IRAN is in no hurry to decide between the West’s offer of a nuclear deal and sanctions relief or retaining the ability to be a freelance troublemaker with ties to Russia and China. Either way it will become a nuclear power when it wants, and the capacity of its theocratic regime to survive sanctions means it is under no pressure.
The mullahs know that Iran will inevitably join the nuclear club, dealing a blow, perhaps fatal, to the idea of non-proliferation. Even President Biden must be aware that Ayatollah Khameini’s signature on a new version of President Obama’s original agreement in 2015 will be worth no more than the piece of paper Hitler gave to Neville Chamberlain.
In the meantime, the Iranians have been demonstrating the extent of their advanced technological reach with cyber attacks on Albania. Why Albania, which is a threat to no one? Precisely because it is small and geopolitically unimportant, still recovering from its history as a communist hellhole. The message to the West is: if we can do it to Albania, we can do it to you, regardless of how secure you think your cyber defences are – and you know from the nuclear saga exactly how willing we are to ride out any adverse consequences. The normal rules do not apply to Iran.
Biden was so concerned about the cyber threat from Russia that last year he gave Vladimir Putin a list of 16 targets in the US that he would not tolerate being attacked. It was an admission of the vulnerability of America’s telecommunications, health and energy sectors among others. Now he has Iran’s expansion into open cyber warfare to contend with.
Iran’s intransigence towards the West demonstrates the implausibility of Obama’s plan to seek co-existence with radical Islam in all its iterations except al Qaeda which has remained unforgivable since 9/11. He put Iran at the centre of this policy in hopes that by making it a mideast superpower – a frenemy if not an ally – the US could withdraw from the region and focus on Asia.
Obama was so committed to the mullahs that he did nothing in 2009 to help the popular green revolution in Tehran in 2009 despite the fact that if the Islamic regime had been toppled, the country’s next leaders would presumably have been more approachable.
It was never explained how Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – all US allies under threat from the mullahs – would fit into this strategy while the Iranians were given a path to nuclear status within 15 years, the lifting of sanctions and billions of dollars in cash. Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 because the Iranians were cheating.
Officially, Biden is committed to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but no one believes him. He has aimed instead at reaching a deal that legally allows Iran to go nuclear according to a timetable, initiating talks immediately after taking office last year. The Iranians refuse to negotiate directly with the US so France, Germany, the UK and Russia have acted as go-betweens.
This summer, the US and its allies made a supposed final offer to Iran to which Tehran has made no concrete response and suffered no consequences.
The Iranians baulked at demands for reinforcement of International Atomic Energy Commission monitoring of their nuclear facilities, mostly located underground at bomb-proof locations, to keep them honest.
The real sticking points, however, are a demand that no future US president will follow Trump’s example and renege on the agreement, and Biden’s reluctance to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps from the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations.
The IRGC is the spearhead of Iran’s aggressive expansionism which has brought Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon under its control and made it a key player in the Palestinian conflict with Israel, arming Hezbollah with precision guided missiles in southern Lebanon and providing support for Hamas in Gaza. It is expanding its influence into Latin America.
US policy is riddled with contradictions. It helps finance bankrupt Lebanon despite the fact its government is under control of Hezbollah which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and is in turn dependent on the IRGC and the mullahs. Saudi Arabia, on whose oil the US relies, is attacked from Yemen by Houthi rebels financed and armed by Iran.
To protect itself from western sanctions, the Tehran government has hunkered down on a subsistence economy based on domestic resources and revenues from oil exports to China. Some in the West want to punish China with sanctions. But the experience of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, which have backfired on western Europe, has cooled the ardour for this measure.
If Biden removes the listing of the IRGC, which does nothing to constrains its operations in any case, the Iranians get their way again. If he doesn’t, they won’t sign the agreement and will continue to build their bomb, or refine it if it already exists.
The proposed deal has glaring flaws in that it does not include Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles or oblige it not to engage in cyber warfare.
The importance of the missile exemption is that nuclear weapons are of no use without the means to deliver them. Once Iran has its bomb, the next stage will be to miniaturise it for warheads fitted to missiles that can hit Europe or the United States. These missiles are being actively developed.
Obama’s neutrality in 2009 looks more and more like a critical foreign policy misjudgment that missed an opportunity to curb Iran, leaving the mullahs with the initiative and the West helpless to do much about it without declaring war.