As top US officials variously meet leading Saudis, Iran’s deputy foreign minister calls for Riyadh to open its atomic sites to full inspection and for Israel to sign NPT.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Reza Najafi Tuesday urged Saudi Arabia to be transparent over its nuclear activities and open up the access of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Najafi rejected remarks by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan earlier Tuesday to the UN General Assembly criticising “Iran’s continued breaches and violations of international agreements and treaties related to the nuclear agreement, and its escalation of its nuclear activities in addition to research and development activities.”
Addressing the UN General Assembly’s high-level meeting held to commemorate and promote International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (September 26), Najafi said Iran rejected the retention, stockpiling, development, use, and proliferation of nuclear arms.
Iran is in a dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over traces of previously undeclared radioactive material that it has failed to fully explain and over monitoring access to the UN nuclear watchdog.
Reza Najafi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for legal affairs. FILE PHOTO
It has also been enriching uranium to 60 percent and stockpiling it in violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.
Najafi condemned the modernization and strengthening of nuclear arsenals by the United States and other nuclear-weapon states in violation of their arms-reduction commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Najafi said Israel continued to “threaten peace and security in the Middle East and beyond through its clandestine nuclear program,” and urged the world to invite Israel to join the NPT and place its nuclear facilities under IAEA monitoring.
Unlike Israel, which is believed to hold around 180 nuclear bombs, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are NPT signatories. Saudi Arabia – which has no nuclear reactor but reportedly past nuclear links with both Iraq and Pakistani scientist AQ Khan – has limited the Safeguards access of the IAEA under a ‘small quantities protocol.’
Saudi Arabia backed former United States president Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from Iran’s 2015 deal with world powers limiting its nuclear program – the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The new administration of President Joe Biden has continued Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions as Iran has continued to expand its atomic program with steps that began in 2019.
Prince Faisal this week met with US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss recent developments in Iran’s nuclear case. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia Tuesday to discuss Yemen and Iran – the White House kept Sullivan’s visit low-profile and no photos were issued.
In his speech to the annual UN General Assembly last week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz expressed hope that continuing talks with Iran, brokered by Baghdad, to restore relations would build confidence. The kingdom cut diplomatic ties in 2016 when protestors attacked its Tehran embassy after Riyadh executed 47 dissidents including leading Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr
US Says Window Open For Iran Nuclear Talks But Won’t Be Forever
Thursday, 23 Sep 2021 20:38
WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) – The window is still open to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal but Tehran has yet to indicate whether it is willing to resume talks in Vienna or whether it would do so on the basis of where they left off in June, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
The official told reporters on condition of anonymity that Washington’s patience would not last forever but declined to set a deadline, saying this depended on technical progress in Iran’s nuclear program and a wider judgment by the United States and its partners on whether Iran was willing to revive the deal.
“We’re still interested. We still want to come back to the table,” the senior U.S. State Department official said in a telephone briefing. “The window of opportunity is open. It won’t be open forever if Iran takes a different course.”
Under the 2015 deal, Iran curbed its uranium enrichment program, a possible pathway to nuclear arms, in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Former President Donald Trump quit the deal three years ago and re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors that have crippled its economy, prompting Iran to take steps to violate its nuclear limits.
The U.S. official declined to say what the United States might do if Iran refuses to return to negotiations, or if a resumption of the original deal proves impossible. Such U.S. contingency planning is often referred to as “Plan B.”
“The ‘Plan B’ that we’re concerned about is the one that Iran may be contemplating, where they want to continue to build their nuclear program and not be seriously engaged in talks to return to the JCPOA,” he said, in a reference to the deal’s formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
After al-Qaeda targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, then-US President George W. Bush declared his (in)famous doctrine of the global war on terror, which will continue to have a great effect on the Middle East and the world for the coming decades, if not centuries. The framework implemented an aggressive foreign policy against Iraq, Iran and North Korea, singled out as the “axis of evil” in the new world order.
After 20 years of the doctrine in action, which saw the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq that further ignited regional instability, President Joe Biden has withdrawn US troops from Afghanistan and is determined to end the combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Without concluding whether two decades of aggression succeeded in defeating terrorism, it can be said that the war on terror opened a new area of influence for one of the axis of evil, namely Iran in Iraq.
Opening the Gates
Thanks to its Shia population, Iraq has been a significant target of Iranian foreign policy since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Due to both geographic and sectarian proximity, Iran, which sees Washington as an enemy and a source of instability in the region, was suspicious of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Deeming Baathist Iraq as a major threat to its national security, the regime in Tehran has meddled in its neighbor’s internal politics and strategic tendencies ever since coming to power. With the US toppling of Saddam Hussein, however, Iran succeeded in courting Iraq’s Shia population by taking advantage of its shared border and cultural, religious and economic ties.
