Wednesday , July 24 2024

Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions: U.S. and EU Strategies for the New President

Both the United States and the European Union have expressed interest in constraining Iran’s nuclear program—but negotiations are fraught with risk, and require a willing partner in Tehran in order to achieve real progress.

With the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear aspirations in exchange for a Western commitment to significant sanctions relief. However, after the United States pulled out of the deal in 2018, Iran began to once again increase its nuclear operations, including through increasing the amount of uranium enrichment and developing centrifuge technology. From 2019 to late 2023, Iran accumulated an estimated 4,486.8 kg of enriched uranium, of which 128.3 kg was enriched to 60% purity—a short technical step away from weapons-grade U-235.

The nuclear program in Iran, and its likely weaponization, have drawn repeated condemnation from the United States and the European Union. Iran has been asked by both parties to abide by the conditions of the JCPOA. The Biden administration initially voiced its support for rejoining the pact, but political events inside Iran made this plan untenable by late 2022. The EU also had less reasons to revive the JCPOA considering Iran’s role in the war on Ukraine. European governments also support the pact’s maintenance, arguing that the United States’ Iran policy lacks a clear strategic direction. American policymakers are clearly considering several strategies, potentially including military contingency preparation, to oppose Iran’s nuclear goals. To confront the broader Iranian threat, Washington has attempted to form closer relationships with Arab countries, supported regional allies like Israel, and prepared for military action. America’s pressure plan against Iran also heavily emphasizes cyberwarfare and ongoing sanctions. To reduce potential dangers, the United States is investing in intelligence capabilities to track Iran’s nuclear programs and to better integrate regional missile defense systems.

The Next President

The future of Iran’s nuclear program was significantly affected by the unexpected death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 20. Although Raisi’s death is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Iran’s nuclear program, it creates uncertainty in the country’s short-term political future—and may even derail the intentions of the regime’s hardliners.

The largest wing of the Iranian military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), may utilize the unrest to bolster its position and advocate for a more assertive nuclear policy. Iran’s nuclear program has always involved the IRGC, which has contributed significantly to the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Although technically the head of government, Iran’s president has relatively little influence on the direction that national security and foreign policy are taken, with the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) being the top authority in these areas. Through the SNSC, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will continue to have direct supervision over the nuclear program.

Raisi’s death also raises questions about the future of the JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the “P5+1” world powers. When the next president is elected, he will need to navigate the complex political landscape and potentially re-engage with international partners to revive the JCPOA—or, failing that, to negotiate a new agreement.

For Peaceful Uses Only

The future of Iran’s nuclear program will ultimately depend on who succeeds the 85-year-old Khamenei, whose public appearances have grown increasingly rare and who has constantly denied rumors of ill health. Since 1989, Khamenei has ruled the Islamic Republic as its supreme authority and has had a major influence on Iran’s nuclear program. Throughout his time in office, Khamenei has maintained a hardline stance on Iran’s foreign policy, including the nuclear issue: although he issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons early in his tenure, and allowed the JCPOA negotiations to proceed under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani, he broadly rejected any concessions that would jeopardize the nation’s nuclear infrastructure, and demonstrated a preference for maintaining Iran’s nuclear capabilities over making diplomatic concessions. Khamenei’s strong mistrust of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also hampered the agency’s ability to monitor Iran’s civilian nuclear program, further stoking the fears of the international community. Under Khamenei’s leadership, negotiations toward a new agreement with the United States and other world powers will remain difficult; his successor will have to find his own way to engage with the international community, all while balancing the conflicting interests of the IRGC and other regime groups.

Iran’s maintenance of a significant stockpile of 83.7% uranium has far-reaching and significant repercussions. Given that this enrichment level has virtually no civilian uses and is perilously near the 90% cutoff point required for material suitable for use in bombs, Iran may effectively be able to produce an atomic weapon at its discretion. At its present enrichment capabilities, Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in a few months, endangering world security and sparking a possible arms race in the already unstable Middle East.

