The enigma of Iran: drones, Russia and the nuclear deal
Sometimes the tectonic plates of the international order move abruptly, brutally, like a massive earthquake. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is such an occasion. The significance is palpable, the aftershocks felt right across the globe.
At other times they shift almost imperceptibly, masking inevitable and far-reaching consequences. Iran’s supply of military assistance to Russia is such a case. It represents a deliberate and calculated shift by the Islamic Republic deeper into the league of autocracies.
When Joe Biden won the US presidency in 2020, he declared that “America was back”. Donald Trump’s erratic isolationism was consigned to the dustbin. Renegotiating a “stronger, better” nuclear deal with Iran was to be the centrepiece of this new, active US diplomacy on the world stage.
The 2015 deal with Iran backed by China, Russia, France, Germany and the UK aimed to prevent or, at any rate, slow the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated by Barack Obama, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme, reduce its uranium stockpile, cut back on its enrichment centrifuges and allow international inspections. Built into the deal was a tripwire that would give the world a year’s notice if Iran chose to resume making the bomb, as many believed it would.
In return, Iran – which is in dire economic straits — would receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief, paving the way for its eventual return to the international community. At least that was the theory. This (slim) hope now seems to have evaporated.
One of the unintended consequences of the war in Ukraine is that Tehran has become a supplier of lethal drones and military training to the Kremlin. This puts the regime, as far as the Biden administration is concerned, beyond the pale. Nobody in Washington is going to advocate lifting sanctions against Iran while its drones are killing Ukrainians.
But Iran’s choice is not irrational or impulsive. It’s a response to a hardening attitude by the regime to loss of control on its streets and a belief that it doesn’t have much more to lose.
The Islamic Republic is under threat at home. Protests erupted across the country last September following the death in custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, demanding an end to its draconian hijab laws. This ongoing uprising has shaken the Iranian government.
The breathtaking courage of young women, even schoolgirls, openly defying the state and its infamous “Morality Police” quickly escalated into widespread strikes and broader anti-government civil disobedience.
The protests show no signs of abating. But far from loosening the state’s grip, the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini is doubling down. Women who defy the hijab laws are beaten in public or thrown into jail. New measures are in the pipeline, including extra surveillance, cutting protesters off from social service benefits and policing social media. There have been public hangings.
While it is fighting for its survival at home, the Iranian regime is extremely unlikely to negotiate with western countries making pesky human rights demands. Hence the Iran nuclear deal — already binned by Trump — is now beyond resuscitation. It is, like Monty Python’s parrot, an ex-deal.
But the mullahs may not mind. They may well have concluded that what the West has to offer is not worth the candle. Instead, Iran has chosen to move into the orbit of two nuclear powers that don’t make inconvenient demands and have something to offer: Russia and China.
Tehran signed a giant $400bn economic cooperation agreement with Beijing in 2021. And in return for drones, Russia has offered Tehran helicopters, jets and missile systems fuelling the arms race in the Gulf.
This is a significant shift in the geopolitical map. It poses a serious challenge, not just to the Middle East, but to the wider influence of the liberal world in the face of Russian aggression and Chinese ambition.
But Iran can’t just be written off. It’s a country of global consequence. Its nearly 90 million people occupy a vast land mass strategically positioned in the world’s richest oil-bearing region. It foments trouble in a wide arc from Lebanon to Yemen and as far as Afghanistan.
The recent agreement, brokered by China, whereby Saudi Arabia has restored diplomatic relations with Tehran is a breakthrough. It provides some respite from the spiralling Sunni-Shia rivalry in the Gulf. But that agreement is a fragile thing.
Watching this from Iran’s near-abroad is a nervous and increasingly divided Israel. There is growing turmoil in Israel over the government’s assault on the judiciary and an increasingly heavy-handed support for new settlements in the occupied territories.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back for a fifth time at the head of a heavily right-wing, ultra-religious coalition. He is under domestic pressure and the threat of prison for corruption. What would it take for him to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran’s centrifuges go into overdrive? And what kind of conflict would that lead to?
Israel makes no secret of its intention to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which, not unreasonably, it views as an existential threat. A drone attack on a military facility in the city of Isfahan in January is only the latest such incident to be attributed to Israel. Iran has encouraged its proxies to retaliate against Israel.
The new alliance between China, Russia and Iran is thus more than troublesome. For one thing it has given Xi Jinping another stage on which to parade his country’s growing influence. The Chinese Communist party leader has just consolidated his own grip on power with a third term as President.
All this puts the Americans in a real bind. The West, declining in power and influence or not, must find a way to deal with the new reality. There are no quick or obvious solutions to this predicament. Iran would like sanctions lifted, but it looks at the state of the world in 2023 and calculates that the West no longer holds all the cards.
It would nevertheless be madness to give up on Iran or the possibility of a fresh nuclear deal. In the short term, the best hope is that China will see that it is in its own best interests to calm down tensions in the Middle East. In the longer term one can only hope that the young people who are standing up to the regime in Iran will create enough momentum to bring about change from the inside.
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