Opinion by David Ignatius Columnist May 6, 2021 at 6:03 p.m. EDT Nuclear weapons are probably the last thing the Biden administration wants to worry about right now. But given aggressive Chinese and Russian efforts to build new systems, and America’s aging strategic force, the wizards of Armageddon may be back. Support our journalism. Subscribe today. Chinese and Russian advances were highlighted in last month’s annual “Threat Assessment” by the U.S. intelligence community. It said China was planning to double its arsenal of nuclear weapons over the next decade in “the most rapid expansion … in its history.” And it warned that Russia remains America’s closest strategic rival as it “expands and modernizes its nuclear weapons capabilities.” Unpack this bland language and you see some genuinely scary new threats. China is deploying a truck-based mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Dongfeng-41, that could strike targets in the United States. China also has an intermediate-range mobile missile, the Dongfeng-26, that’s “capable of rapidly swapping conventional and nuclear warheads,” according to Austin Long, a Pentagon strategic planner, in a recent article in War on the Rocks.
What this means for U.S. commanders is that in a crisis, China would have hundreds of hard-to-detect trucks roaming its highways, some carrying nukes and some not — and if the missiles were fired, the United States probably wouldn’t know which were which. That, as the Cold War strategists used to say, would be “destabilizing.” Russia is tweaking the nightmare scenarios, too. President Vladimir Putin boasted in his April 21 address to the federal assembly that Russia now has a new Avangard hypersonic ICBM, a Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile and a Poseidon nuclear torpedo capable of devastating coastal cities. All these weapons have very short delivery times to defeat U.S. missile defenses. They, too, would destabilize the balance of terror. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is deliberating how to replace its 50-year-old Minuteman missiles technology, one leg of the “triad” of U.S. strategic forces. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees strategic forces, told me he came away from a visit to a missile silo in North Dakota last weekend wondering, “How would you feel if your survival depended on a car you bought in 1970?”
The Pentagon’s tentative answer is a new silo-based missile known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. “I would say I’m convinced but not fully convinced” that this new ICBM is the answer, King told journalists after the visit. Some other analysts argue that the United States should instead emulate the Chinese with a mobile ICBM system of our own, though it’s doubtful any state would welcome this nuclear caravan now any more than when it was first proposed in the 1980s. The Biden administration’s main interest in nuclear weapons so far has been limiting them. After just six days in office, Biden agreed to extend for another five years the New START treaty with Russia, which limits each country’s warheads. But the treaty doesn’t cover China, and that’s the problem. Beijing doesn’t want to talk about curbing its nuclear forces until it reaches parity with the United States and Russia. “The Chinese are modernizing their nuclear deterrent, and ours is aging. That’s the big story,” argues David Finkelstein in an interview. He directs China and Indo-Pacific security studies at CNA, an independent research institute in Arlington.
Why is China moving so quickly to jettison its old doctrine of a “limited deterrent” and double its nuclear forces? U.S. analysts aren’t sure, but some judge that the Chinese may want to make any U.S. effort to defend Taiwan militarily exceptionally costly. Beijing wants a low-cost walkover in Taipei, not a bloody assault. “The last thing on China’s mind is a D-Day style invasion” of Taiwan, contends Christopher Johnson in an interview. He’s a former top CIA China analyst who’s now the chief executive of China Strategies Group, a political risk consulting firm. He notes that China has halved its number of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan but boosted deployments of missiles for striking U.S. bases in Guam and Japan. China’s accelerating nuclear program vexes American analysts. During the Cold War, the United States and Russia developed a language for thinking about nuclear weapons and deterrence. Leaders of both countries understood the horrors of nuclear war and sought predictability and stability in nuclear policy. China lacks such a vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable.
Russia and America have some severe problems these days, but they know how to talk about arms control. Even as the Biden administration thinks about building a new generation of doomsday weapons, it needs to sit down and begin a conversation with China about strategic forces that’s becoming more urgent every day.
The Israeli delegation, which included Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and the heads of the military intelligence and strategic branches, held several meetings with top American officials to discuss the repercussions of US reentry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed the delegation before it left for Washington, instructing it to “to express opposition to the agreement with Iran and not to discuss it, because it constitutes a return to the previous deal, which was dangerous to Israel and the region”, according to a news briefing by Netanyahu’s office, quoted in the daily Haaretz. “If serious talks are held in the future on an improved agreement, Israel will express its opinion.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly said, since the deal was signed in 2015, that Israel was not bound by it. But the fact that he sent a high-level security delegation to Washington indicates that there are still issues to be discussed.
