Iran and Its Nuclear Situation
Scott L. Montgomery with a long read that provides analysis to the latest unfolding Iran crisis.
Things have heated up once again between Iran and the West, the U.S. in particular. This time temperatures are above those seen in some time. Iran’s conservatives have long threatened that, if threatened enough, they would slow or stop tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, a geographic pinch through which more than a quarter of the world’s oil moves every day. It seems now, with their various attacks and ship seizures, they are following through. Weapons have been engaged on both sides, but fortunately not at people, only drones. Now the British, since one of their own tankers has been seized, seem to be asking “What would Maggie do?” It’s a serious question, especially given who’s just taken the helm (Mr. Johnson, that is). The Trump Administration, meanwhile, appears ready, even eager, for confrontation. Cooler heads may or may not appear and prevail. As this is being written, things remain near the ignition temperature. A single misperception or enthusiastic act might be enough for an assertive “response.” From any point of view, it has rapidly become an ugly situation.
No one will be shocked to learn that this current round of rattling and drawing of swords began with President Trump ordering still new sanctions on Iran, “maximum pressure” as he calls it (a concept any physicist will say risks an explosive result). Iran has weathered U.S. sanctions before, of course. But it has also been economically crippled by such punishment, in the early 2010s, when it came from a grouping of nations that included those representing over 70% of its oil/gas exports (China, South Korea, Japan). Trump’s new sanctions bring things quite close to that level. By June, Iran’s oil exports had dropped to around 300,000 bbls a day, an eight-fold collapse since a year earlier. Only China and Turkey might now accept Iranian oil and gas. Already the fall in export revenue is wounding Iran's ability to buy food. Who suffers in such cases?
It’s Not About Oil—Is It Really About Nuclear?
To understand how this has come about, some history is needed. If, as Orwell said, every fire in the present was lit by matches made in the past, stories of what happened to make things what they now are become essential.
Begin with the understanding that the situation—and any military actions that might occur—seem far more about the nuclear question than oil and gas. The Iranian authorities decidedly want civilian nuclear power, and some of them (read: not all of them) would like a nuclear weapon as well, now more than ever. The civilian reactors are felt to be crucial to electricity generation in the country, given soaring power demands met by ever-greater use of natural gas, a key export (Contrary to what many western commentators say or hope, the Middle East is likely to become a major center of nuclear power in coming decades, with Iran and the UAE to be joined by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, possibly others). I’ll talk about motives for a nuclear weapon below; there are several, and they are not likely to go away soon.
Iran’s program for building a weapon was real, exposed in 2002-2003 and more fully in 2018. The program was stopped in 2003, due to this international exposure as well as worries generated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. During the next decade, talks and tensions about the program between Iran and the U.N.-U.S. both escalated with little progress toward any type of solution. A stiff mix of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, dependent on cooperation by Russia and China, sent the Iranian economy into a near-death spiral, so that in 2013, the country’s leaders began serious but difficult negotiations about halting all nuclear activities that could lead to the production of weapons capability. Such negotiations, through both front and back channels, had unofficially been ongoing for some years already.
What finally resulted, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—in view of more than 20 years of growing acrimony and tension, particularly between Iran and the U.S. but also the EU—counted as an extraordinary diplomatic success. No one, except its opponents and, unfortunately, more than a few representations in the media, saw the agreement as final in any sense. It was a step forward toward a more long-term non-proliferation agreement of some kind. In exchange for lifted sanctions, Iran gave up all functional capability for producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel for a minimum of 15 years. Such would be “a period in which we would be building on [the] foundation to address the future nuclear program,” as stated by Ernie Moniz, then-Secretary of Energy and a key U.S. negotiator for the JCPOA. He meant, of course, building toward a more long-term non-proliferation agreement.
It seems helpful, in view of Moniz’s comments above, to point out that no such agreement is ever final—every nuclear treaty or deal ever made, including the all-important NPT (the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, created in 1973), has been amended, updated, or otherwise revised over time. Such is common knowledge, particularly among government officials. So to demand an end-of-story, comprehensive deal defines a way to prevent or kill any deal. In this case, the one constant for the future was the verification regime (site inspections by the International Atomic Energy Association), which included any site, civilian or military, that might be suspect. Moniz and the IAEA are both clear about this. Particularly important in this regard was the direct role of nuclear scientists in the negotiations. This allowed for a knowledge-based approach to curtailing highly complex technology. It also encouraged less hostile discussions.
