Growing regional tensions over Iran
If Israel’s diplomatic offensive is increasingly focusing on Tehran, the Iranian media is highlighting the Supreme Leader’s 2013 statement.
Of late, Israel-Iran shadow-boxing has been getting ominous. If Israel’s diplomatic offensive is increasingly focusing on Tehran, the Iranian media is highlighting the Supreme Leader’s 2013 statement wherein he observed: “Sometimes the leaders of the Zionist regime even threaten us; they are threatening to strike militarily, but I think they know it, and if they do not know it, they must know that if they make a mistake, the Islamic Republic will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa.” Besides the war of words, four recent developments cause concern.
One, earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Israel carried out two offensive military measures that targeted the Iranian nuclear programme—a centrifuge facility in Karaj in June and a missile base in September, both located close to the Iranian capital. If media reports are correct, Israel carried out these measures after giving a heads-up to the Biden administration.
Two, the official Iranian claims of ‘limited progress’ in the Vienna talks are not backed by others. The Iranian spin comes against the backdrop of the Biden administration’s continued refusal to directly take part in the negotiations aimed at reviving the nuclear deal from which President Trump withdrew in May 2018. Some even suggest that President Biden had asked his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to prepare a contingency military plan should the Vienna talks collapse.
Three, during his visit to the US earlier this month, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz reportedly presented a plan to the Pentagon that included a military attack against Iran. According to some officials, the Biden administration did not ‘veto’ the Israeli plan or the schedule. In his public pronouncements, Gantz was categorical and told the media in Florida that his order would prepare the military “for the Iranian challenge at the operational level.” In his assessment, “There is room for international pressure—political, economic and also military—in order to convince Iran to stop its fantasies about a nuclear programme.”
Four, several moves in recent weeks indicate closer consolidation among countries fearful of Iran and its regional ambitions. The growing Israel-UAE bonhomie, Saudi willingness to bury the hatchet with Qatar, renewed political engagements among the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries and the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the Emirates are partly aimed at Iran. Israel even sees the mini-Quad (comprising India, Israel, UAE and the US) as a forum to gain wider acceptance of its concerns and responses vis-a-vis Iran.
Indeed, Israel’s militant rhetoric against Iran is not new. Since an Iranian opposition group first disclosed Tehran’s clandestine nuclear programme in August 2002, Israel had never taken the military option off the table. The spate of American economic and political sanctions against Iran sought to dissuade Israel. The aggressive Israeli campaign against the Iranian nuclear programme, including the assassination of key nuclear scientists and cyberattacks against installations, partly strengthened the American sanctions regime.
At the same time, President Barack Obama was not prepared to continue with a confrontationist policy vis-a-vis Iran and settled for the nuclear deal in July 2015. Though hailed by many countries, the deal was unpopular in the Middle East, especially among countries that felt threatened by Iran’s politico-military ascendance and domination. Far from curtailing Iranian hegemony, these countries feared that the Obama administration legitimised it. Hence, countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel felt relieved when President Trump walked out of the nuclear deal in May 2018.
Having invested so much in the nuclear deal and hoping for a complete reversal of the decades of American sanctions, Iran was infuriated by the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy. Within weeks of the American withdrawal, Iran resumed the enrichment process beyond the limit of 3.67% of Uranium-235 set under the nuclear deal and continued enriching and stockpiling. In April this year, the IAEA disclosed that Iran had reached an enrichment level of 63%; in short, Iran is inching closer to the 90% needed for a nuclear bomb.
Thus, getting the US back into the nuclear deal with an ironclad guarantee against another pull-out is a major demand of Iran, the European powers, Russia and China. Iran also demands a complete removal of all American sanctions guaranteed in the 2014 nuclear deal. At the same time, the Iranian political willingness and technical capability to quickly resume enrichment within weeks after the American pull-out are equally disturbing. Moreover, increasing enrichment capability closer to the bomb-making level undermines its public claims of peaceful intentions.
Without a strong political commitment from all sides, a deal on Iranian nuclear ambition and capability would be a mirage. Meanwhile, the recent belligerent moves only increase the likelihood of heightened tensions. While none, including Israel and Iran, seek open hostilities, the chances of non-traditional military moves in the Persian Gulf are very much on the horizon.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there