“Although Netanyahu said that Israel isn’t bound by the agreement, I assume that the meetings in Washington are taking place under the working premise that Israel understands that the United States is returning to it. Otherwise it wouldn’t have made sense to hold these talks while indirect negotiations are being held with Iran in Vienna”, Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) specialising in relations with the United States, told FRANCE 24 on Sunday.
“It’s possible that Israel presented its reservations about the US returning to the agreement, but more importantly, I imagine the delegation’s visit was intended to produce some effective and good channels of communication with the new administration,” Shavit said. “Things don’t simply end with the US re-entering the deal. The Americans themselves said they wanted the deal to be a platform to achieve a ‘longer and stronger’ agreement, and I think in this context, Israel has a lot to contribute.”
Security talks in Washington
Among other high level meetings in Washington, the Mossad chief met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, according to officials cited by news agencies. And on Friday, US President Joe Biden dropped in on one of the meetings, a US National Security Council spokesperson told Haaretz.
During the meetings, the American security officials “updated Israel on the talks in Vienna and emphasised strong US interest in consulting closely with Israel on the nuclear issue going forward”, the White House said in a readout released after one of the meetings.
Israel’s ambassador to the US and the UN, Gilad Arden, who took part in the talks, told the Israeli news website Ynet that he expected that the US and Iran would strike an agreement within weeks.
“I say it with regret, the Americans presented before us the difficulties in the negotiations with Iran, but still, the estimates in Israel are that the sides will reach an understanding in the coming weeks,” Erdan said. “There may be some disagreements on how many sanctions [the US] will remove and how [Iran] will return to abide by the agreement, but the Iranians have recognised that there is an overall desire to return to the old nuclear deal signed at the time of Obama. We believe that returning to this bad agreement is a mistake, even a significant one.”
Yossi Kuperwasser, the former head of Israel’s strategic affairs ministry and a senior fellow at the Center for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based pro-Netanyahu think tank, agrees.
“The return of the 2015 agreement means paving a safe path for Iran to achieve the ability to produce nuclear weapons in large quantities – a large arsenal of nuclear weapons – within 10 years,” Kuperwasser told FRANCE 24 on Sunday.
“Israel is very worried about this and wants to be very clear that Israel is not bound by this deal and that it will do everything it can to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. And I’ve also heard the Americans say that they understand this. That it is important,” he said.
‘An unclear place’
When the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015 under President Barack Obama – also with France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China – it was welcomed internationally as a great diplomatic achievement. But Israel and Arab Gulf countries, close allies of Washington, vehemently opposed it.
Three years later, in May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and announced harsh new sanctions against Iran, and in retaliation, Tehran ramped up its uranium-enrichment activity. The deal has been flailing since.
Biden, who was Obama’s vice president when the deal was signed, has said he now intended to return to it – once Iran returned to compliance and rolled back its nuclear activities. But Tehran is demanding that the US first lift the sanctions before it can even rejoin the talks.
The Vienna meetings, in which representatives of France, Germany the UK, China and Russia have been shuttling between US and Iranian delegations, are intended to break this impasse. And though progress has been reported from the talks, diplomats have said they need more work and time. “I’m not going to characterize the substance of the negotiations at this point because they are in… an unclear place,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Friday.
“We’ve seen willingness of all sides, including the Iranians, to talk seriously about sanctions relief restrictions and a pathway back into the JCPOA,” Sullivan told an Aspen Security Forum webinar on Friday. “But it is still uncertain as to whether this will culminate in a deal in Vienna.”
Israel says the deal needs to be vastly improved before it can support it. “The powers have to force Iran to dismantle all of their installations intended for solely military purposes (though in my opinion, all of their nuclear facilities are military), like the enrichment facility in Fordow. They don’t need them, since they promise that their intention is not to produce weapons,” Kuperwasser said.
Also, “there needs to be better oversight. The Americans say this deal includes more international inspection in Iran than ever before, but there’s none!” Kuperwasser exclaimed.