Intense opposition to the JCPOA has overwhelming come from two groups: conservative Republicans in the U.S. and theocratic hardliners in Iran (I don’t include Israeli opposition, as the country wasn’t involved in the agreement). This combination is anything but a coincidence. Part of the fury in the U.S. was that the JCPOA represented a high diplomatic success for President Barak Obama. Yet hatred of the deal itself was real, and beyond compromise. The U.S., in fact, never fully removed the sanctions it had committed to removing, and even after accepting IAEA verifications that Iran was in compliance, the Trump Administration re-imposed them all. In Iran, on the other hand, anger by conservatives was aimed at the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani, which had negotiated the deal. Such anger was particularly strong in non-elected hardline groups, especially clerical elites and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Soon after the signing of the nuclear agreement, the IRGC began again testing ballistic missiles, whose existence and non-inclusion in the deal had been a core complaint for Republicans.
Thus, Donald Trump’s decision to violate (not “withdraw from”) the agreement, reimpose sanctions, and then move to “maximum pressure,” played into the hands of both groups. It seems to have given the hardliners in Iran everything they wanted. High on their list were proof of U.S. mendacity and duplicity, thus that Supreme Leader Khameini was 100% correct the U.S. is endemically unworthy of trust. Trump and the GOP also certified the claim that Iran should never open its doors to a global community led by the West. Happily, too, there are now big reasons for the Iranian public to lose faith in any nuclear deal and to vote against any moderate candidates in future elections. After all, their pledges of better relations with the U.S. and economic benefit from lifted sanctions have now been revealed as empty. Last but not least, death of the deal and the return of punitive measures provide justice for the Revolutionary Guards to act more boldly against the West and its influence. Oh, and one more thing (I almost forgot): killing the JCPOA also strengthens the rationale to seek a nuclear weapon.
Strangely enough, all of this is precisely what Trump and conservative Republicans want, in a manner of speaking. But, in fact, not so strangely. Truly at issue, after all, is not oil and gas but not nuclear weapons either.
Consider the following. Mr. Trump and the Republican Party observe an interesting calculus. North Korea has a history of terrorist-style acts against America. It now possesses ballistic missiles capable of striking many U.S. bases and the homeland itself. It also has nuclear weapons and has made overt threats at the U.S. and its allies, South Korea and Japan, neither of which have such weapons. Trump, however, is friendly toward the DPRK leader, Kim Jong-Un. Likewise Vladimir Putin, with an enormous nuclear arsenal, murderous invasions of its neighbors, frequent aircraft and submarine trespassing into NATO airspace and waters, and serious tampering with free elections in the U.S. itself, plus those in Europe.
Yet somehow Iran is the one nation to despise and fear. This is the same Iran that has no nuclear weapons, no missiles able to reach American soil, and no impulsive tyrant with absolute control. It is same Iran also with a nuclear-armed, existential enemy (Israel) on its regional doorstep. Yet somehow it is subject to even harsher sanctions than North Korea. What is going on? What factor has been left out?
Again, history. Conservatives in the U.S. have hated Iran above all other nations. They have hated it for forty years, since even before the Cold War ended, and they are not about to alter their view. They don’t care very much, if at all, about Iran’s people or Persian culture or U.S. actions in Iran before 1978. Neither are they concerned with the complexities of Iranian politics, whether or not possibilities exist for more moderate rule. For a large majority of the right, Iran defines a single and singular enemy, one whose face always will be that of Ruhollah Khomenei, he of darkened brows and menacing aspect, forever demanding the death and humiliation of America.
Why Such Hate for Iran?
This image stems not from a simplistic good-evil worldview, as sometimes claimed for conservatives. Nor does it come from the hot metal of religious animosity, though this does play a part for some. Instead, its major source is a result of specific events in the past, mainly in the 1980s, that continue to burn in the right-wing imagination.
From its very inception, the new revolutionary regime in Iran repeatedly humbled the U.S. and its then-president, Ronald Reagan (hero of the right), by hostaging, kidnapping, and killing American military and civilian personnel. Particularly relevant are the Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, the 1982 bombing of the U.S. Marine Headquarters in Lebanon, and the Iran-Contra scandal. The first two events chastened the U.S. and its military in front of the whole world. With the Hostage Crisis, American Embassy staff were paraded in front of tv cameras, bound and blindfolded, for more than a year. Later, when the Iran-Contra story broke, accusations flew—and are still aloft—that Reagan had made a secret capitulatory deal with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the presidential election, preventing his opponent, Jimmy Carter, from reaping any benefit from an earlier release.
