The Iran wildcard

POLITICAL FUTURES - Ian Bremmer - The Philippine Star

Late last month, as part of its monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported trace amounts of uranium at 84 percent enrichment. That’s important, because 90 percent enrichment is required to produce a nuclear weapon. On Feb. 28, a senior US Defense Department official warned that “Iran’s nuclear progress since we left the JCPOA has been remarkable. Back in 2018, when the [Trump] administration decided to leave the JCPOA, it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one bomb’s worth of fissile material. Now it would take about 12 days.”

Talks continue over whether Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China will resume negotiations over a return to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. For now, however, Iran seems more interested in creating new “facts on the ground” that must be considered as part of any restoration of the nuclear deal.

This is only the most obvious way in which Iran will pose important risks in coming months. The Islamic Republic has also angered European and US officials by providing drones that Russian forces have used to wage war on Ukraine. In that sense, Iran has become Russia’s only committed war ally, signaling to Western leaders that Iran doesn’t care how it is perceived and will bargain only from a position of strength. (Iran denies the drones it has sold Russia are killing Ukrainians, but no one on either side of the Atlantic believes that.) For all these reasons, talks on restoration of the nuclear deal are going nowhere, and Iran is advancing steadily toward the ability to make a bomb.

This isn’t simply a question of Iran’s destructive potential. If it were finally to make a bomb, its most powerful neighbors would have choices to make too. For years, regional rival Saudi Arabia funded Pakistan’s nuclear program, which conducted its first public nuclear test in May 1998 in response to Indian nuclear tests just two weeks earlier. In the process, the Saudis provided themselves with a source of nuclear weapons if they were ever needed. If Iran were to cross the nuclear finish line, Saudi Arabia, and possibly the United Arab Emirates, could therefore quickly acquire nuclear weapons of their own, creating a nuclear proliferation crisis in the Middle East.

Aware of this threat, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel will carefully weigh some very dangerous options. Netanyahu has repeatedly referred to Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential threat” to his country. So far, Israel has limited its response to Iran’s nuclear progress to actions that Israelis call “mowing the grass,” the use of espionage, sabotage attacks and targeted strikes on facilities and scientists to delay Iran’s uranium enrichment progress. But if Iran decides the time has come for a sprint to the nuclear finish line, Israel (and its American ally) will have to decide whether to risk war to destroy it. In that event, there will be no good options.

There are also the pressures inside Iran. For now, a brutal crackdown on widespread protests in the country has quieted the streets. But the unrest that followed the death in custody of a young woman arrested by “morality police” for failing to cover her hair properly sparked spontaneous demonstrations that authorities struggled to contain, and the protest movement’s lack of organized leadership made it that much harder to suppress.

A combination of public executions and public exhaustion with failure to force change have, for now, allowed the regime to restore its control of streets and school campuses. But if the death of one woman can trigger that much public unrest, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again, and Iranian state officials know that.

Adding to the tension across Iranian society and within its corridors of power is awareness that, in the not-too-distant future, the country will face its first true leadership transition in decades. Only once in the 44-year history of the Islamic Republic has power passed from one Supreme Leader to another. Ali Khamenei has held that position since 1989, but he will turn 84 next month, and rumors of ill health have dogged him for years. Those inside the regime with influence and access to wealth can’t be certain how succession will change the balance of power. That puts everyone on edge.

There has been some encouraging news in recent days that Iran’s leaders may be backing away from confrontation. Officials promised to welcome international inspectors to a nuclear facility where advanced uranium enrichment was detected and to restore cameras and other monitoring equipment at multiple sites that it had removed last year.

Perhaps Iranian officials fear confrontation with the West, and that its better-armed neighbors will make difficult economic conditions inside Iran even worse. Or perhaps they’re simply playing for time as they edge closer to a nuclear capability that Iran’s leaders believe will provide the ultimate security guarantee. Outsiders can’t be sure. Israel, in particular, will have to decide whether more progress is worth the risks it might pose.

That alone ensures that Iran remains a wildcard to watch closely.

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Mr. Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author The Power of Crisis.

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