According to Shemuel Meir, a strategic blogger at Haaretz, there is, in fact, very strict international oversight in Iran. “The IAEA’s nuclear agreement and regime of oversight were cast according to the rules of the Cold War: to constantly suspect the other side and devote all effort to verification and oversight. This is how the most intrusive supervisory regime in nuclear history has been imposed on Iran,” Meir wrote in his blog on Sunday.
“It includes the continuous presence of field inspectors; use of advanced technologies; and a direct broadcast from the facilities to the agency in Vienna in real time. This is in addition to the independent effort (satellite photography, eavesdropping and collection of environmental samples) of the United States and other countries.”
Another Israeli demand is to extend the “sunset” provision on uranium enrichment and centrifuges, which sees some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme lifted in 2025 and 2030. But the ban on military enrichment required for the production of fissile material for a bomb is not limited in time, according to Meir. It is imposed on Iran by virtue of its signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Israel is also concerned about Iran’s ballistic abilities, as well its funding and arming of regional militant groups, such as the the Hezbollah and Hamas, and these concerns were also raised in Washington.
“The United States and Israel agreed to establish an inter-agency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Precision Guided Missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East Region,” said the White House readout released last week.
Kuperwasser said this assistance was welcomed, but that Israel would need more from the United States.
“This always comes up: When our security is put in jeopardy as a result of American actions, we seek compensation for other elements of our security,” Kuperwasser said. “But what Israel really needs – and on this, the Americans will be more hesitant – is to achieve a better capacity to harm Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. I don’t know if this was discussed in Washington – it certainly wasn’t reported – but we must talk about the need to give Israel a more significant capability to attack in Iran.”
Concern in Arab countries
Arab countries in the Gulf have long shared Israel’s concern over Iran’s military and nuclear ambitions. It was this shared concern that made it possible for Trump to broker the Abraham Accords at the end of his term as president, normalising ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Saudi Arabia has also demanded more oversight and that the “sunset” provision be removed from the Iran nuclear deal.
“We want the ‘sunset’ provision to be eliminated so that Iran cannot indefinitely enrich uranium. And we want to have a broader and deeper inspections mechanism to make sure that everything in Iran can be inspected, should there be a need,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told Arab News in an exclusive interview on in March.
The foreign minister also blamed Iran for being involved in intensified Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. “All of the missiles and drones that came into Saudi [territory] are Iranian manufactured or Iranian supplied,” he said. “Several of them, as we’ve said, came from the north; several came from the sea.”
But with a new US president in the White House, the geopolitical balance might be shifting again.
Last Tuesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called in a television interview for “a good and special relationship” with Tehran, after sources said the two countries had held secret talks in Baghdad.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh reacted on Thursday by saying that Tehran has been “a pioneer on the path to regional cooperation and welcomes the change of tone from Saudi Arabia”.
For Israel, one of the most important things right now is to be aligned with Washington, said Shavit of the INSS.
“First of all it is important to ensure that our positions are aligned. The discussion with the Americans right now should be about how to react if the Iranians do not return to the agreement, or if they don’t abide by it, or violate it and take [aggressive] action in the region. There are many issues on which it’s very worthwhile to coordinate Israel and US activities in advance vis-à-vis Iran,” he said.
“It’s essential that the Americans will always retain the option to respond,” said Shavit. “During the Obama era, he used to say all the time that all options were on the table. The US needs to make it clear to the Iranians – and I think it already is – that it has options – diplomatic, economic and use of force – all options are open.”
Procurement: South Asian Weapons Woes April 25, 2021: India and Pakistan, two South Asian nations that have been military adversaries since the late 1940s, have both had difficulty developing local defense industries. That is still a problem but in the last five years (2016-20) both nations have made major changes in how they handle imports and local manufacturing. Pakistan has become almost entirely dependent on China for weapons, and is the major customer for Chinese military exports. India, in contrast, has cut military imports by a third, mainly by making major reductions in what it buys from Russia. In response to this, Russia has offered Pakistan weapons similar to what China delivers. Russia points out that having two main suppliers creates competition that great for the customer.
India wants to continue reducing its dependence on imports, even it means accepting clearly inferior (to Western and Chinese alternatives) weapons. During the Cold War India declared itself neutral but became a major importer of Russian weapons because they were cheaper, and Russia more willing to transfer manufacturing technology so India could build many of the Russian weapons under license. Pakistan obtained most of its imported weapons from European and American manufacturers.