Be that as it may (it remains labeled the “October Surprise conspiracy theory”), the crisis showed the entire might of the world’s greatest military as helpless. Less than two years later, the killing of 241 military personnel, including 220 Marines—the largest one-day loss for the Marine Corps since Iwo Jima, 1945—and subsequent withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon signaled yet another, especially murderous mortification, attributed to “Iranian state-sponsored terrorism” (Hezbollah). Soon thereafter, the Reagan Administration was exposed as having sold arms to Iran, then in its war with Iraq (whom the U.S. officially supported). The official reason given for the sale was an exchange for seven American hostages held by Hezbollah. Unfortunately, more hostages were soon taken. The money, meanwhile, was used to fund a highly unpopular war in Nicaragua pursued by anti-leftist Contra guerillas, who had murdered many civilians and committed other human rights abuses. It was not Reagan’s finest hour.
These events repeatedly made the U.S. appear weak in front of its allies, its enemies, its own citizens, and the rest of the globe. Despite all of its rhetoric about protecting the free world, America proved unable to deal with the security threat from a third-rate power. No less, a popular “get tough” president who Republicans hoped would erase and replace the poisoned legacy of Richard Nixon, bringing at last a new era of GOP success, was made to look false and conciliatory.
In 1988, however, the tables were seemingly turned. The damaging of a U.S. navy frigate in the Persian Gulf by a reputed Iranian mine unleashed Operation Praying Mantis. This saw American warships effectively destroy half the Iranian navy, as well as the country’s major oil refinery at Abadan and two offshore production platforms. A month later, after hostilities had ceased, the USS Vincennes began a skirmish with Iranian military boats, pursuing them into Iranian waters, then shot down an Iranian airliner in a commercial air zone, killing all 290 people aboard. Protests and demands for compensation from Iran were rebuffed—in his presidential bid to succeed Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush let the media know “I will never apologize for the United States, I don’t care what the facts are.” And true to his word, once elected, he presented the entire crew of the Vincennes with commendations, the officer who gave the order to fire on the airliner receiving the prestigious Legion of Merit. In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton expressed “deep regret” and provided $61.8 million in compensation to the families of those who were killed. To say that this did not sit very well with many conservatives would be an understatement.
None of this mattered, in other words. Praying Mantis altered nothing, especially for the new crop of more extremist Republicans who took power over Congress in the 1994 “Republican Revolution.” The 1990s saw repeated threats of military action by Republicans. In 1998, the Rumsfeld Commission (Commission to Assess Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States) returned its conclusion that Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, would be capable in five years or less to strike the U.S. homeland with ballistic missiles. The Commission was set up by a Republican-controlled Congress angry at a 1995 report by the CIA saying it would take more than 15 years for any such threat to even be possible. In reality, even this proved well short of the mark; it took 22 years for the North Koreans to test a missile with such a range. The Iranians have yet to build one that can even reach the Atlantic. The Commission was never really about what its title described; it was about re-demonizing certain “rogue states” and preventing any new agreements. If this weren’t enough, it also provided support for President Bush (the Younger) to walk away from the venerable Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972.
Conservatives also never believed Iranian sympathies expressed toward the U.S. for 9/11, and, along with hardliners in Iran, moved to squash any opportunities for a new era of diplomacy and cooperation. In 2002, President Bush (the Younger) indicted the country as part of an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address. There has even grown up a trend, claimed outright by members of the Trump Administration, that accuses Iran itself of having master-minded or significantly aided the September 11 attacks, via long-term support for Al Qaeda.
None of this, in any way, lessens the calumny of Iran’s true acts of terrorism, its attacks against U.S. personnel and those of other countries’ as well. Nor does it mitigate the horrendous brutality directed at Iranian citizens or the violence perpetrated by its proxies, Hezbollah in particular. But extremist hardliners in Iran are not the only dangerous people in the world. If our criteria for this fixes on those who would desire a major war, with potentially many thousands killed, we in the U.S. do not have to look beyond our own shores.
