Analysis

Iran Seeks to Fill a Middle East Power Vacuum

The United States and Israel worry the “Afghanistan effect” allows Tehran to covertly pursue nuclear capability.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi remotely addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi remotely addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21. EDUARDO MUNOZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

New Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian made his debut on the international stage last week, and his remarks at the United Nations struck observers as self-assured to the point of cockiness. Both U.S. and international sources point to his government’s emerging belief that, for the first time in years, it holds the upper hand in the Middle East—and that it is intent on making Iran a so-called nuclear threshold state under the cover of continued talks with the West.

The Biden administration said it is still hoping for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, but privately, senior U.S. officials fear Iran is already moving to a “Plan B”: stringing out negotiations while it positions itself for a nuclear weapon’s swift breakout.

This dire outcome comes after U.S. President Joe Biden’s hurried pullout from Afghanistan and the ensuing Taliban takeover, which signaled to U.S. adversaries and allies alike Biden’s eagerness to withdraw from the region to focus on the China threat. Some call it the “Afghanistan effect,” and it seriously damaged U.S. credibility in the Middle East. 

New Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian made his debut on the international stage last week, and his remarks at the United Nations struck observers as self-assured to the point of cockiness. Both U.S. and international sources point to his government’s emerging belief that, for the first time in years, it holds the upper hand in the Middle East—and that it is intent on making Iran a so-called nuclear threshold state under the cover of continued talks with the West.

The Biden administration said it is still hoping for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, but privately, senior U.S. officials fear Iran is already moving to a “Plan B”: stringing out negotiations while it positions itself for a nuclear weapon’s swift breakout.

This dire outcome comes after U.S. President Joe Biden’s hurried pullout from Afghanistan and the ensuing Taliban takeover, which signaled to U.S. adversaries and allies alike Biden’s eagerness to withdraw from the region to focus on the China threat. Some call it the “Afghanistan effect,” and it seriously damaged U.S. credibility in the Middle East. 

“The Iranians are clearly not afraid of us any longer,” said longtime U.S. Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross. “That in itself means we really don’t have the level of deterrence we need, whether on the nuclear issue or in the region.” Ross and others described this as an ironic reversal of the international pressure campaign on Iran that prevailed before former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. Under that agreement, Tehran agreed to curb uranium enrichment and submit to U.N. inspections in return for sanctions relief.

“Iran has now adopted a kind of maximum pressure approach on the United States. It is [adopting] a Trumpian approach toward us, with the expectation that we will concede,” Ross said.

In 2018, with the enthusiastic support of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump pulled out of what he called a “horrible” deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear pact is known. Trump then imposed what U.S. officials called his “maximum pressure” campaign, including a slew of new sanctions, to bring Tehran back to the table. That effort failed completely, and Netanyahu proved wrong in betting that Iran would either collapse under the sanctions’ pressure or Trump would be forced to attack Iran militarily.

Now Iran is closer to a nuclear bomb than it has ever been, according to assessments from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other experts. Some experts now believe Tehran could be only a month away from having enough fissile material, or weapons-grade uranium, to build a single bomb. 

On Monday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan flew to Saudi Arabia to address the ongoing war in Yemen between Iranian and Saudi proxies, signaling that Washington intended to stay engaged in the region. But Saudi officials are paying more attention to U.S. actions—such as Biden’s withdrawal of Patriot missiles and fighter jets from Saudi soil—which, to them, indicate mainly a U.S. retreat, said Ross and other experts. Moreover, Riyadh has long indicated that Saudi Arabia is likely to build its own nuclear capability if Iran gets close.

The Biden administration, by sending mixed and unclear signals about what its nuclear red lines are, may be laying the groundwork for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is precisely what the JCPOA was meant to prevent. 

Whether or not Tehran will get to the point where it openly builds a nuclear weapon, the greater concern is that, somewhat like Japan, it will have the know-how and enriched uranium to build one very quickly. Even that outcome, known as threshold status, would change the balance of power in the region dramatically. Despite regular declarations by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon, many experts believe threshold status is the very least he will settle for.

“It will be part of Khamenei’s legacy, a manifestation of the Islamic revolution’s haybat, or ‘invincible awe,’” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and expert on Iran. “After Afghanistan and his ending the ‘forever wars’ rhetoric, it’s really not credible to imagine Biden using military force against the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis might.”

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. … Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.”

But the Israelis, like the Saudis and other U.S. allies like the United Arab Emirates, are deeply worried they are not getting much more than words of assurance from Washington. “There is a lot of concern about what happened in Afghanistan, and it’s quite clear to the Israelis that America’s priorities now are China, COVID, and climate. Iran is not one of the top three,” said Amos Harel, a national security columnist with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

And despite Netanyahu’s harsh rhetoric, he did not fully prepare the Israeli military for an attack on Iran, Harel said in an interview. As a result, Israeli security experts are hurriedly discussing new options, including additional sabotage efforts like the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. In a column earlier this month in another Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, former Israel Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel must reckon with the strategic reality that Iran may already be a threshold state. 

“The biggest factor stiffening Iran’s spine is that the regime believes that not only did it survive maximum pressure and outlive the Trump administration, but that such crippling penalties and political pressure will not be coming back anytime soon,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank. 

Amir-Abdollahian and hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi have said Tehran is ready to return to JCPOA talks in Vienna, which could resume later this month. “We are reviewing the Vienna negotiations files currently and, very soon, Iran’s negotiations with the ‘four plus one’ countries will recommence,” Amir-Abdollahian said. That was a reference to negotiations between Iran on one hand and Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia on the other. Since Trump’s withdrawal from the pact, Tehran has refused to negotiate directly with Washington. 

But several diplomats connected to the talks said they believe Iran is mainly seeking to draw out the talks while it edges closer to its breakout point—obtaining enough enriched uranium for a bomb. When asked if Washington had a Plan B if the Vienna talks fail, a top U.S. official said, “The ‘Plan B’ we are concerned about is the one Iran may be contemplating where they want to continue their nuclear program.”

The only hope now, longtime Middle East observers said, may be for the United States and Western nations to adopt a resolution of censure at the IAEA Board of Governors and seek to refer Iran’s defiance of the JCPOA to the U.N. Security Council. But the Western consensus has been fraying, with France angry at Washington over its role in breaching a nuclear sub deal with Australia and Germany in the middle of a leadership battle over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor.

Iran’s newfound confidence is also bolstered by a sense that other major nations that once joined the U.S.-led alliance are peeling away. This is especially true of China, which has indicated it is ready to do business with Tehran again, having resumed petroleum purchases from Iran. Tehran has also resumed sending fuel to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon through war-torn Syria. And in only the last several days, Beijing acceded to Tehran’s request to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an Eurasian alliance dominated by China and Russia that also includes India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. 

“The Iranians are confident time is on their side, and U.S. leverage has peaked,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group. “When talks resume, they will come to them believing that the West will have no alternative to accepting their demands about lifting sanctions.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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