The core issue is not ‘can’ Iran go nuclear? The core issue is ‘when’ Iran will go nuclear’?
JCPOA was agreed to merely delay Iran going nuclear after 2023 when provisions of JCPOA would no longer have been applicable. Discussion on if JCPOA was needed has become irrelevant as of now. Trump administration saw the folly of US administration agreeing to JCPOA provisions, hence decided to exit, an extremely sane and brave decision by Trump in May, 2018.
Since May, 2018 geo-strategic scenario the world over has been on short fuse. With China plundering the South China Sea region, middle east in flames, Indo-Pak and Indo-China tension reaching another peak, EU in total disarray on account of BREXIT, ongoing US-China trade war, US mandated UN sanctions on Iran made the task of all Foreign Ministers more complex and difficult. Taking sides became an impossible option.
Christmas 2019 ‘welcomed’ the most notorious health issue yet on global scale; the COVID-19. Every conventional precept of health care failed to contain the spread of diabolical virus across the globe by end of June, 2020. Much touted health care standards of the west, USA and Europe in particular, collapsed in a heap.
Democratic institution of USA took a beating on 6th January, 2021, when the self proclaimed most democratic nation witnessed an assault by violent mob on the temple of democracy in Washington.
The proverbial saying ‘every disaster gas a silver lining’ proved its worth with India emerging as vaccine super power before the leap second of 2020 ticked to herald 2021.
For once the entire globe had only one enemy, China the presumed spreader of COVID-19. Alliances started to change enraging China further. China met the challenge head on and clearly stated that China had no role in spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
With change in US leadership, China, emboldened by support from few EU nations aggressively canvassed for repealing UN sanctions on Iran and return to negotiating table to implement JCPOA provisions. Obvious question arises ‘why is China so keen to support Iran”?
China in spite of being a UNSC member as well as signatory to NPT has never openly condemned nuke program of North Korea and Pakistan. In fact China may have abetted development of nukes by Pak and North Korea. Thus Chinese intent to create yet another nuke nation having anti US stance is to its advantage. Signing of a 25 year USD 400 Billion oil purchase agreement with Iran is the most significant event highlighting China-Iran collaboration. Continued UN sanctions on Iran’s oil, therefore, are of little or no significance.
Iranian Collaboration with North Korea
- Iran-North Korea may have already shared/might be ready to share in near future the NODONG warhead technology.
- Regular flights operate between Pyongyang and Teheran with scheduled stop over at Beijing.
- Transportation of fissile material and/or even a dismantled nuclear warhead is a distinct possibility.
- Formidable air and sea networks between Iran and North Korea cannot be disrupted/stopped with 100% assurance.
- Probable and possible financial transactions between North Korea and Iran through North Korean shell companies with Chinese banks.
Iran’s Nuclear Capability pre and post JCPOA
A look at Iran’s nuclear capability highlights few startling facts. Pre JCPOA status of Iran’s nuclear programme was as under;
- Iran had established large network of centrifuges.
- In spite of JCPOA, Iran continued to develop ballistic missile testing, an essential requirement for having a reliable delivery system.
- Iranian investment on satellite technology and space is not in consonance with continued and repeated Iranian insistence that its nuke programme is for peaceful purposes only.
Post implementation of JCPOA
- Iranian market was opened for international trade and business.
- Nearly USD 100 Billion assets in cash became available to Iran.
- JCPOA, thus unwittingly allowed Iran to use the frozen assets for promoting its nuke programme. Cash starved North Korea might have sold not only weapon grade fissile material but also may have agreed to sell the „finished product‟.
- By front-loading the deal with access to more than $100 billion in frozen assets and opening up the Iranian market to trade and investment, the JCPOA created a rich incentive for Iran to continue advancing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, or to acquire weapons-grade fissile material and perhaps even completed nuclear weapons, from cash-strapped North Korea.
Post US withdrawal from JCPOA status
- Iran accelerated its programme to enrich Uranium to 5% and adding that enrichment might be increased to about 20%.
- Iran has already increased operational centrifuges by nearly 100%.
- Non compliance of JCPOA was intimated to EU by Iran when Uranium enrichment limit was breached.
UN Security Council Resolution 2231
Due to pressure from EU and members of UNSC (except USA) UN endorsed the JCPOA by agreeing to usage of extremely weak and ambiguous language in respect of containing Iran’s delivery vehicle programme. Iran took full advantage of the ambiguity and carried out more than 30 ballistic missile tests since JCPOA.
