Opinion | Middle East Is Becoming A Nuclear Tinderbox, Thanks To A Dead Deal

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Vienna, the capital city of Austria, mostly known for its intricate architecture and cultural history of art and music for many years, was also the venue for critical negotiations between members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (known as the P5+1) and Iran, over the latter's nuclear programme. In July 2015, the P5+1 and Tehran reached an agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or the JCPOA), which was hailed as a victory of diplomacy over conflict to manage a delicate reality of the nuclearisation of a volatile Middle East.

The Idea Behind The Deal

Today, 2015 seems like a lifetime ago, and the future of the JCPOA is bleak. By no means was the deal a perfect one. It was perhaps never meant to be perfect either. The idea behind the arrangement was to avoid conflict and find a political middle path to end not just a nuclear impasse but decades of isolation for Tehran. In exchange for the checks and balances implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran would benefit from the opening of its economy to global trade. However, everything changed in 2018, when newly empowered US President Donald Trump, who had for long been a critic of the deal, withdrew from it. Interestingly, access to nuclear technologies is not a new area of contestation for Iran. In fact, its first nuclear reactor to go critical in 1967 was provided by the US, as part of its Atoms For Peace construct put forward by former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.

The impact of Trump's erroneous and unilateral decision to withdraw was multi-layered. While it showcased partisan politics taking a stronger hold in Washington, it also raised concerns about the fundamentals and veracity of American security architecture for allies in Europe and Asia alike. But another, more serious outcome, which it may have pushed, was that the US exit changed the landscape of Iranian domestic politics. During the negotiation period, the Iranian government was led by Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, and foreign minister Javad Zarif, who, educated across American institutions, had a level of outward-looking worldliness even as he was firmly rooted in the interests of Iran. The JCPOA exit amplified and emboldened the conservatives and a long-standing view that the US could never be trusted. 

A Straitened Path Forward

In a way, Iran's all-powerful Ayatollah Khamenei had uncharacteristically let his guard down and allowed for talks with the US. Trump's decision set back moderate politics in Iran by decades. This was further exacerbated by the fact that President Joe Biden, despite initially suggesting a return to negotiations with Iran, has been unable to get the process moving due to a host of factors, including headwinds by the Democrats and lobbying by Israel.

Beyond diplomacy and realpolitik, the issue of Iran's nuclearisation threatens to become more critical and uncontainable than ever. While earlier Iran used its programme to both strengthen its strategic requirements and use it as a tool for leverage against the West, the confrontation with Israel last week, a West-aided air defence alliance surrounding Israel, coupled with a probability of participation from certain Arab states, and the fact that Israel is already widely viewed as the only (undeclared) nuclear power in the region, may make the nuclear deal a document of historic insignificance. And if so, the consequences could be dire in the long run.

Iran's Capabilities

Iran is a nuclear threshold state. There are various parameters predicting how far it really is from building a nuclear warhead. Its nuclear facilities, such as Natanz and Fordow, the fulcrum of both its nuclear capacities and the international community's worries, are known to be producing enriched uranium almost nearing weapons-grade. The recent attacks by Iran against Israel using ballistic missiles, and the use of similar missile equipment by Iranian-supported groups such as the Houthis - along with Tehran successfully launching satellites into low-Earth orbit using technologies like the ones used in its Inter-Continent Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) - show consistency in capability. 

The Iranian missile programme has grown since its inception in the early 2000s under the tutelage of Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a military officer with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) aerospace wing, who also reportedly sought expertise from North Korea, a country that conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

Ripple Effects In Middle East

While Iran may still be far from conducting any nuclear tests - it might never even actually do so - it can still attain nuclear capabilities through the production of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for use in conventional battlefields. If Iran does attain nuclear weapons, and Israel consequently goes public with its own, then Saudi Arabia is most likely to follow suit. In an interview in September 2023, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted that if Iran goes nuclear, the Kingdom will "have to get one". 

Currently, Pakistan is the only Islamic nation with nuclear weapons; for long, it has been believed that if Saudi Arabia ever sought nuclear weapons capabilities, it would get help from Islamabad. In 2013, a BBC report claimed that intelligence accessed by NATO officials highlighted that nuclear weapons made for Saudi Arabia by Pakistan were "sitting ready for delivery". Despite the Pakistani establishment's denials over the years, it is still widely believed that the time frame within which Saudi Arabia can obtain nuclear weapons is very small due to its strategic partnership with Pakistan.

Iran Has 'Options' Today

At the end of the day, the question of nuclear weapons is both technological and political. In the former context, Iran still has a lot to achieve. While its success in asymmetric warfare and the development of ballistic missiles and drones is in the news, it must be remembered that very few of these military interventions are hi-tech. The drones used by Iran, which have also been supplied to Russia for use against Ukraine, are low-cost and effective, but they are not known to cause large-scale damage. The nuisance value here outdoes the tactical value. The missiles, too, are yet to prove their mettle in combat, with most of them being successfully taken down in the recent exchange with Israel.

However, politically, Iran would be surer today about the near-absolute security a nuclear arsenal provides. North Korea, its initial collaborator, is perhaps a good example. The political direction Tehran will seek going forward will not be easy, as some predict. Iran would not want to be a hermit state and will find success in its economic and political outreach with the likes of China, Russia, as well as some others in the Global South. Unlike earlier decades, Tehran has options. But despite those, it would still seek a workable solution with the West at some point in the future, even if the chances for that are next to nil currently.

Uncertainty Reigns

Finally, for Israel, nuclear power in the region is a thick red line. Iran was, of course, not the only such example. Israel has conducted airstrikes to disable the nuclear programmes of both Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007) in the past. Over the years, Israel has conducted several covert operations in Iran against its nuclear sites, scientists, and personnel to significantly set back the Iranian programme. A return of such actions, scaled up by many times, should be expected.

While conventional war remains a looming threat, external pressures on Israel may dissuade it from setting out on such a path. The issue of nuclear weapons remains unresolved, and at this moment, even if Iran does not scale up, it should not be expected to scale down either.

[Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of 'The ISIS Peril: The World's Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia' (Penguin Viking, 2019)]

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author