The fact that significant Shia figures opposed to the Iraqi regime took refuge in Iran in the early 1980s strengthened Tehran’s relations with these groups in the post-invasion period. During this time, the Shia population has become influential in the Iraqi state and society. For example, Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization militia, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the recently deceased vice president of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), count among some of the most prominent pro-Iranian figures in the current Iraqi political and military establishments.
The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia resistance group headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim hoping to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, was established in Iran in 1982. It became a pioneer organization for various Shia militias and political groups with connections to Tehran, incorporating the Badr Organization, then known as the Badr Brigades.
While Iran benefitted from the support of Iraqi militias during the inconclusive war with Iraq in the 1980s, Tehran redirected this mobilization against the US forces following the 2003 invasion. The Iraqi militia group Kataib Hezbollah was formed in early 2007, followed by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, as part of the campaign by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force against US forces.
Iran’s presence in Iraq came to light when the Americans captured several Iranian operatives in 2006 and 2007, among them Mohsen Chizari of the IRGC. Asaib Ahl al-Haq kidnapped and killed five US soldiers in January 2007, but two months later, coalition forces captured the militia’s leader, Qais al-Khazali, alongside an operative of Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, Ali Musa Daqduq. It is well known that the Jaish al-Mahdi militias led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who still has distant dealings with Iran, received intensive Iranian support to fight against the United States.
The disbanding the Iraqi army and establishing the interim government by the US after 2003 provided Iran with new opportunities to secure many significant positions in the bureaucracy. In this process, many members of the Badr Brigades were integrated into the new army and police forces, their political connections winning many rapid promotions. Today, Badr is still one of the most active groups within the police, the army and the Ministry of Interior.
Consolidation of Iranian Power
The Baghdad government was formed along ethnic and sectarian quotas. As per the country’s 2005 constitution, the presidency was allocated to the Kurds, the prime minister’s office to the Shia and the position of parliament’s speaker to the Sunnis. The allocation of the executive position to Shia leaders strengthened Iran’s elbow room in Iraqi politics.
The sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who held office between 2006 and 2014, disquieted the Sunni society further. In addition to the fact that the Shia occupied a central position in the administrative system, the American inability to understand Sunni expectations has marginalized Sunni society. Radicalization led to the resurgence of al-Qaeda and later the formation of the even more extreme Islamic State (IS) group in the Sunni regions or Iraq.
After capturing Mosul in June 2014, IS has taken control of almost a third of Iraqi territory. All Shia groups fighting against the new threat were united under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units — an umbrella organization controlled mainly by pro-Iran armed groups — after Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for all those able to carry a weapon to take up arms.
The PMU militias were provided with American and Iranian-made weapons during their fight against IS. Pro-Iranian militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq dominated the PMU. Active support by the IRGC provided to Iraqi militias and the presence of Qassem Soleimani, a Quds Force commander, at the front lines pointed to Iran’s effectiveness in the field.
Integrating the PMU as a legal part of the Iraqi security mechanism in 2016 further legitimized Iranian influence in the political and military establishments. For instance, almost $1.7 billion was allocated to the PMU, which consists of some 100,000 militants, from the $90-billion Iraqi budget in 2021.
Defeating the Islamic State
After the declaration of victory against IS in 2017, tensions between Iran and the US, placed on the back burner during the campaign, reignited. While US officials argued that the PMU completed their mission and should be dissolved, pro-Iranian groups reassumed their anti-American tone.
Thanks to their active role in the fight against IS, Iran-backed militias secured their position in the military bureaucracy and were able to establish themselves politically. The Fatah Alliance, under the leadership of Hadi al-Amiri and backed by pro-Iranian militias, gained victory in the 2018 election, becoming the second-largest group in the Iraqi parliament. Iran has thus become one of the decision-makers in post-IS Iraq.
Tensions increased in 2018 after President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran. Pro-Iranian forces began to attack US forces on the ground in Iraq. While Iran seemed to want to punish the US via the Iraqi militias, these attacks also aimed at forcing Americans to withdraw from Iraq. The situation has come to an apogee with the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis in the US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3, 2020.
The assassinations shifted the tensions to the political arena. On January 5, under the leadership of pro-Iranian groups, a resolution was passed in Iraq’s parliament to call on the government to expel foreign troops from the country. In addition to political pressures, as a result of ongoing attacks by pro-Iranian militias on American bases and soldiers in Iraq, the US abandoned many of its bases in the country. As a result of strategic dialogue negotiations with Baghdad, Washington decided to withdraw its combat forces and retain only consultant support. To a large degree, Iran managed to get what it wanted — to drive the US out and reassert its own influence in the region.
