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In Spite of Growing Frustration with Iran, the West Creates a Problematic, De Facto Arrangement with Tehran

 
Filed under: Iran
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

In Spite of Growing Frustration with Iran, the West Creates a Problematic, De Facto Arrangement with Tehran
Five Russian-fired drones hit Kyiv in October 2022, damaging this residential building. (Office of the President of Ukraine)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 23, No. 1

  • The West has avoided significant changes in its attitude toward Iran and its nuclear program, creating a problematic, de facto arrangement with Tehran.
  • The military aid Iran provides to Russia for its war against Ukraine, such as the supply of hundreds of Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles, effectively places Iran as a party to the war. As a result, the U.S. administration has declared that “Iran may be complicit in war crimes.”
  • Iranian assistance to Russia significantly reinforces Israel’s claim that the West must take a more resolute stance against the Islamic regime in Iran because it is committed to the struggle against the existing world order.
  • Western frustration with Iran is also fueled by its policy on the nuclear issue. The Iranians continue to prevent the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from monitoring their nuclear activities. They continue accumulating highly-enriched uranium, including to 60%, which allows them to enrich enough uranium to the level required to produce several nuclear explosive devices within a few weeks.
  • Moreover, the Iranians continue to condition the return to the nuclear agreement on the IAEA’s waiver of its demand for information about the nuclear facilities exposed in the archives of the nuclear program that Israel seized in Tehran.
  • Additional causes of Western frustration include Iran’s violent suppression of demonstrators, its continued support for terrorist elements and its proxies in the Middle East, its advocacy of global anti-Semitism, and its commitment to the annihilation of Israel.
  • The Americans, like Israel, estimate that if Iran tries to break through to nuclear weapons, it will need about two years to turn the enriched material into a bomb. Therefore, the U.S. (and Israel) will have enough time to act and ensure that the Iranian nuclear project is thwarted.
Debris from an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone flown by Russian forces and shot down near Kupiansk, Ukraine
Debris from an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone flown by Russian forces and shot down near Kupiansk, Ukraine. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate)

The military aid Iran provides to Russia for its war against Ukraine, such as the supply of hundreds of Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles, effectively places Iran as a party to the war despite its constant denials. As a result, the U.S. administration has declared that “Iran may be complicit in war crimes.” Moreover, after it became clear that components of the Iranian drones include parts produced in Western countries, including the United States itself, the administration decided to take steps that would make it difficult for Iran to manufacture these flying suicide aircraft. So far, the rest of the Western countries have reacted with mere condemnations.

The recent Western outrage against Iran stems from its contribution to Russian attacks on civilian targets deep inside Ukraine and the brutal suppression of Iranian demonstrators who have demanded greater freedom over the past three months. The Ayatollahs interpret these demands as a call to overthrow them. This is based not only on the explicit demand of many of the demonstrators and their supporters worldwide but also because, as an extremist Islamist regime, it understands that any substantive compromise made to please the public will be interpreted as weakness and exacerbate the threat to its survival. The rough hand shown by the regime reflected in the executions of protestors and their supporters is denounced by the West, and in some Western countries, there is an intention to impose sanctions against the leaders of the suppression forces. In the United States and Canada, sanctions have been imposed on some of them. In addition, Britain, deeply upset with the execution of an Iranian ex-deputy minister of defense who was also a British citizen and convicted for spying for the UK, is considering designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. That said, no country has stood behind the demonstrators’ demands for regime change and has not taken substantive measures against the Iranian regime, such as expelling Iranian diplomats.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal Is also a Source of Frustration

Western frustration with Iran is also fueled by its policy on the nuclear issue. The Iranians continue to prevent the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from monitoring their nuclear activities. They continue accumulating highly-enriched uranium in full force, including to 60%, which allows them to enrich enough uranium to the level required to produce several nuclear explosive devices within a few weeks. Moreover, the Iranians continue to condition the return to the nuclear agreement on the IAEA’s waiver of its demand for information about the nuclear facilities exposed in the archives of the nuclear program that Israel seized in Tehran. 

Against this background, the West’s feeling, particularly in the United States, is that the chances of a return to the nuclear deal (the JCPOA) are close to zero. Nevertheless, as President Biden told an American of Iranian descent whom he met during the congressional election campaign, “the agreement is dead, but Washington will not announce it for various reasons.” It seems that the administration is still determined to maintain this option while hoping for a return to the agreement. It fears that announcing the death of the agreement will be a consideration in the Iranian decision-making process regarding a forward breakout toward a nuclear bomb. Iran is vigorously preparing for the possibility of a breakout but refraining from its implementation, thereby freeing the administration from the need to invest resources in deterring it when most of its attention is directed to other issues.

Announcing the death of the agreement would be an admission of failure and damage the legacy of the Obama and Biden administrations, requiring Biden, unwilfully, to establish an alternative way to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, which would center on presenting a credible military option instead of the diplomatic channel. In addition, the Americans, like Israel, estimate that if Iran tries to break through to nuclear weapons, it will need a relatively long period (about two years) to turn the enriched material into a bomb. Therefore, the United States (and Israel) will have enough time to act and ensure that the Iranian nuclear project is thwarted. In this case, the United States will be able to meet its commitment not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons

In other words, the administration has not fundamentally changed its approach to Iran. This, despite Iran’s partnership with Russia in the war in Ukraine, its violent suppression of the demonstrators, its continued malevolent activity in the nuclear sphere, its continued support for terrorist elements and its proxies in the Middle East, its advocacy of global anti-Semitism, and its commitment to the annihilation of Israel. In practice, it is, in effect, coming to terms with a reality in which Iran will continue with all these policy elements, including securing its ability to break out toward military nuclear capability. At this stage, it seems that the Iranians, who are facing severe challenges at home (demonstrations and the economy) and abroad, are certainly willing to play their part in this arrangement, which allows them to act in all these areas to advance their goals without fear of paying a significant price.

Risks and Possibilities

In the Israeli context, the emerging reality vis-à-vis Iran presents quite a few risks but several opportunities as well. The main risk is that Iran can use the emerging arrangement to continue entrenching itself in the nuclear threshold area. This is because they are already far ahead of what Israel previously described as a red line (250 kg of uranium enriched to 20%). And as they produce and operate more and more advanced centrifuges and accumulate additional enriched uranium to levels of 60% and 20%, the greater the temptation to break into a military nuclear program and their ability to do so.

Sukhoi Su-35, Russian Air Force
Sukhoi Su-35, Russian Air Force (Anna Zvereva/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another risk connecting the Ukrainian crisis to the nuclear issue is Russia’s reward for providing Iran its aid and promised future benefits. The transfer of advanced air defense systems, the supply of advanced Russian aircraft (Sukhoi-35), and extensive assistance to the Iranian military industry to increase the production of drones and missiles will improve its ability to attack Israel and make it difficult for Israel to operate against Iran in certain configurations. Russia’s monetary rewards for Iranian assistance will also ease the pressure exerted on the regime.

Even worse, if the Russians accede to a request by Iran for help in shortening the time required to turn enriched uranium into nuclear weapons, the entire system of assumptions underlying the new and problematic arrangement will be undermined. Russian assistance can even take the form of simply turning a blind eye.

Another possible concern for Israel is a change in Russia’s policy regarding IAF strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. So far, Russia has refrained from compromising the coordination mechanism intended to ensure that there is no friction between Israeli and Russian planes flying over Syrian airspace. This policy will likely remain in effect for the foreseeable future as leverage to ensure that Israel does not change its position on the question of military aid to Ukraine. However, the Iranians may urge the Russians to adopt a more aggressive approach toward Israel.

Beyond these formidable risks, though, Iranian assistance to Russia also presents opportunities. First, it significantly reinforces Israel’s claim that the West must take a more resolute stance against the Islamic regime in Iran because it is committed to the struggle against the existing world order and joins the two main threats to that order – Russia and China. In one aspect, the Iranian threat is even more serious than the others since it does not focus only on the struggle between the major forces in the international system for assets and power (“great power” competition in international parlance) but is based on a sense of universal and dangerous religious, ideological mission, and jeopardizes Western interests in the Middle East, an essential source of energy for the West.

Iran is proving that it is not only an Israeli problem but a threat with global implications, as Israel has long argued.

In the same context, recognizing the severity of the Iranian threat can translate into increased military and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel, and increased strategic coordination between Israel, Western countries, and pragmatic Arab countries. An important manifestation of this trend may progress in the expansion of the Abraham Accords, especially through the gradual normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia.

The new arrangement is rife with problems, and Israel must prepare to deal with its dangerous consequences, especially in the nuclear sphere. At the same time, though, it must make the most of the opportunities inherent in these developments for more significant cooperation with the United States and the Sunni states threatened by Iran.