Current talk of military action against Iran continues what can only be called a long-standing tradition in Republican circles. At the apex of this tradition, in attitude if not influence, has been John Bolton, first as Bush’s Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, and now, with a lush promotion, Trump’s national security advisor. Bolton has never for a moment stopped arguing, demanding, even pleading for the U.S. military to launch bombing raids on Iranian territory. Yet this is only part of a larger effort. Sen. Tom Cotton, in a spectacular attempt to ignore historical precedent (Iraq), has called for military action, insisting a war would be quickly won with “two strikes.” Sen. Ted Cruz claims ad delirus that Iran has “declared war on the United States.” Sen. Lindsay Graham: “Here’s what Iran needs to get ready for: severe pain…” While others of their stripe tell us Iran is “a cancer on the world”. And the hate goes on.
Why Iran Might Want a Nuke
Much of the above helps explain some parts of why Iranian hardliners want a nuclear weapon (actually, more than one). Having a mega-nuclear state make continual threats of military attack qualifies as one factor. Yet those deeply devoted to the theocratic vision of Iran’s 1979 revolution view such a weapon as helping their cause in other ways too.
A weapon would ensure them, presumably, a position of status and power as protectors of the state and guardians of its “mission.” It would also keep Iran from permanently opening up to the larger world, bringing in further Westernization, diluting its sense of revolutionary destiny. A significant portion of the IRGC (it is not a monolithic organization) seems to view a nuclear weapon in pragmatic terms as well. It would keep Israel at bay, establish Iran as a regional superpower, and keep tensions high with the U.S., thereby giving the Guards more reason to advance military capabilities and conduct “defensive” operations. Moderates and reformists in Iran see all this as hugely destructive, not least to the economy, public welfare, and their own standing. And yet, it is they who are now blamed for having pursued the nuclear deal and foolishly trusted the U.S., which violated the agreement and is now seeking to deep-six the economy.
Cynical, therefore, is the statement that bankrupting the regime will advance the cause of non-nuclearization and regime change. It is far more likely to do the very opposite. In fact, it is doing the opposite—“maximum pressure” is motivating the IRGC’s actions at present to show that this approach comes with a real cost and that Iran will no sooner surrender to U.S. demands than convert to Judaism. The idea that a damaged economy will bring the Iranian government to the negotiating table again, but this time solely in a capitulating role, tail between its legs, counts as fantasy at best. As some experts have noted, history shows Iran will not deal with Washington from a position of weakness. This is also behind its recent acts against tankers in the Persian Gulf and its promise to break with JCPOA limits to uranium enrichment unless other parties to the deal hold up their end and counter the “maximum pressure” impacts.
All this is clear and evident. But another factor has emerged. Trump’s pressure policy, coming as it does after U.S. failure to fulfill its commitments under the JCPOA to lift nuclear-related sanctions, has turned a large portion of the Iranian public resentful and angry toward America. This pushes them closer to the hardliner camp on the nuclear question. Iran’s elected leaders, partly as a result, see little reason to engaged with the West and are instead considering relations with other powers instead, notably Russia and China. Russia seems an obvious choice, given that Rosatom, the country’s state-run nuclear firm, built Iran’s first civilian reactor at Bushehr and is now building a second one. Needless to say, an Iranian alliance with either or both of these nations would significantly weaken Western influence and complicate the U.S. position no small amount.
It is possible that team Trump knows its pressure campaign won’t work. It remains conceivable that the real plan is to goad Iran into war and punish it, disgrace it militarily, thereby finally gaining revenge. To think that national leaders are wholly above such desires would be naïve. That Trump and much of the Republican Party believe the U.S. can openly violate an international treaty, then accuse and threaten the other side for no longer abiding by it, provides some evidence for this. As we have said, it is not just a small minority, those who might share bread with the venemous John Bolton, who want Iranian blood.
Such, however, would seal a different deal. Even at this point, Iranian hardliners have multiple motives to keep alive plans for a nuclear weapon. We have mentioned one of these already, but it needs a bit more discussion. Trump and his GOP supporters have shown that there is little interest for serious diplomacy. By violating the JCPOA and trying to kill it altogether with the pressure policy, they prove the U.S. can’t be trusted to abide by any nuclear deal, even one that U.S. leaders (of the other party) forge. In short, the U.S. gets to do whatever it pleases, while Iran must give up all nuclear facilities, dissolve its missile program, and more, just to remain worthy of distrust.
