As the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran fails to change Iranian policies—or bring about regime change—there appears to be a shift in the United States’ and Israel’s strategies—they aim to disrupt Iran’s preferred game plan of waiting out the Trump administration.
A fire that caused significant damage to Natanz, Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility, on July 2,, was part of a series of suspicious incidents at nuclear and other sensitive locations in Iran. Commenting on the explosions, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said “Israel takes action to stop the Iranian nuclear threat” but those actions “are better left unsaid.” Nevertheless, Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, reiterated that Israel “will do everything” to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapon state, while adding that “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us.”
While the attacks have been embarrassing to Iran and exposed the shortcomings of its intelligence and security apparatuses, they could also backfire, adding support to those who argue that Iran should withdraw completely from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or even the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The attacks come at a time when the Trump administration is pushing a diplomatic effort to indefinitely extend a UN embargo on conventional arms transfers to and from Iran, which is set to be lifted in October under the terms of the JCPOA. Although the US campaign failed at the first hurdle—Russia and China rejected a new UN Security Council resolution extending the embargo on June 30 and US allies proved uncooperative—Washington has made it clear that it could act unilaterally to invoke the “snapback” clause of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 to restore all prior UN sanctions as part of the JCPOA.
Many experts reject the contention that the US is still a participant in the 2015 agreement, having withdrawn from it in 2018. However, such initiatives—coupled with unprecedented sanctions—heighten Iran’s sense of insecurity and its ambivalence about re-engaging with the US.
Israel, which recently hosted the US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, to discuss joint efforts to counter Iran’s regional activities, is being accused of embarking on a campaign against Iranian nuclear sites by Iranian officials. In the aftermath of the explosion at Natanz, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), warned that the blast could “slow down Iran’s development and production of advanced centrifuges,” the machines that spin to enrich uranium for civilian or military purposes.
Rolling back Iran’s nuclear program to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability has been a stated goal of the Israeli government for more than two decades. It bears noting that the Stuxnet virus that targeted Iranian centrifuges in 2010 was an alleged joint operation by the US and Israel to retard Iran’s nuclear advances. However, that attack motivated Iran to acquire its own cyber weapons, with the recent sabotage at Natanz coming in the context of cyberattacks on Israel’s water infrastructure that have been attributed to Tehran. Israel has also allegedly been linked to a cyberattack against an Iranian port facility in May in retaliation for the effort to sabotage Israeli water supplies.
In the aftermath of the explosions in Natanz, a website close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) published an article arguing that Tehran should consider that Israel has adopted a new strategy to “change the security balance” if Israel was indeed behind the attacks, which would require its own “necessities.” These attacks could persuade Iranian leaders that the only solution to deter Israel is to acquire a nuclear arsenal, a situation with grave national security repercussions for the region and for the United States.
Indeed, Iran is now facing a critical decision: whether to respond to the attacks directly or simply take the hit. Iran might choose not to respond in cyberspace but could resort to targeting Israeli interests outside Israel, as it did in retaliation for a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in 2012. This would clearly put both countries on an even more dangerous path of escalation.
The other option is to escalate the nuclear program, perhaps enriching uranium to the level of 20 percent—closer to weapons grade. Recently, the conservative-leaning Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper—a strong critic of President Hassan Rouhani’s approach of engagement with the West—called for a strong response in the nuclear field to push back against the US and Israel’s “hostile policies.”
The National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the newly elected and more conservative Iranian parliament issued a statement emphasizing that it may require the government to stop “voluntary implementation” of the Additional Protocol of the NPT, which allows for intrusive outside verification of Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Organization, pursuant to the 2015 “Reciprocal and Proportional Action in Implementing the JCPOA Act.” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, one of the negotiators of the JCPOA, warned on July 6 that the US was playing a “dangerous game” by seeking to refer Iran to the Security Council again.
A lack of response would make Tehran look weak internationally and even more vulnerable, creating the impression that Iran will tolerate further attacks without retaliation. It would also make the government look weak domestically at a time when the state is facing an unprecedented drop in the value of its currency, rising unemployment, and a new outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. In short, Iran faces only bad options.
Pushed into a corner, Iranian officials could adopt a more confrontational and “irrational” approach in its foreign policy. External pressure has further strengthened Iran’s hardliners, who have traditionally maintained a confrontational attitude toward the US. This appears to be the intention of those in and around the Trump administration, who seek to destroy what remains of the JCPOA. It remains to be seen whether Iran will wait for US elections in November or conclude that forbearance is no longer advantageous.
Sina Azodi is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is also a foreign policy advisor at Gulf State Analytics, and a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of South Florida, where he focuses on Iran’s nuclear program. Follow him on Twitter: @azodiac83.
Dr. Mohsen Solhdoost focuses on states’ support of non-state armed groups. He is currently a casual academic at the University of Queensland. Follow him on Twitter: @DrSolhdoost.
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