After the Cold War both Pakistan and India made major efforts to develop and produce major weapons systems, and both largely failed. Except for nuclear weapons, which both nations developed internally by the late 1990s, and ballistic missile tech based on what they could obtain from China and Russia respectively, Pakistan and India have handled their failures to develop and build their own conventional weapons differently. India believes its nuclear weapons aimed at China will prevent major losses on the border while Pakistan, even with superior Chinese weapons, is not a major threat.
In contrast Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, has long considered India a military threat, despite the fact that India does not reciprocate. The only dispute the two nations have is over who should own the border province of Kashmir. Technically it belonged to India according to the 1948 agreement both nations developed to handle the separation of British India into Moslem and non-Moslem portions. Pakistan reneged on that deal at the last minute and grabbed about half of Kashmir. Pakistan has been fighting, unsuccessfully, ever since to obtain the rest of Kashmir. After three failed wars, in the 1980s Pakistan switched to a campaign of supporting Islamic terrorism in Kashmir. That failed as well but the Pakistani military insists on continuing to try.
India considered the Pakistani efforts to regain Kashmir a secondary defense concern as India had more problems with leftist rebels in eastern India and tribal separatists in the northeast. The Pakistani Islamic terrorism policy eventually, over the last two decades, led to an end of American military imports and total dependence on China. During that period China renewed long (since the 1950s) dormant claims on portions of the Indian and Pakistani border territory. Pakistan gave up what China wanted while India refused. Now China and India are confronting each other in disputed border areas, with a growing number of violent clashes. This made it clear that China was militarily superior to India while India maintained its military superiority versus Pakistan. China did not become a military ally of Pakistan because China does not have allies, it has foreign customers for Chinese products, including weapons and will adjust its diplomacy to further that. China has a military defense treaty with North Korea, but that is only to ensure that North Korea remains a compliant neighbor of China and nothing else.
During and after the Cold War (1948-1991) Pakistan and India relied on importing many of their weapons. This was unpopular in both countries, especially since much smaller nations, like Israel and South Korea were becoming developers and manufacturers of world-class defense equipment and weapons while India and Pakistan largely failed to do so. What was particularly embarrassing for India was that China, with the same population as India has, since the 1990s, far surpassed India in economic growth and the ability to manufacture world class weapons. Back in 1948, when India became independent of British colonial rule and China was reunited after two decades dealing with invasion and civil war, India had a larger GDP and more modern military. Pakistan consisted of Moslem majority portions of British India and became an independent state because Moslem leaders in British India insisted and the rest of India was willing to go along with that. Since 1948 India evolved into the world’s largest democracy with the military firmly under government control while Pakistan evolved into an army with a country attached. While both nations are democracies with fair voting and many political parties, the Pakistani military has become a major, if technically illegal power broker in Pakistani politics.
Another major development in the past five years it the Pakistani government budget and economy undergoing a crisis caused by unwillingness to control corruption and military spending. The problem has been building for years but has now created a fiscal disaster as Pakistan ran out of nations willing to provide military aid or loans. As a result, Pakistan has had to cut back on military imports and instead pay more attention to upgrading or refurbishing existing equipment. That was a serious problem because the foe the Pakistani military is preparing to fight has a lot more money, people and creditworthiness. This made Chinese offers to supply cheaper weapons and massive investments in building needed infrastructure projects palatable. The billions in Chinese investments went to build rail, pipeline and road links from China to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. Many Pakistanis opposed this policy but the military insisted and that was that.
The Pakistani generals still pushed the idea that India might invade with non-nuclear forces. Anyone paying attention to Indian media and politics would realize that isn’t true but the Pakistani military needed to maintain the illusion of an Indian “threat” to justify its relatively large military budget. With that Pakistan maintains an active-duty force of 650,000 troops using a large number of older, but upgraded, tanks and warplanes. India has more modern equipment and a million troops on active duty.