Pro-Iranian militias, already active in the Shia regions, started to show their presence in Sunni-dominated areas such as Mosul, Anbar and Saladin after the defeat of IS. Furthermore, Iran-backed groups pursue a long-term strategy to seize control of disputed areas between the central government and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Iran-backed groups, including the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Imam Ali, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Saraya al-Khorasani, have been active in the disputed territories since 2014.
At the same time, these militias under the PMU umbrella reject control by Baghdad and threaten the central government. So much so that Abu Ali Askari, a spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, was able to say that “the time is appropriate to cut his ears as the ears of a goat are cut,” referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, while militias were able to flex their muscle against the government in the streets of Baghdad amid tensions leading up to the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.
Make Sense of the World
Aiming to limit US influence, Iran has been gradually reshaping Iraq‘s internal and security policy since 2003. While millions are still paying the price of the war on terror in Iraq, which resulted in the collapse of the political and economic systems followed by a campaign of terror by the Islamic State, Iran continues to consolidate its power, both in military and political spheres.
After an 18-year-long story of invasion and with the US poised to withdraw its combat forces, Iran’s hegemony over Iraq will inevitably come to fruition. The sectarian and ethnic emphasis within the framework of the government quota system not only prevents the formation of independent Iraqi identity but also keeps fragile social fault lines dynamic, an opportunity that Iran will, without doubt, continue to exploit.
Official website of Ali Khamenei / Wikimedia Commons
Many countries are keeping tabs on the ongoing nuclear activities of Iran especially through the nuclear deal that was established in 2015. A probe on the Islamic nation’s nuclear activities reveals that it has enough enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon in days.
A report is set to confirm that Iran has enriched enough uranium to develop a nuclear weapon of its own in a span of fewer than two weeks. Former deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Oli Heinonen warned that it was time for a more robust approach to the nuclear threat that Iran now poses. Heinonen said that the findings mean that Iran no longer cares what western nations think of them as they push through with their nuclear program.
“Moreover, in a couple of days, the new IAEA report will be an eye-opener. I predict it will show that stocks of 60 percent enriched uranium and 20 percent enriched uranium, when combined, are enough to produce one nuclear device in just a few weeks — less than two months,” said Heinonen. “This means Iran has already achieved a kind of immunity.”
Heinonen went on to accuse France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as US President Joe Biden — who was the vice president when Barack Obama oversaw the nuclear deal — of living in the past. Heinonen said that it was time to move on from the nuclear agreement that was established years ago. With the US having withdrawn from the deal in 2018, it was up to the three other European nations to take action.
“But this is also an opportunity to find a different approach. Iran has no real interest in nuclear weapons, but it does want to end all sanctions,” added Heinonen.
This probe comes at the heels of the initially chaotic evacuation of US troops along with other allies and concerned Afghans from Afghanistan as the war-torn country has now fallen to the insurgent group Taliban. Thousands of Afghans who still fear the hardline regime of the Taliban have looked to flee the country, including fleeing to Iran, which has said it would provide shelter to Afghan refugees.
It should be noted that the Islamic beliefs of Iran and the Taliban have made the two rivals as Iranians despise the Sunni Muslim Taliban.
France, Germany Urge Iran to Return Speedily to Nuclear Deal Talks
BERLIN/PARIS – France and Germany on Wednesday urged Iran to return rapidly to nuclear negotiations, after a break in talks following Iranian elections in June, with Paris demanding an “immediate” restart amid Western concerns over Tehran’s expanding atomic work.
France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his newly-appointed Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian in a telephone call it was urgent for Tehran to return to the talks, Le Drian’s ministry said in a statement.
A sixth round of indirect talks between Tehran and Washington was adjourned in June after hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was elected Iran’s president. Raisi took office on August 5.
Since April, Iran and six powers have tried to work out how Tehran and Washington can both return to compliance with the nuclear pact, which former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.
“The minister underlined the importance and the urgency of an immediate resumption of negotiations,” the foreign ministry said after the conversation between Le Drian and Amirabdollahian.
Le Drian repeated his concern with regard to all the nuclear activities carried out by Iran in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran has gradually violated limits in the agreement since Washington abandoned it in 2018.
The next round of talks has yet to be scheduled.
Two senior Iranian officials told Reuters in July Raisi planned to adopt “a harder line” in the talks.
Amirabdollahian said on Monday the talks might resume in “two to three months”, although it’s unclear whether that time frame began from now or when the new administration took over last month.
Germany earlier also raised pressure on Tehran asking it to resume talks “as soon as possible.”
“We are ready to do so, but the time window won’t be open indefinitely,” a ministry spokesperson told a briefing.
Last month, France, Germany and Britain voiced grave concern about reports from the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirming Iran has produced uranium metal enriched up to 20% fissile purity for the first time and lifted production capacity of uranium enriched to 60%. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
At a time when the Western, Arab and Asian worlds are watching the astonishing repercussions in Afghanistan and the horrific images from Kabul International Airport, some may overlook the events of the same gravity that’s taking place in Iran, the western neighbor of Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, the European members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had expressed grave concerns about Iran’s enrichment of uranium. They said Iran had no credible civilian need to enrich uranium, for this was a “key step in developing a nuclear weapon.”
