Joe Biden is the fifth American president in a row to pledge to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Even amid escalating tensions with Tehran, Biden is aiming to negotiate a revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement that Donald Trump's administration walked out of in 2018. What lies behind this abiding American concern about Iran's nuclear capacity? Eurasia Group senior analyst Henry Rome explains how we got here, and what comes next.
What We’re Watching: Iranian cat cornered on nukes, Italy’s political maneuvers, Asian Americans targeted
Iran says "fine, we'll just get nukes then, are you happy?" Iran has threatened to openly pursue the development of nuclear weapons unless the United States removes the sanctions that it has placed on the Islamic Republic. The threat, which came from Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, raises the stakes as Tehran and Washington explore ways to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration left in 2018. Since then, the US has piled on more sanctions while Iran has breached limits on uranium enrichment. Now both sides are deadlocked over who should climb down first: Iran says the US has to drop sanctions, while Washington insists Tehran resume compliance with the original deal again before that can happen. Iran has for years officially, if not totally convincingly, denied that its nuclear program is for military use — but "if a cat is cornered," Alavi warned, "it may show a kind of behavior that a free cat would not." We were disappointed to learn that Mr Alavi passed up the opportunity to make this statement while using a cat filter on Zoom.
It's been four days since Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, died in a hail of bullets on a highway near Tehran. Iran has plausibly blamed Israel for the killing, but more than that, not much is known credibly or in detail.
This is hardly the first time that an Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated in an operation that has a whiff of Mossad about it. But Fakhrizadeh's prominence — he is widely regarded as the father of the Iranian nuclear program — as well as the timing of the killing, just six weeks from the inauguration of a new American president, make it a particularly big deal. Not least because an operation this sensitive would almost certainly have required a US sign-off.
For Iran, 2020 opened with two loud bangs. On January 2, a US airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump killed General Qassem Soleimani, leader of an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, some say, the second most powerful man in Iran. Fearing a broader US attack, Iran's air defenses went on high alert, and someone with an itchy trigger finger accidently brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran's airport, killing all 176 people on board, most of them Iranian nationals.
Then COVID hit. In February, Iran became the world's first COVID hotspot outside China. The unwillingness of Iran's leaders to admit they had a problem and take aggressive action to contain the virus made matters worse. A second wave of the virus began in June, and a third wave may now be under way. State officials say that some 21,000 Iranians have died. The true number is probably much higher. In August, state television admitted that COVID kills one person every seven minutes in Iran.
And today, we're taking our Red Pen to an open letter titled "No, Now Is Not the Time for Another Russia Reset." It was published in Politico and signed by 33 foreign policy experts, including diplomats Bill Taylor and Kurt Volker, who both testified at the impeachment hearings, as well as a bunch of military intelligence and diplomatic figures. And as it turned out, actually, we were Red Penned here, because it's a response to this piece, also in Politico recently, that I cosigned with a different group of Russia experts, including Fiona Hill and Jon Huntsman.
UK ends ban on Saudi arms sales: The UK is ready to resume weapons exports to Saudi Arabia after a one-year moratorium. In June 2019, a British court ruled that those sales were unlawful if the arms would later be used against civilians in Yemen, where the Saudi military has been fighting Houthi rebel forces since 2015. The UK government said it is now confident that the Saudis will not use British-made weapons in Yemen in any way that violates international humanitarian law. The decision to end the ban has raised ethical concerns about the UK's involvement in this war, where thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed by Saudi strikes. Prior to the ban, the UK was the second top arms seller to Saudi Arabia after the US. Meanwhile, the war in Yemen — considered the world's worst humanitarian crisis right now — continues this week with a fresh Saudi campaign against the Houthis, following a short-lived ceasefire due to the coronavirus pandemic.
What We're Watching: A big blast hits Iran, Serbia and Kosovo sit down again, Dominican Republic has a new president
Iran's main nuclear site gets hit: An explosion at the Natanz nuclear site, Iran's main nuclear facility, will likely set back Tehran's nuclear program by months, the Islamic Republic confirmed Sunday. A powerful bomb evidently destroyed infrastructure that Iran has used in recent years to build more advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium — fuel that can be used to make an atomic bomb. The attack has been widely attributed to Israel, though the Israeli government rarely acknowledges actions carried out by its intelligence agencies. Since President Trump walked away from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, isolating the US from its European allies, Iran has flouted its own commitments by ramping up its production of enriched uranium and blocking international inspectors from key nuclear facilities. Now, analysts warn that this latest episode could push Iran to move more of its enrichment programs in harder-to-find places underground.
In a world wracked by pandemic, rising sea levels, and the scourge of cyber-attacks, it's easy to forget that there are still weapons out there that can kill hundreds of millions of people in less time than it takes you to read this article.
Why are we talking about nuclear arms control in 2020? After all, the Cold War ended 30 years ago, and few are old enough to remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seems almost quaint to worry about nuclear weapons, or to imagine the crippling impact that Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy" campaign spot had on his rival Barry Goldwater in 1964.