The Indian population is six times larger and the Indian economy (GDP) is ten times that of Pakistan. India spends nearly $66 billion a year on defense, the fifth largest defense budget on the planet, right behind the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan barely makes the top 20 with $12 billion. Indian spending is 3.1 percent of GDP while Pakistan is now at four percent. The usual general financial support for the military did not survive the Pakistani debt crises of 2019, and now the Pakistani military has lost most of its recent budget gains and is likely to lose even more.
Pakistan has fought several wars with India since 1948 and lost all of them. What Pakistan does have going for it is Chinese claims on a lot of Indian territory. India and China fought a brief border war in 1967 which India lost, along with some territory high in the mountains where most of the India-China border is. Both China and India have nuclear-armed ballistic missiles aimed at each other so if there are going to be any wars, they will be small scale and brief ones on this high-altitude mountain border. Unlike Pakistan, China is a real threat to India.
At the same time, India and Pakistan share a border that contains lots of flat, lowland terrain that has been the scene of tank battles in the past. As a result, Pakistan tries to maintain a force of tanks equal, at least in numbers, to the more modern Indian tank fleet.
All this leaves Pakistan on its own to maintain a credible force of armored vehicles to face the “Indian threat.” The Pakistani air force is largely dependent on F-16s bought from the United States over the last few decades and upgraded somewhat since then. But now with American aid gone along with cash for additional (and often much needed) refurbishment for the 78 remaining F-16s, Pakistan is more dependent on a hundred or more of the Chinese JF-17s. This is a Chinese design that is similar to the F-16 but only Pakistan uses it. China prefers other aircraft it has designed and only got the JF-17 into production so Pakistan could assemble most of them in Pakistan and call them “Pakistani built” fighters. Most Pakistani fighters are about 600 older French and Chinese models.
There was a similar situation with tanks but early in 2019, Pakistan decided to get out of the tank design/development/manufacturing business, at least for now. Because of that, the army placed an order for a hundred Chinese made 52-ton VT4/MBT-3000 tanks. This order is now on hold because of the budget cuts. The VT4 is an updated version of the 330 46 ton VT1/MBT-2000/Al Khalid tanks Pakistan already has. The Al Khalid was a joint China-Pakistan project to create a Pakistani tank that built in Pakistan. Basically, Al Khalid was a variant of the Chinese VT1 (also known as the MBT2000). The VT1 was the export version of the Chinese Type 90 tank. Actually, the Type 90 (an improved T-72) was not accepted by the Chinese army which preferred the 54-ton Type 99, a superior T-72 variant that entered service in 2001 and underwent a major upgrade (the 58-ton Type 99A) in 2011 and is still in production.
The rest of the 2,000 Pakistani tanks are based on much older (1950s) Russian models, with some upgrades. Pakistan also looked at the latest Ukraine had to offer but decided to go with China, which has access to more advanced tech than Ukraine and is willing to be competitive when it comes to price. This confidence in China was based on how the 2012 agreement worked out. For that deal, Pakistan and China also agreed to jointly market the Al Khalid tank but had limited success. That was because there were a lot of improved T-72s on the market, including the Chinese MBT-2000. Al Khalid was more expensive to develop as Pakistan began the project in 1991 and made a lot of mistakes. The Al Khalid ended up costing ten percent more than the MBT-2000, and Pakistan was unable to keep its costs under control when it came time to develop and a major upgrade for Al Khalid. It was pointed out that China already had what Pakistan wanted in the VT4. In the end the Al Khalid demonstrated why Pakistan has never been a major player in the arms export business and this deal with China was more for show than anything else.
Because of the current budget crisis, the military released a long list of alternate procurement plans that rely on items that can be produced locally. The air force plans to increase JF-17 production from 16 a year to 24. Work will also continue on developing UAVs and building them in Pakistan. Design and development will also continue on the AZM fifth generation (stealth) fighter. This is largely a propaganda effort because Pakistan expressed interest in buying one of the two new Chinese stealth fighter designs but could not afford it, and China has reduced its own construction plans because of performance issues. Most of the local procurement will be rebuilding or refurbishing older armored vehicles with local electronic or mechanical items. This does not improve the Pakistani arsenal as much as it tries to maintain what it has. In this respect, Pakistan has something of an edge over India. The military procurement bureaucracy India is burdened with is spectacularly inefficient and a major reason why India does not have much better weapons than Pakistan. The Indian military knows this but Indian politicians refuse to recognize the problem, which is a tremendous benefit for the Pakistani military. Even with that, and the Chinese threat to India, Pakistan is still not a major conventional military threat to India.