The expansion of Iran’s nuclear program has detrimental effects for the stability of the region. A major concern is the breakout of a ‘nuclear arms race’ across the Middle East; it is reasonable to expect that Gulf nations, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will begin to pursue their own nuclear capability if Iran is known to possess them. The IAEA has also warned about the possible repercussions of Iran’s actions, despite U.S. assessment that Iran is not actively pursuing an atomic bomb at the moment. The increased levels of enrichment have increased tensions with Israel, which has threatened to take military action against Tehran.

Does the Election Matter?

Iran’s nuclear program and the forthcoming presidential election on June 28 are strongly related. As noted earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei maintains the final say over Iranian nuclear policy; and Iran’s broader atomic strategy is unlikely to change much after a new president is elected, since the new president will likely share Khamenei’s hardline views on this issue; even a reformist would find curbs on Iran’s civilian nuclear program unacceptable.

Iran’s economy and currency have been severely harmed by economic pressures, particularly U.S. sanctions, making diplomatic attempts to reopen talks and reduce tensions even more crucial. These pressures have also contributed to an increase in domestic instability. Iran has recently shown a greater readiness to pursue diplomacy by holding private discussions with the United States and other actors and inviting the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to participate in talks. Consistent with Iran’s approach since the collapse of the nuclear agreement, these endeavors seek to outline a broad ‘compromise’—a lift to some economic sanctions in return for a reduction, though not the elimination, of the nuclear program.

The View From the West

Following Raisi’s death and the announcement of the special elections, the United States and the European Union each have distinct aspirations and expectations for the incoming Iranian president. The United States is hoping that the incoming president will resume nuclear negotiations, perhaps giving the JCPOA deal a second lease on life. Although the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, President Biden has previously said that he views the JCPOA as a critical component in avoiding nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, concerns about Iran’s human rights record have been a regular feature of these negotiations, and the internal political situation within Iran has sometimes proved an obstacle to progress. In 2022, for instance, the Biden administration was forced to abandon the renewed JCPOA negotiations after the Mahsa Amini protests—and the ensuing IRGC-led crackdown—made it impossible for any American president to be seen extending a helping hand to the Iranian regime. Though it has said little, Washington clearly hopes that the incoming president will take action to improve this situation.

Meanwhile, the European Union believes that Iran’s foreign policy will continue under the next president, especially about regional security and the nuclear discussions. For the EU to build on the gains from earlier diplomatic encounters and guarantee Iran’s adherence to international accords, continuity is essential. Additionally, the EU wants to work with Iran more closely on several subjects, including commerce, energy, and security. The EU believes that closer security and commercial relations with Iran will lead to more stability and will profit both sides. In addition, the European Union highlights its backing for democracy and human rights in Iran, urging the incoming president to give these matters a priority.

In conclusion, the Western world’s ongoing efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions serve as a stark reminder of the complexity and gravity of the issue. The Biden administration has prioritized diplomacy, and has made past attempts to resurrect the 2015 nuclear agreement—all while striking a balance between the imperative to stop Iran’s nuclear development and the need to constrain Tehran economically in order to limit its other malign foreign policy objectives. As this situation persists, European allies emphasize how critical it is to maintain Western confidence and IAEA authority by vehemently denouncing Iran’s non-compliance. Though both strategies reflect larger geopolitical and security problems, Washington and Brussels are both working to maintain regional stability and their own strategic aims while keeping Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability.

As Iran’s nuclear program moves forward, the window of opportunity for the international community to come to a peaceful conclusion is shrinking. Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the West will be significantly affected by the policies pursued by the country’s new president. To combat proliferation risks, America and its allies must carefully strike a balance between diplomacy and force and adopt a coherent plan. The goal is still to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by means of economic pressure, diplomatic engagement, and strategic deterrence; how exactly this can be accomplished will be a topic of critical concern in the years to come.

About omid shokri

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