Yes, this was in the past. But the most recent thing was the confirmation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Tuesday that Iran continues to enrich uranium, which can be used in the production of a nuclear bomb.
In a report issued by the United Nation’s atomic watchdog in Vienna to member nations, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that IAEA inspectors had confirmed last Saturday that Iran had now produced 200 grams of uranium enriched up to 20 percent.
Enrichment of uranium metal is prohibited under the nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, which is meant to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb. The 2015 deal promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
Put all this together with the warnings of France, Germany and other Western parties, about the imminence of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon then there is a new hot spot. Amid this scenario, we even do not know whether this has not already happened or not.
Decisive measures are required to counter this even if there is no possibility of the Iranian regime’s using this weapon or just tampering with it and diverting the nuclear weapon into just another blackmail card on the table.
This has been the case with the Iranian regime, which has been creating cards every day for negotiations as was evident in the case of the Houthis in Yemen, the Hashd Alshaabi in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and later perhaps by the Pakistani and Afghan Shiite militias, Zainabiboun and Fatemiyoun, that is created by Iran and trained in Syria.
Things are inseparable from each other, and everyone knows what happened and is happening these days with the eastern neighbor of Iran, and we know perfectly who the new rulers are.
The image is not hidden from a sane person, but imagine how this was lost by the West, led by a Biden Washington that abandoned the region, as the pictures of his army in Kabul told those scenes that will remain immortal in modern history.
Imagine this chaos and recklessness in dealing with our region and with a nuclear Iran, which is already dangerous even without a nuclear weapon. So how dangerous it would be after possessing one?
— This article was originally published in Asharq al-Awsat.
VIENNA: Iran has accelerated its enrichment of uranium to near weapons-grade, the UN atomic watchdog said in a report on Tuesday seen by Reuters, a move raising tensions with the West as both sides seek to resume talks on reviving Tehran’s nuclear deal. Iran increased the purity to which it is refining uranium to 60 percent fissile purity from 20 percent in April in response to an explosion and power cut at its Natanz site that damaged output at the main underground enrichment plant there. Iran has blamed the attack on Israel. Weapons-grade is around 90 percent purity. In May, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was using one cascade, or cluster, of advanced centrifuges to enrich to up to 60 percent at its above-ground pilot enrichment plant at Natanz. The IAEA informed member states on Tuesday that Iran was now using a second cascade for that purpose, too. The move is the latest of many by Iran breaching the restrictions imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal, which capped the purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67 percent. The United States and its European allies have warned such moves threaten talks on reviving the deal, which are currently suspended. Following Reuters’ report, Iran reiterated that its nuclear program is peaceful and said it had informed the IAEA about its enrichment activities. It added that its moves away from the 2015 deal would be reversed if the United States returned to the accord and lifted sanctions, Iranian state media reported. “If the other parties return to their obligations under the nuclear accord and Washington fully and verifiably lifts its unilateral and illegal sanctions … all of Iran’s mitigation and countermeasures will be reversible,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying by state media. The IAEA said on Monday that Iran had made progress in its work on enriched uranium metal despite objections by Western powers that there is no credible civilian use for such work. Uranium metal can be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb, but Iran says its aims are peaceful and it is developing reactor fuel.
Tehran, Iran – Shortly before Iran and the United States, along with other world powers, are expected to head back to Vienna for nuclear talks, Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei said “predatory wolf” President Joe Biden is no different from his predecessor.
He also slammed the European signatories to the deal, saying, “they are like the US as well, but in words and rhetoric they are always demanding, as if it was Iran that for long ridiculed and undermined negotiations”.
The supreme leader’s remarks came during his first visit with President Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet, which gained a sweeping vote of confidence by the country’s hardline parliament on Wednesday.
On Friday, Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, had his first phone call with the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, during which Borrell called on Iran to commit to a date to come back to Vienna for talks on restoring the nuclear deal.
While Iran has said it will at some point come back to continue six rounds of talks that ended on July 20, a specific date has yet to be determined.
While the Biden administration has said it wants to return to the nuclear deal, the US president is still enforcing Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign as he has refused to lift any sanctions before an agreement is reached in Vienna.
Iranian and American officials have so far clashed on how and what sanctions need to be lifted, and how Iran needs to scale back its nuclear programme again. Iran is currently enriching uranium to 60 percent, its higher ever rate.
Khamenei’s remarks on Saturday appeared to be a double down on Iran’s position before the two countries, in addition to European powers and Russia and China, head back to Vienna.