With China the major threat, India has to obtain the best weapons possible to deal with that. As a result, the remaining imports, which are still substantial, concentrate on systems India cannot produce at all. This includes first-line jet fighters like the Russian Su-30, and French Rafale. India still buys air defense and electronic items from Israel and specialized UAVs from the United States. Russia has a more modern and recent fleet of the latest Russian tank models. In fact, India has more of these T-90 tanks than Russia. India is trying to eliminate its dependence on Russia for modern warships but continues to encounter problems with Indian built nuclear submarines. Indian ballistic missiles appear to be competitive, as are their nuclear weapons. New restrictions on military imports are forcing the armed forces and Indian manufacturers to catch up in the areas of developing and manufacturing competitive modern weapons. This isn’t easy because India has a long, and growing, list of locally developed systems that failed, even after several generations of “improved” models.
The new move casts a cloud over talks in Vienna aimed at reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, after former US President Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago.
Enriching uranium to 60 percent from Iran’s current 20 percent would take the fissile material closer to the 90 percent required to make a nuclear bomb. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi also said it would activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz, which was crippled on Sunday by an explosion that knocked out its power supply. Israel’s Mossad spy agency is thought to have been behind the attack.
The blast at the underground Natanz plant was a “very bad gamble” that would boost Tehran’s leverage in the talks to salvage the nuclear deal, which resume on Thursday in Vienna, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.
“I assure you that in the near future more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges will be placed in the Natanz facility,” he said.
The Vienna talks began last week, when Iran and other signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) held what they described as “constructive” discussions about salvaging the deal, which collapsed when Trump reimposed economic sanctions on Tehran and Iran began breaching its limits on uranium enrichment.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has said he will ease sanctions when Iran returns to compliance with the deal. Iran insists sanctions must be lifted first. In addition, Israel and US allies in the Gulf oppose any revived agreement that does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.
The JCPOA had capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges, at 3.6 percent, far below the 90 percent needed for bomb-grade material.
Iran in recent months has raised enrichment to 20 percent purity, a level at which uranium is considered to be highly enriched and is a significant step toward weapons grade. Civilian nuclear power plants, which Iran claims are its only objective, only require enrichment to between 3 percent and 5 percent.
The biggest obstacle to producing nuclear weapons is accumulating sufficient quantities of fissile material, either 90 percent enriched uranium or plutonium, for the core of a bomb. Western intelligence services believe Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program that was suspended in 2003.
The recent change in the method of 60-percent uranium enrichment in Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility is a “technical decision,” which the International Atomic Energy Agency was informed of, Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the international organizations in Vienna, said on Friday.
The recent cyber-attack on eight meter underground Natanz nuclear facility of Iran caused damage to the centrifuges operating in the installment, for which they allegedly blamed Israel, is seen as a threat for the revival of negotiations between P5+1 and Iran on JCPOA. Iran terms it as “nuclear terrorism” for which it will respond by increasing the nuclear enrichment up to 60%, though not enough for producing nuclear weapon but is very huge deviation from the 3.76% enrichment allowed under JCPOA. This article tries to understand the possible reasons behind these attacks along with the impacts that would be caused on the revival of JCPOA through such attacks.
JCPOA under Trump Administration:
JCPOA was thought to be a great success of Obama administration as it enabled a formal negotiation among P5+1 members and Iran that would prevent another state from acquiring nuclear power. This concern was more prominent in context of Iran because after 1979 revolution, it was thought that Iran cannot properly handle such a big responsibility especially when it sponsors extremist groups and militias in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Along with this, the tussle between Iran and its regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and its allies particularly Israel, from which it is fighting through groups like Hezbollah and Hamas was also a reason. Trump after becoming President withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 due to the flaws in the deal itself. According to him, the nuclear deal did not mention permanent solution to get rid of Iran’s nuclear designs and also had no mention of the development of ballistic missiles and support to militias in the Middle East. The imposition of sanctions on Iran caused an internal pressure for Iran which was mitigated by carrying out secret and covert sites for the enrichment of uranium. Such sites were exposed by Israel in 2018 by leaking out thousands of secret documents containing details of Iranian ambitions and deviation from the terms and conditions of JCPOA.