Joe Biden’s Options
When POTUS Trump decided to walk out of JCPOA majority of Senate members supported it. Will Joe Biden be able to get their support to rejoin or else he will follow his erstwhile POTUS, Barack Obama, who followed the presidential executive order route to rejoin JCPOA? Views of an eminent senator is pasted below;
“The longer Iran is outside the deal, the closer it gets to having a nuclear weapon; the closer it gets, the more likely Israel is to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, potentially setting off a regional war that would be almost certain to draw in the United States. “As a reminder: Members of Congress rejected the JCPOA on a bipartisan basis in 2015. If you repeat history next week by restoring that failed agreement, we will work to reject it once again.”
Joe Biden has to select from ‘Hobson’s Choice’.
Recent ‘Accidents/Attacks’ at Iranian Nuclear Facilities
There have been numerous accidents/incidents at various Iranian nuclear facilities causing extensive damage in few cases. But that has, in no way dissuaded Iranian authorities to discontinue with their nuclear ‘weapons’ programme. Assassination of top nuclear scientist of Iran by yet to be established assassins is a clear indication that certain powers do not approve of Iran’s nuclear programme growth.
Any discussion on JCPOA will be incomplete unless Israel’s opposition to Iranian nukes programme is discussed. Israel has clearly enunciated its resolve to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Israel’s determination has already been demonstrated by successful attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities in the past.
But there is a difference in case of Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel is hugely disadvantaged on following accounts to carry out a successful strike.
- Firstly, Iranian nuclear facilities are located at numerous places. Israel would, therefore, have to select the most important location. Israel does not have the capability to engage multiple target location with high degree of assurance level.
- Secondly, unlike Iraqi and Syrian facilities, which were located virtually in the open making targeting extremely easy, Iranian facilities are embedded in hills.
- Thirdly, due to nature of target/s Israel would require specific deep penetrator weapon, which is not yet part of ISRAELI INVENTORY. Help from USA MIGHT RESOLVE THE ISSUE.
- Lastly, Israel currently has no aircraft, which can strike the targets embedded in hills.
However a „successful‟ strike by dedicated and determined Israeli strike elements, both from air and ground cannot be ruled out. Israel must be prepared for significant attrition. An air strike is a distinct possibility if Saudi Arab allows use of its airspace/airfields.
US-Israel Relations/Options wrt Iran
Current POTUS Joe Biden is not an Israeli admirer. Way back in 1982, when Joe Biden was a senator he was a member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During a meeting with the then Israeli PM Menachem Begin tempers rose high and Biden banged the desk in front of him and warned Israeli PM to stop establishing new Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria region. Begin responded;
“Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid. …
This desk is designed for writing, not for fists. Don’t threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the U.S. lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats. Take note: we do not want a single soldier of yours to die for us.”
Obama-Biden administration was notoriously famous for leaking Israel related information to media. Biden has followed that policy in the latest case of an Israeli attack on a Iranian ship SAVIZ..Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said in 2010, while Biden was vice president under Obama, “Israel’s ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975.
On 8th April, 2021, Amichai Stein of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation Kann tweeted, “US official tells NYT: Israel informed the US it attacked Iran‟s ship Saviz in the Red Sea in ‘retaliation for earlier strikes on Israeli vessels” and added: ‘the ship was damaged under the waterline.’”
Obama-Biden administration (2008-16) was more than eager to protect Iranian interests as is clearly evidenced by their actions in 2010. The then US administration informed Iran about ongoing talks of a secret deal between Israel and Saudi Arab wherein Saudis agreed to allow Israeli fighters use of Saudi air space during a mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear facility. Obama-Biden administration had concluded that Jerusalem will strike sooner than later.
Whether Biden will follow the Trump precept or adopt/alter to something new will be known within weeks. In either case Biden will almost certainly know that there would be no stopping Israel with or without US support.
Probable Fallout of Israeli Strike
Unlike Iraq and Syria strike, Iran will react with massive retaliatory strike, mostly by SSMs on Israel. Will it lead to further escalation?
Suggested Measures to Contain and/or Delay Iran going Nuclear
- Iran‟s ballistic missile development programme must be discontinued.
- China must support automatic cancellation of modified JCPOA if Iran attempts to improve ballistic missile capability, which can be used as a delivery vehicle for nukes.
- UNSCR 2231 must include limit on transfer of technology wrt ballistic missile development.
- UNSCR 2231 must be followed by Iran, both in letter and spirit.
Post Script: But there is no stopping Israel; JCPOA or no JCPOA. Israel might wait for ongoing Vienna negotiations. Timing of Israeli strike will be determined by outcome of JCPOA negotiations.