The supreme leader specifically directed Raisi’s cabinet to plan for managing the country’s ailing economy with the assumption that US sanctions will remain in place.
“Diplomacy must not be influenced and linked with the nuclear issue because the nuclear issue is a separate issue that must be resolved in a manner suitable and deserving of the country,” he also said.
Instead, Khamenei said Raisi and his team must focus on boosting “economic diplomacy”.
The appointment of Amirabdollahian, a veteran diplomat with a focus on regional affairs, is indicative of that orientation. The foreign minister, who is now in Baghdad to participate in a significant regional summit orchestrated by Iraq, has said he aims to craft an “Asia-centric” foreign policy agenda.
The supreme leader on Saturday said the best example that the US is a wolf and “at times acts as a cunning fox” is the current situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Khamenei expressed his sorrow at the suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport on Thursday, which killed dozens of Afghans and 13 US personnel, saying “these problems and difficulties are the work of Americans that for 20 years occupied the country and imposed a variety of cruelties on its people”.
“The US didn’t take a single step for the advancement of Afghanistan. If today’s Afghanistan is not behind in terms of social and civil developments compared to 20 years ago, it is not ahead.”
As the Taliban has taken control of almost all of Afghanistan, Khamenei said Iran supports the people of the country because, as before, governments come and go but the people remain.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Nuclear Deterrence” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
Nuclear weapons have made a return to the top of the agenda of world politics. All major nuclear powers have begun to invest in new capabilities or to modernize their arsenals. At the same time, attempts to curb nuclear proliferation have had, at best, a limited effect, while new technologies may undermine the assumptions on which traditional nuclear strategies have been based. With old rules eroding and new challenges emerging, a “second nuclear age,” marked by more actors and likely less stability, is taking shape.
Nevertheless, critics of nuclear deterrence are gaining ground in Western societies. The abolitionist movement, spearheaded by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, has stressed the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapon use and has attempted to outlaw nuclear weapons. On Jan. 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weaponsentered into force. It is unclear what its consequences will be, as all existing nuclear-weapon states have rejected the treaty and most of the 50 participants are smaller countries. However, the treaty has already changed the debate in Western societies, particularly in Europe. What the late Michael Howard described in the early 1980s has become an even greater challenge today. The fact that engaging in deterrence is now seen by many as more dangerous than deterrence failure may result, as Howard wrote almost 40 years ago, from
the degree to which we Europeans have abandoned the primary responsibility for our defense to the United States; have come to take the deterrence provided by others for granted; and now assume that the dangers against which we once demanded reassurance only now exist in the fevered imagination of our protectors.
In other words, extended deterrence has become too successful, undermining its very foundations — the perceived need of protection.Become a Member
Together, this twin challenge puts NATO leaders in a tough spot. They not only have to respond to new nuclear challenges posed by adversaries, but they need to deal with domestic constituencies that are skeptical of nuclear deterrence. While it was far from easy to shore up domestic support for nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, as the Euromissiles crisis in the early 1980s demonstrated, it will likely be even more difficult to do so today. The transatlantic alliance is more heterogeneous than in the past, with some allies promoting a strengthening of NATO’s nuclear posture and others flirting with supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The ongoing debate about the future of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement suggests that NATO policy rests on shakier grounds than often assumed. There is thus a real risk of a new nuclear crisis that could severely hamper NATO’s ability to deter or even endanger the long-term health of the alliance.
Unfortunately, NATO leaders are woefully unprepared for such a crisis. For a long time, many of them have preferred not to talk too much about nuclear deterrence. Apart from the general nod to the existence of nuclear weapons and NATO’s self-understanding as a “nuclear alliance” in official documents or summit declarations, nuclear weapons have hardly been discussed publicly. For many, nuclear deterrence seemed to be a relic of the Cold War. And those who believed it was important not to scrap it often preferred not to discuss it, thinking it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie. The deterioration of NATO’s security environment, as well as the rise of the abolitionist movement in Western societies, have arguably made this strategy unsustainable.
Officially, of course, NATO member states have repeatedly underlined their commitment to nuclear deterrence. Most allies hosting U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons have decided to invest in new dual-capable aircraft. Yet, both public opinion and significant portions of the elites in several NATO member states have become skeptical of NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence. According to a 2019 survey for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, public opinion in the four E.U. states that host U.S. nuclear weapons tends to support the removal of these weapons and is highly critical of the idea of equipping new fighter jets with a nuclear capacity.
The junior partner in the current coalition, the Social Democratic Party, has repeatedly delayed a decision on a Tornado replacement, leading German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to announce her plan to buy American F-18s without being sure whether the Bundestag would support it. The Green Party, which has surpassed the Social Democrats in the polls, has its roots in the peace movement and calls for “a Germany free of nuclear weapons” and “a broad public debate about outdated deterrence doctrines of the Cold War” in its most recent party manifesto (although influential parts of the party argue for some flexibility). As a parliamentary majority without the Greens or the Social Democrats is highly unlikely, this issue will almost certainly be a stumbling block in coalition negotiations after the elections for the Bundestag in September 2021.