Why is Israel against this deal? If JCPOA is a deal that would curtail the nuclear ambitions of Iran then why would it’s archrival, Israel condemns this deal with several attempts (claimed by Iran) to sabotage the key nuclear sites and assassinate the scientist of Iran? Netanyahu has mentioned frequently that this deal comprises of several flaws including short term agreements, no mention of ballistic missiles, weak focus on checks and inspections by IAEA and an upper hand to Iran on economic front after the implementation of this deal which can result in heavy support of militias against Israel or re-operationalization of covert struggles for acquiring nukes. This would also threaten the strategic military edge of Israel and its regional nuclear hegemony.
Non-Compliance by Iran:
IAEA has verified that Iran had crossed the limits set under JCPOA to maintain the stockpiles of uranium and heavy water in Nov, 2019 and since then has increased the amount of uranium percentage from 3.67 to 4.5 percentage per Uranium-235. Later on, under the new nuclear law passed by the Iran Guardian Council the enrichment percentage of uranium up to 20 with abundance of stockpiles was permitted. Iran has responded to the concern shown by other members of the deal by affirming reversal from this law if US rejoins JCPOA along with the withdrawal of all sanctions. We can say that these changes are made by Iran to get attention from the major powers in order to get US again into the deal, ensuring an end to the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Iran wants to have good economic conditions but no state is willing to trade and start developmental project due to the pressure from US. Same was the case of India which had to stop work on Chahbahar port in Iran although it was very crucial for it to develop trade links with central Asian republics and balancing the effects of CPEC.
In 2010, the world first digital weapon was discovered which was used to disrupt the Iranian centrifuges in the Natanz site. The virus was known as Stuxnet that caused a physical damage to the computer rather than mere hijacking and controlling. It is now widely accepted that Stuxnet was a joint venture of Israel and USA that started under President Bush and continued during the Obama presidency. The attack however was never accepted by officials of both countries but a video surfaced in 2011,celebrating the retirement of Israeli Defense Forces head which declared Stuxnet as one of his great successes. The purpose of that attack was to derail the Iranian program for achieving its aim of forming a nuclear weapon. Similarly, the purpose of recent attack was to weaken the position of Iran in the negotiation talks occurring in Vienna and expose the vulnerability and economic costs of standing against major powers.
The Foreign Minister of Iran, Saeed Khitabzadeh responded to the concerns put forth by the GCC countries, demanding a proper response to the latest announcement of Iran for the enrichment of Uranium as “immature and irresponsible.” And various sources have confirmed that second round of nuclear deal negotiation are taking place as it was scheduled earlier, with apparently no impact of recent attacks on Natanz. However, Israel is not a participant to these talks and extreme internal pressure is exerted on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take constructive measures against their “existential threat” and confront the reality.
It has become crucial for all involved parties to act proactively and gain maximum interests out of it, where Iran on one side does not want to appear aggressive for uplifting the sanctions and reviving the talks with USA, they are also facing severe economic downfall with rapid declining foreign investments and oil trade. This deal is needed to mitigate both internal pressure as well as for running the proxies in various countries of the Middle East. Biden had run his election campaign by stressing on the importance of multilateralism and regaining the role of US in the world. This would require it to play a significant role in the revival of JCPOA and most importantly making it favorable for the US. In between these two states, Israel is facing a dilemma as its involvement in any substantive or military engagement with Iran can make the situation worse but remaining silent would affect their stance of Iran and its approach to Iranian Nuclear deal. In case of sabotaging the nuclear deal, Israel will cause harm to the national interest of US, which Netanyahu would not want to do in context of Israel’s internal political situations. So it can be concluded that the current negotiations will continue despite these attacks but to predict the nature and objectives of the new draft resolution is difficult and immature.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called for the enhancement of security and economic cooperation between Tehran and Islamabad.
“Security is a common concern for the two countries, and it is essential to boost cooperation in this regard,” Rouhani said in a meeting on Wednesday with visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
He also stressed the need to promote security along the Iran-Pakistan borders, Xinhua news agency reported.
The explosion and a power outage damaged an unknown number of centrifuges and Iranian state TV has shown footage of machines that it says were replaced there. Iran has blamed Israel for the explosion. Israel has not commented formally on it.
The International Atomic Energy Agency report was not clear on how many centrifuges are in use but it gave “up to” numbers of advanced machines installed at the plant that were higher than previously indicated. The report made no mention of the explosion or its effect on the plant’s activity.
“On 21 April 2021, the Agency verified at FEP that: … six cascades of up to 1,044 IR-2m centrifuges; and two cascades of up to 348 IR-4 centrifuges … were installed, of which a number were being used,” the IAEA report to member states said, referring to the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. The report was seen by Reuters
Updated 17 April 2021 Arab News April 16, 2021 10:22
JEDDAH: Iran began enriching uranium on Friday to its highest-ever purity that edges Tehran close to weapons-grade levels, attempting to pressure negotiators in Vienna amid talks on restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on its main enrichment site.
A top official said only a few grams an hour of uranium gas would be enriched up to 60 percent purity — triple the level it once did but at a quantity far lower than what the country could produce.
Iran also is enriching at an above-ground facility at its Natanz nuclear site already visited by international inspectors, not deep within its underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.
The narrow scope of the new enrichment provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it chooses, experts say, but time is narrowing.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran acknowledged the move to 60 percent. Ali Akbar Salehi told Iranian state television the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days.
“Any enrichment level that we desire is in our reach at the moment and we can do it at any time we want,” Salehi said. Israel, which has twice bombed Mideast countries to stop their nuclear programs, said it was determined to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
“We will do whatever it takes to prevent the extremists (in Iran) from succeeding, and definitely will prevent this regime from having a nuclear weapon,” Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told reporters on a visit to Cyprus.
Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar, told Arab News that the region’s countries would be the first victims of Iran and its nuclear project.
“Therefore, they have the right to tell the International Atomic Energy Agency and the nuclear deal’s signatory states that they are not interested in any new agreement with Tehran unless they can participate in it as a primary party.
“The nuclear deal is not valid unless Iran’s ballistic missile file is added to it, along with its terrorist activities vis-a-vis its regional proxies. Iran’s terrorist militias have expanded and set up camps in four Arab countries.
“The region’s countries are the ones most concerned with this Iranian threat, as they are the ones affected by it, so they are the ones who must be present during talks with Tehran.
“Otherwise, all options are available for them to protect their security and stability from Iran’s nuclear file, its interference in the region and its affiliated terrorist militias, as well as from the threat of its ballistic missiles, which it continues to supply to its militias, such as the Houthis, who have used them hundreds of times against civilians, oil installations and global energy sources in Saudi Arabia.”
Work reportedly taking place at Natanz nuclear facility • Israeli media reports rising tension between Jerusalem and Washington against backdrop of nuclear talks in Vienna.
(April 18, 2021 / JNS)
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on Saturday that Iran had begun the process of enriching uranium to a purity level of 60 percent, the closest level yet to the 90 percent required to make a nuclear bomb.
The work is taking place at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, Reuters reported on Saturday. Thousands of uranium enrichment centrifuges were damaged or destroyed in a blast that tore through the facility on April 11, according to an Iranian official. Tehran has accused Israel of being behind the incident, which it has called “nuclear terrorism” and sworn revenge.
Until now, Iran has only enriched uranium to 20 percent—itself a violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, which restricted the Islamic Republic to the 3.67 percent level.
Meanwhile, Iranian state television said on Saturday that the country’s intelligence agencies had identified one Reza Karimi as a suspect in the Natanz blast. Karimi had fled Iran shortly before the explosion, according to a BBC report.
In recent days, Hebrew media reports have indicated that Washington and Jerusalem are experiencing increased diplomatic tensions over recent events concerning Iran. A Channel 12 news report on Friday said that the Biden administration had passed multiple messages to Israel calling for a cessation of “chatter and boastfulness” regarding alleged Israeli actions against Iran, and calling alleged Israeli remarks on the matter dangerous, embarrassing and a threat to U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran.
Israel Hayom reported on Sunday that Jerusalem is “deeply disappointed” over the “total American capitulation” in nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna.
The report said that six world powers and Iran are close to signing an agreement that would return them to the original deal, which former President Donald Trump quit in 2018. According to the report, Iran will not be required to destroy the new, advanced centrifuges it has built, but rather just to disconnect them from enrichment machinery.