The Troubling Global Context for Non-Proliferation
Adding to these concerns is the larger non-proliferation context, too often left out of discussion on Iran. From Tehran’s point of view, that is, its own national security will only be further threatened by the updating and “modernization” (as it’s called) of America’s nuclear stockpile. There can be little doubt this, in fact. It’s made overt in the U.S. Defense Department’s new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), an important document of defense policy. Upgrades will include increasing both the usability and the lethality of the arsenal (operative terms are “diversity and flexibility”, which involve smaller-yield tactical weapons).
The new posture also states (p. 21) that the U.S. will leave open the possible use of its arsenal to deter “nuclear or non-nuclear aggression against the United States, allies, and partners” (emphasis added). Iran, in fact, like North Korea, gets its own section in the report. It is described as “directly threaten[ing] U.S. allies and partners” (note the parallel language to the above) with its expansionism and missile program. U.S. nuclear deterrence must therefore have the means “necessary to defeat Iranian non-nuclear, strategic capabilities”. (34)
“Modernization” of arsenals is being pursued by other nuclear weapons states, which helps explain U.S. moves. But for any state designated as “rogue” and “a credible threat” this matters little. The global non-proliferation regime as a whole is weakening, rejecting progress. Washington and Moscow have walked away from another key agreement, the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces), without a replacement. And the two states with 90% of these weapons have moved in a direction opposite to their commitment, under the most important non-proliferation agreement of all. Indeed, Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires all members to work towards an agreement “on general and complete [nuclear] disarmament.”
What of North Korea in this context? No expert has missed the message here: acquiring a nuke, by whatever means, does give a state deterrence against larger and more powerful nations. It may even merit friendly tones and a hug from Mr. Trump, if an absolute tyrant is involved (not true for Iran, unfortunately). Meanwhile, some in Ukraine wonder if Mr. Putin would have thought twice about any invasion or seizure of Crimea had the country retained some of the nukes in its territory at the end of the Cold War.
On the other hand, with respect to the DPRK, it’s been known since 2015 that a plan involving U.S., Japanese, and South Korean forces exists for a precision preemptive strike, to destroy nuclear facilities and existing weapons. Yet it would be a mistake to take this too seriously. That such information found its way into media hands suggests a ploy to move Mr. Kim back from the brink of building actual weapons. We are well past that now. Estimates in 2019 have North Korea with at least 20-30 usable weapons, with fuel for 70-80 more. Does the U.S. military know the exact locations for all of this? Are all the weapons in one place, perhaps together with the plutonium and highly-enriched uranium? Yes, a rhetorical question. The North is also known to be quite good at creating decoys of various types. And even if locations were in hand, the possibility of nuclear-armed missiles renders the idea of an assault, however precise, an unacceptable risk as long as sane minds have their hands on the tiller.
At this point, it is hard to conceive a lasting, realistic solution to the problems between Iran and the U.S. This, of course, also includes the nuclear situation. That conservative hardliners on both sides hate each other’s country beyond all recompense must be accepted as a potent factor in the mix. By all accounts, it is stunning that a greater intensity of vitriol is reserved for Iran, which has no nuclear weapon, no arsenal, and no ICBM capability, than for the North Koreans who have all of these things and more. DPRK experts are even known to have sold ballistic missiles and related technology to Iran . Yet in the U.S., odium is stronger and more consistent for the apprentice than the journeyman.
That such animosity has become an honored tradition, even an element of identity, for the American right makes the result of any diplomatic resolution tentative at best. This is especially true for any agreement made under a Democrat administration. The 1800 swing from a successful nuclear deal under Obama to its complete violation under Trump makes this plain enough. It shouldn’t be thought, either, that such sabotage requires a personality like that of the current president. What has happened tells the world, including all of Iran’s factions, that polarization in U.S. politics has profound global impacts.
As long as such conditions prevail at home, America can’t be fully trusted to fulfill its obligations under a Democrat deal involving Iran. The right has shown for decades now that it is ready to let the situation become more dangerous and threatening than accept any diplomatic advance by “the other side.” This doesn’t mean that searching for ways to cool circumstances should be viewed as foolish and futile. On the contrary. Bipartisan diplomacy towards Iran will be a long-term struggle in the U.S. but one that must be accepted and furthered by those who are truly serious about advancing stability in the world’s most volatile region. Again, Iranian policies are of real concern. But war, even if brief and especially if impelled by U.S. decisions aimed at forcing Iran to finally “bend the knee”, will only deepen and spread further the hatred on both sides.
Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.