As Western officials contemplate strategic priorities for 2022, Tehran’s nuclear program ranks atop most security analyst’s lists of pressing global concerns.
For years, the regime’s foreign adversaries have failed to fully commit to measures that could have changed the regime’s calculus on the nuclear issue. Neither has the world taken the necessary steps to cut off the ayatollah’s ability to expand its clandestine weapons program.
Prior to the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States and its allies were at least keeping substantial, if less than comprehensive, economic pressure on the regime through a program of coordinated sanctions. That program was ill-advisedly interrupted with the nuclear agreement’s implementation, and although the U.S. halted compliance with the JCPOA in 2018, Iran continues to enjoy access to more financial resources than it once had at its disposal.
Few of those resources have gone to legitimate ends, and since halting its own compliance with the JCPOA soon after the American withdrawal, the Islamic Republic has expanded its nuclear program well beyond the ceiling it established prior to 2015.
According to Mohammad Eslami, the new head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country now has well over 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium, plus a smaller quantity of uranium enriched to 60% – dangerously close to weapons-grade levels.
Iran has also steadily worked to upgrade its array of enrichment centrifuges to raise the rate at which it can perform further enrichment. The advancements to its nuclear program have long since surpassed the thresholds which might have allowed Iranian officials to credibly claim that their goal is peaceful civilian use. Then again, some of these officials have all but acknowledged the regime’s true intentions.
Early in 2021, the Iranian Minister of Intelligence reminded state media that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had issued a fatwa supposedly banning nuclear weapons development, but then stated that the regime might pursue such development anyway.
Mahmoud Alavi’s statement revealed the essence of Tehran’s strategy of nuclear blackmail, declaring for the benefit of Western negotiators that “those who pushed Iran in those directions will be to blame” if the Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear-armed state.
To offer more concessions at this stage would be folly, but many advocates of the status quo nevertheless seem poised to make such concessions the outcome of ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna. Since negotiations resumed on November 29, Iranian officials have used the talks to demand that the U.S. lift all economic sanctions in their entirety – irrespective of whether they target the country’s nuclear program – before Iran even discusses the possibility of re-adopting restrictions that were ostensibly placed on its nuclear activities after 2015.
Although Western participants in the talks have dismissed this demand to date, they have also shown an excessive inclination towards diplomatic engagement with Iran’s leaders.
Before returning to Vienna, representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany signaled their shared recognition that the imposition of consequences on the Islamic Republic would be necessary if it insisted on delaying the process. But another month of delays has yet to result in consequences.
The Biden administration has declared that all options are on the table and has reportedly discussed options for military strikes if Iran’s nuclear capabilities cannot be reined in diplomatically. But there is little apparent political will for such drastic measures, and with good reason.
Few analysts see a military solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Nor does anybody who has studied the regime see unending negotiations or the re-introduction of sanctions alone as sufficient to curtail Tehran’s nuclear pursuits.
But Western officials would be naïve to think there are no credible alternatives to the regime’s belligerent clerical rulers, particularly when policymakers have overlooked the best prospect for change in Iran for the better part of four decades – the Iranian people themselves.
Since the end of 2017, the Islamic Republic has witnessed at least two countrywide uprisings and countless large-scale protests, including a mass boycott of the June 2021 election that brought President Ebrahim Raisi to power.
Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of Iran’s leading democratic alternative, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), predicted around that time that the Raisi era would be defined by an unprecedented increase in “hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society.” Reports of mass protests by workers, farmers, students, and others have borne out this prediction over the past several months.
The continued growth of that unrest represents a vital opportunity for coordination among Tehran’s foreign and domestic adversaries. It also represents the best chance for those foreign adversaries to compel Iran to abandon its efforts at projecting force around the world through malign activities, and to instead focus on the internal affairs that are threatening its very hold on power.
The PMOI/MEK, the largest and best organized opposition group in the NCRI, has long advocated for regime change at the hands of the Iranian people, but it has also regularly criticized Western officials for treating Iran’s theocratic dictatorship as an immovable fixture of the Middle East landscape.
On the eve of the New Year, the international community should resolve itself to address the Iranian nuclear threat once and for all by empowering Iran’s democratic Resistance and betting on the Iranian people to join a soft revolution by toppling the regime from within.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan