The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Iran uses uranium enrichment as leverage on the EU and US to get concessions.

The talks over Iran’s nuclear program have not led anywhere, and according to a report, Iran is requesting a break.

Yet, the reasons behind the improbability of reaching a new agreement are clear. The only deal that could be reached would likely be weaker than the problematic 2015 agreement.

For Iran, the negotiations are not about the 2015 deal but the removal of the sanctions. Iran demands the total removal of sanctions before any other nuclear-related discussions and compensation. Further, the Iranians are rejecting direct talks with American representatives.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate decision-maker, and therefore, other voices from the government are not necessarily representative of official policy. The behavior of Iranian negotiators leaves little room for flexibility or compromise: the chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, has reiterated the requirement to receive assurances from the US not to leave a renewed nuclear deal.

The US Administration cannot give in to these demands and cannot vouch for the future behavior of the next US president. So, the prospects of a breakthrough in Vienna are slim.

With Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the helm of the country’s presidency, nothing has substantially changed in the Iranian negotiating position. However, Kani deserves special attention because of his close ties with Khamenei. The official title of Ali Bagheri Kani is Political Deputy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was Deputy Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013. Yet his pedigree bears much more significance than his formal title.

He is notorious for his scathing criticism of the nuclear negotiations. His father, Muhammad Bagher Bagheri Kani, was previously a member of the Assembly of Experts and his brother Mesbah al-Hoda Bagheri is married to Khamenei’s daughter.

Kani does not speak English and from first glance, his appointment to head the talks is unclear. He reports directly to Khamenei as he does not fully trust professional diplomats. In Iran, informal ties are always preponderant over formal appointments. Kani’s position illustrates that the alleged ideological rivalry between the moderates, reformists, and hardliners has little importance. There is only one person in Iran who will seal the fate of the talks, and this is Khamenei.

Nuclear enrichment for blackmailing the West

Even though the Iranian regime is rushing towards the nuclear threshold, stepping up uranium enrichment, achieving a nuclear weapon is still far off. The regime uses uranium enrichment as leverage on the EU and US to get concessions.

Achieving a nuclear capability requires meeting specific technical objectives, such as developing an explosive device with a nuclear warhead, which Iran has yet to construct according to open-source information.  Next, a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear payload must be developed with a good range and accuracy.

Further, a nuclear capability is demonstrated by carrying out a nuclear test. Yet Iran is still not near reaching this stage. Therefore, carrying out nuclear tests would immediately discredit all the Iranian claims that their nuclear program is peaceful. At the same time, Iran does not have the capability to use mathematic models and supercomputers to imitate a nuclear test. However, these stages highlight a technical problem for Iran which it seeks to overcome. If not stopped now, it will become more difficult to stop its nuclear program later.

Domestic woes continue

Meanwhile, time is not working in favor of the regime, as the socio-economic situation in Iran keeps deteriorating. Raisi’s government has not developed a coherent policy to ease the domestic hardships. Iran is suffering from scarcity and mismanagement of water resources. The drying up of the riverbed of the Zayandeh Rud and water cuts sparked large-scale protests by farmers in the province of Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city.

The law enforcement organs cluded Basijin and Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters that fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters. At least 200 people were arrested.

Although the regime has put down the protests, nothing rules out their resumption in other Iranian cities and on other issues. In principle, socio-economic protest is permitted in Iran, yet each protest risks turning against the regime. People chant slogans like “Down with the dictator” in many demonstrations.

The protest in Isfahan comes as a similar protest in Khuzestan took place in the summer, also due to water problems. The hardships are only growing, and the regime has no means to resolve them. The government is not becoming stronger but weaker. As a result, it gets more intransigent and relies more and more on brutal suppression.

Though the removal of sanctions is indispensable for Iran’s economy, it will not substantially improve the population’s living conditions. On the contrary, as the socio-economic situation keeps deteriorating, the regime will be dedicating more resources to control the population.

The regime is in a difficult position since any improvement hinges on reforms that the government cannot afford. Reforms would inevitably lead to some ideological and legal changes, which would undermine the ideological tenets of the regime and its political survival. Khamenei sticks firmly to the fundamentals of Khomeinist ideology; therefore, no major changes are likely except for short-term tactical modifications.

Conclusions for Israel’s policy

Israeli and foreign speculations about strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations are counter-productive. It creates an unnecessary fixation on the idea that an Israeli attack is the only viable option to forestall the imminent nuclear threat.  

Even worse, the obsession with bombing casts Israel as an aggressor and confines the strategic debate to only one issue, which is whether such an attack is technically possible and whether it would end Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel must also refrain from creating an impression that Israeli leadership attempts to pull the US into military conflict with Iran or intentionally derail American efforts to reach an agreement. Such an impression will provide ammunition to anti-Israeli circles in the US.

The presentation of the Iranian threat as a danger for the entire world is counter-productive, not only because it is factually untrue, but because it signals Israeli fear and weakness. If this or another threat is no less than a new Hitler, there is no more room for debate; one must immediately eliminate the threat.

Iran’s military capabilities, such as its missiles and armed proxies, should not obfuscate that the regime works hard to conceal its fragile and backward state. Militarily, it is a paper tiger.

Instead of whipping up the sentiment of a looming catastrophe, Israel’s leaders should better clarify that it will hold the Iranian regime responsible for any attack against its citizens. No regime’s officials or assets will stay safe from an Israeli response. By threatening Israel, the regime plays with fire.

However, the messages to the Iranian regime should be nuanced and conveyed through various channels depending on their goal. For example, messages aiming to deter the regime from concrete actions against Israel must be calm and discrete to maintain their credibility. So, the best way is to talk less and do more.

Israel must redouble efforts to reach out to the Iranian people suffering under the yoke of Islamist tyranny. The dispute is not between the peoples of Israel and Iran. It was Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, who had permitted the Jews to return to the land of Israel. Moreover, Iran and Israel were allies against Pan-Arab attempts to unite the Arab world.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.