Proponents of a withdrawal of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons from German soil argue that it would make Germany and Europe more secure and downplay the potential risks of such a decision. For them, Berlin’s refusal to continually host U.S. nuclear weapons and invest in the next generation of dual-capable aircraft would neither mean the end of nuclear sharing nor undermine NATO cohesion. They often try to distinguish between the so-called technical and political elements of nuclear sharing, arguing that ending the former would not necessarily affect the latter. Pointing to states such as Canada or Greece that once hosted U.S. nuclear weapons but got rid of them a long time ago and still participate in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, they argue that Germany would still be able to influence NATO nuclear strategy, that the United States would still be willing to protect NATO, and that NATO and the nuclear sharing arrangement as such would continue to exist and function well.
These arguments are based on rather heroic assumptions. First, they assume that it does not matter what you bring to the table. According to Rolf Mützenich, chairman of the Social Democrats in the Bundestag, a withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from Germany “would not result in the end of the American nuclear guarantee nor of Germany’s say in nuclear matters … as it would still be guaranteed through its membership in the Nuclear Planning Group.” Yet, it would be very surprising if those states that actively contributed to NATO’s nuclear sharing mission didn’t have more influence than other member states. After all, it is well known that those NATO members that provide troops to allied operations (in particular those that carry special risks) have more influence on NATO strategy for a given operation than other member states.
Second, they implicitly or explicitly argue that it would not make much of a difference for the security provider, the United States, whether their protégésparticipate in the arrangement or not. After all, they argue, the United States does not need the few non-strategic nuclear weapons on European soil to provide effective deterrence for the whole of NATO. According to the critics, these weapons are militarily useless, because there is no realistic scenario for their use. Yet, many military experts disagree. They maintain that even the current generation of jet fighters could successfully carry out their mission. Moreover, from this perspective, jet fighters carrying gravity bombs provide a lot of operational flexibility and are valuable tools for strategic communication.
It could also be argued that these non-strategic nuclear weapons never really had much military use in a narrow sense. Rather, they have always been political symbols, linking European security to American security. It is important to recognize, though, that “symbolic” does not mean politically unimportant. In contrast, nuclear sharing has also meant reassurance and risk sharing. However, as former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, notes, reassurance works both ways: “it’s a two-way street.” For the United States, it will thus make a huge political difference whether U.S. allies are willing to continue to share the risks associated with the nuclear umbrella. In an article for Der Spiegel, two experienced Europe hands, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Townsend, warned in no uncertain terms that “Germany walking away from this vow to share the nuclear burden, this expression of solidarity and risk sharing, strikes at the heart of the trans-Atlantic bargain.”
Third, the German proponents of a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons underestimate the role of their own country. Germany, after all, is not just another member state. To begin with, the country’s role in NATO was a major reason for the very creation of this special arrangement. Its departure from NATO’s technical nuclear sharing arrangement would very likely trigger other “exits” and lead to transatlantic disruption. While the nuclear sharing arrangement may survive a Belgian or Dutch exit, it is hard to imagine that a German withdrawal would not bring about a general crisis of nuclear sharing. According to Flournoy and Townsend, “the bargain sustaining U.S. extended nuclear deterrence to Europe would collapse and the U.S. umbrella would essentially be decoupled from Europe.” At a time of upheaval for the transatlantic alliance and ongoing discussions about a potential “decoupling,” this promises to be a dangerous strategy with potentially far-reaching consequences.
The Road Ahead: How Can We Avoid Transatlantic Nuclear Disruption?
As the past few years have shown, a reactive communication strategy that tries to protect a very fragile elite consensus without rocking the boat is apparently not enough. Those in the strategic community who still believe that nuclear deterrence remains indispensable will have to make the case for it and be ready to engage in moral and ethical discussions. They should not be afraid of a debate with those who think that unilateral disarmament is the safer strategy. After all, the case can be made that supporting NATO cohesion and limited nuclear deterrence is the more promising path toward risk reduction, disarmament, and peaceful relations in the long run.
Most importantly, they need to be clear in communicating the risks of a unilateral end to nuclear sharing. They should also highlight the meager benefits of unilateral disarmament when other states are investing in new nuclear capabilities and doctrinal developments. In particular, Berlin’s allies need to pay attention to the German debate and stress the potential damage of Germany pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. non-strategic weapons. Germans may be less receptive to arguments about nuclear strategy, but they may listen to warnings that the end of nuclear sharing would present a major threat to multilateralism and could pave the way for a renationalization of security policy.
At the same time, proponents of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement will also have to make clear that they take seriously the valid points made by those concerned with the very real risks that come with nuclear weapons. For large parts of the Western public, it is far from self-evident today that relying on nuclear deterrence is indeed the best strategy to deal with a deteriorating security environment. Consequently, NATO leaders should engage with critics’ concerns that the alliance is just sticking with a dangerous relic from the Cold War because it does not know what else to do. They should also be open to thinking through potential alternatives to the current arrangement (which dates back to the 1960s) that would be able to fulfill the same role (i.e., serving as a link between U.S. and European security). And they need to find ways to combine efforts to maintain a necessary level of deterrence with a sincere commitment to nuclear risk reduction, arms control, and disarmament.
For instance, NATO leaders should be open to discussing proposals such as a five-year moratorium, during which neither Russia nor NATO would deploy new “destabilizing weapons to Europe until 2025,” giving NATO time to reassess the nuclear status quo and test Russia’s willingness to seriously consider mutual arms reductions. Likewise, following in the footsteps of NATO’s traditional dual-track strategy, they should also be open to adapting their capabilities if the security environment continues to erode further. Germany, in any case, would do well to discuss the difficult questions relating to the future of nuclear security within NATO, instead of incrementally phasing out its participation in the nuclear sharing arrangement.
After all, without NATO cohesion, neither deterrence nor security will be achieved. Alliance management and balancing different assurance and deterrence needs within NATO will be major challenges for the coming years. Given the very heterogeneous threat perceptions and policy preferences within the alliance, discussions on the nuclear components of NATO’s next strategic concept and on a potential update of the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review of 2012 will be difficult.
For a complete denial of deterrence, however, the transatlantic alliance will very likely be punished. A metaphor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once used in a completely different case may also apply to the nuclear umbrella: “throwing out [something] when it has worked and is continuing to work … is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”Become a Member
Tobias Bunde is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin. He also serves as the director of research and policy at the Munich Security Conference.
This article was drafted for a workshop titled “Transatlantic Disruption” at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s global affairs hub. The workshop was made possible by the Shapiro Global Workshop on Geopolitics Fund and Carnegie Corporation of New York. The author would like to thank the workshop participants as well as Christian Ruhl, Megan Oprea, and Freddy Ludtke for very helpful comments on a previous version of this article. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author
While negotiations in Vienna between the US and Iran on Iran’s nuclear program appear to be heading nowhere, Teheran keeps edging ever closer to achieving nuclear weapons.
In recent history there are a few examples of countries that were denuclearised, either because they decided to do so or were forced to. What can we learn from these past cases about the chances of denuclearising Iran today?
Is there a way for the international community to force the rogue yet sovereign government in Teheran to abandon what it sees as its nuclear strategic asset – viewed by the regime as an insurance policy safeguarding its survival?
External threats a primary motivator
Except for the first atomic bombs in history, dropped by the US on Japan in 1945 to force its surrender, countries have sought or acquired nuclear weapons mostly to deter external threats. During the Cold War, the US, UK and France feared the Soviets and China, and vice versa, and all ended up with nuclear weapons. In the 1970s, India and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons to neutralise each other. North Korea (2000s) developed nuclear weapons to counter US power in east Asia. In the late 1970s, South Africa chose to obtain a clandestine nuclear capability after the country’s Apartheid-era white leadership felt isolated and anxious because of developments in neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique.
The rise of Israel as an alleged nuclear power since the late 1960s – a decision also driven by a strong sense of external threat – was one important factor driving some Arab countries to seek nuclear capabilities. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein explained in 1978 that he was building a reactor so “[the Arabs] should have the atom [bomb] …When … they [Israel tells] us, ‘We will hit you with the atom,’ we will say, ‘We will hit you with the atom too.’” Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi also reportedlysought various weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, from the early 1970s onward in response to Israel’s capabilities.
Denuclearisation successes and failures
International sanctions contributed to, but were not the dominant factor, in South Africa’s choice to relinquish atomic weapons in the early 1990s. That choice was part of an internal process of regime change which concluded with the abolition of Apartheid. Critical to the decision to denuclearise was a diminished external regional threat after a US-brokered settlement of the Angolan War, and Namibian independence.
Libya endured similar sanctions for years yet held firmly to its weapons of mass destruction. Change came only in response to the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in 2003, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Fearing a similar fate, Gaddafi renounced and later dismantled his nuclear program. Unfortunately for him, Libya quickly spiralled into civil war and he was removed from power and killed.
Sanctions and negotiations over decades with North Korea, including multiple agreements with Pyongyang, ended in total failure. The Kim family regime used the ongoing negotiations to buy time while progressing with its nuclear and ballistic missile projects. Today this dangerously unpredictable and isolated country is thought to possess several dozen atomic bombs and the means to deliver them as far as the US west coast.
