and Israeli determinations to physically sabotage Iran’s nuclear program goes back to more than a decade. In 2009-2010, the Stuxnet computer worm decommissioned 1,000 Iranian centrifuges at Natanz. However, this was only a fraction of Iran’s centrifuges, whose numbers quickly recovered and continued to increase after the attack. Similarly, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium continued to grow. Thus, Stuxnet left a reverse impact on Iran’s nuclear program, enhancing its capacity instead.

In addition to piloting cyber-attacks, Israel assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, with its father-figure, the United States and other European countries that have no will of their own, disrupting Iran’s supply chains. In a recent analysis, political analysts concluded that the overall impact of these activities on Iran’s nuclear program was “limited and short-lived.”

Iran’s nuclear program continued to expand until the Islamic Republic and the United States, UK, China, France, Germany and Russia — the “P5+1” — signed the JCPOA. The 2015 deal traded sanctions relief for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, such as the removal of two-thirds of its centrifuges, the elimination of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, and a requirement that Iran only enriched uranium to 3.67%, with less efficient, first-generation centrifuges. For the first time, Iran’s nuclear capabilities were decisively and substantially retracted.

Iran’s commitments remained in place until Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the deal and impose harsh and illegal sanctions. One year later Iran responded by gradually stepping back from its commitments and expanding its enrichment program.

This acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program seemed to prompt Israel to turn back to acts of sabotage. Last summer, an explosion — also widely credited to Israel — seriously damaged a facility at Natanz used for assembling the advanced centrifuges Iran had been barred from using under terms of the JCPOA. The attack limited Iran’s centrifuge production, giving them a short break only to recover stronger and led to the construction of a new sturdy, underground site for centrifuge assembly. Iran then moved some advanced centrifuges underground, where they are more protected from drone and missile attacks

As expected, the enriched uranium stockpile continued to grow.

Iran’s initial response to this recent sabotage act is consistent with the research noted above.

Despite the damage and delay inflicted, officials in Tehran announced that Iran has begun enriching uranium to 60 percent just two days after the Natanz sabotage act — moving closer to the 90 percent benchmark that president Hassan Rouhani said — and would install 1,000 additional advanced centrifuges.

“Our response in Natanz was that instead of IR-1, we would use IR-6 and instead of 3.67% enrichment we would do 60% enrichment. We can even go to 90% enrichment if we want, but at the same time our activities will definitely be peaceful and under the supervision of the (International Atomic Energy) Agency,” said the president on April 14, the morning after 60% uranium enrichment.

This response shows Iran's determination and capability to pursue its nuclear program.

Unless and until the JCPOA is resurrected, Iran is likely to extend its nuclear activities.

The next question is, will the attack confound nuclear diplomacy?

The attack and Iran’s subsequent reaction could conceivably make a diplomatic solution more difficult to achieve. The attack on Natanz reinforces the Iranian instinct to drive a hard bargain. Iran considers the recently taken nuclear steps as “remedial measures” as Foreign Minister Zarif puts it, done in response to the sabotage act at Natanz. Thus, the Islamic Republic will not concede in response to foreign pressure.

For the U.S. side, Iran’s 60% uranium enrichment and operation of advanced centrifuges could flop. Joe Biden’s administration may seek to avoid the appearance of giving in to its adversary’s pressure, both for domestic and geopolitical reasons. Or it could take a harder line in talks if it perceives Iran’s leverage has declined and the threat is less urgent as a result of the damage to its nuclear program.

To summarize, the attack and Iran’s response to it could make a compromise solution more difficult and it puts further pressure on negotiators.

But there are other reasons to believe the attack will have a limited effect — or may even aid the negotiations. “Both Washington and Tehran may see a greater urgency to strike a deal on reviving the JCPOA, as both countries presumably have an interest in preventing further escalation in the Israeli-Iran shadow war, which has significantly increased since Iran began walking back from its JCPOA commitments,” The Washington Post commented.

Iran's "remedial" nuclear measures in response to the attack could have put pressure on the Biden administration to reach an agreement before Iran escalates further. Indeed, recent research by Muhammet Bas and Andrew Coe demonstrates that nonproliferation agreements are often struck in this type of scenario— when a proliferator is relatively close to the nuclear weapons mark, generating a sense of urgency in the U.S. to solve the problem and a willingness on the proliferator's part to avoid a possible war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent comments reflect this logic. He told the press in Brussels that Iran’s move toward 60 percent enrichment “underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA,” even as he questioned Iran’s commitment to a diplomatic resolution.

It seems that Blinken has forgotten May 8, 2018, when Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA.

Iran was fully committed to the deal. It was the U.S. which left the deal and threw it out of the window. If a country should be interpellated about its commitment to a diplomatic solution, it is the United States.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Leader of the Islamic Revolution, has issued a fatwa (decree) banning production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, as haram (religiously banned).

So far, the United States and Iranian attitudes are encouraging. Iran chose not to shut down the indirect talks in Vienna despite the attack and the two sides are apparently narrowing the gaps in their negotiating positions.

Seyed Abbas Araghchi, the top Iranian nuclear negotiator, said a “new understanding” was taking shape at key talks in Vienna.

“The drafting of the text can begin now, and the Iranian delegation has prepared and presented its text on the nuclear sphere and the lifting of sanctions,” he told Iranian TV

To be sure, a successful resolution remains elusive. However, there is a real chance of success, and history shows that the JCPOA has been much more effective than sabotage in restricting Iran's nuclear program.


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