Iran’s religiously inspired drive
We now know that in April 1984, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gave the order to initiate the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons project. The reason was again external threats, especially the then ongoing war with Iraq, which saw many international players providing assistance of various sorts to Baghdad. Then Iranian Prime Minister and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei explained at the time that the bomb was needed “to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel.”
Khamenei also added that Iran requires nuclear weapons to “prepare it for the emergence of the Imam Mahdi [Islam’s Messiah]”. His words reveal the uniqueness of Teheran’s drive to the bomb – religious beliefs. The regime believes that the bomb will facilitate the export of the revolution and eventually lead to a Shi’ite revival as Islam’s leading force, as believed to be promised by God.
Diplomacy in the form of sanctions, negotiations and agreements was the main strategy applied by the international community to tackle the Iranian challenge, including especially its nuclear aspect. The 2015 nuclear deal (the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” or JCPOA) was the crown jewel in a long series of agreements with Iran, in which Teheran agreed to decelerate parts of its open nuclear program and facilitate tougher inspection of it in exchange for the easing of sanctions.
Why did the combined diplomatic approach fail to curb Iran, now potentially only a few months from becoming a nuclear threshold state?
The fundamentalist Iranian elite view engagement by the West as a sign of weakness, discouraging Teheran from making meaningful concessions to infidel countries that they are convinced are implacable enemies. The ayatollahs choose instead to employ both defiance and deceit. They breached all nuclear agreements, pushing forward at varying pace towards their goal, while misleading and undermining UN monitoring of their activities.
Responding to sanctions, Teheran’s strategy is attempting to construct a “resistance economy” to maintain self-sufficiency without foreign trade or aid. This strategy of course does not apply to the regime’s corrupt elite, which enjoys riches at the expense of the Iranian people, who suffer increasing distress from the impact of sanctions.
Threats to the regime remain high
The Libyan and South African cases teach us that governments opt to relinquish their nuclear option only when one of two preconditions exist: either the leadership believes the threat to its existence is significantly diminished; or international pressure looks likely to lead to imminent regime change.
In 2021, the level of external threat to the Iranian regime remains high – or at least so it must appear from Teheran. The US, along with Iran’s arch-enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia, lead a camp of Middle Eastern allies working together against Iran and its proxies. Teheran is fuelling these tensions, with attacks and proliferation of terror and radical ideologies directly or via proxies (Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and various Shi’ite militias for example). Furthermore, internal discontent in Iran has been increasing as the people suffer under oppression, an ailing economy, water and food shortages, corruption and mismanagement.
The rigged election of Ebrahim Raisi, executioner of his own people, as president has completed the transformation of Iran’s regime into an extremist government controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. With even the pretence of competitive democracy now largely dispensed with, these elements must maintain a focus on external threats as the only justification for their cruel grip on power. Their lesson from the toppling of Saddam and Gaddafi after they gave up their nuclear weapons efforts is that the Iranian regime must avoid such a move lest it face a similar fate.
Israel, with the help of the US (and others?) has sought an alternative to diplomacy by embarking on an unprecedented sabotage campaign to derail Iran’s nuclear program. Mysterious explosions, cyber-attacks, killing of scientists and leading figuresin the project were employed to hopefully slow down Iran’s progress toward bombmaking. These efforts appear to have at least helped ensure that even after four decades, the Iranians have yet to build a functioning nuclear warhead. This campaign, however, is perceived in Teheran as yet another strategic threat.
Israel is the only country to have successfully defused emerging nuclear threats by deploying military force – destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, and Syria’s secret Al Kibar reactor in September 2007. But the military option in Iran’s case is much more complex, making the efficacy of any potential attack questionable. The Iranian weapons project is very advanced, facilities are spread across the country, often dug in deep underground, and well protected. Moreover, the relevant nuclear knowledge accumulated by Iran’s scientists cannot be erased militarily. Teheran’s response to any such operation is expected to be fierce, causing major damage to Israel and possibly other Middle Eastern countries.
A US-led attack on the nuclear program might have greater prospects of success, but this looks extremely unlikely any time soon.
The dire conclusion must be that without regime change, or at least the serious threat of regime change, in Teheran – both also appearing unlikely – the world can soon expect to witness the emergence of Iran as the newest addition to the club of nuclear powers (or at least a threshold nuclear state).
This conclusion requires a shift in the discourse among international policy makers. Unless they are prepared to discuss coercive measures so fierce that Iran’s ruling clerics are forced to concede that they must make major nuclear concessions to preserve the regime’s existence, the world will have to stop thinking about “how to stop Iran from going nuclear” and focus instead on “how to contain and deal with nuclear Iran.”
Dr. Ran Porat is an AIJAC research associate. He is also a research associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya and a research associate at the Future Directions International Research Institute, Western Australia.