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A Struggle With Diplomacy—Iran’s Nuclear Programme

“I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”

―President Donald Trump, in a tweet from April 22, referring to recent altercations in the Persian Gulf.

Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, was assassinated in a United States drone strike on 3rd January 2020. Having been dubbed as the second most powerful man in Iran, Soleimani’s death led to Iranian retaliatory strikes against Iraqi bases that housed Americans and did little to alleviate the scare of a third World War. Months later, tensions have still not abated as Iran struggles to receive the support needed to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. Standing unharmed even in the face of a global pandemicthis tale of mutual antagonism has its origin in Iran’s endeavour to become a nuclear power.

A demonstration condemning the killing of Soleimani. (Credits: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Nuclear in Disguise

The gruesome eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s had exposed the country’s vulnerabilities, pushing Iran to develop new forms of chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry to fight back against the Iraqis and future aggressors. Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency and Iran’s biggest threat, was headed by Meir Dagan at the time, a man known for undertaking daring, ruthless operations. Yet, Iran had been building its nuclear might and Israel had no clue. Iran’s nuclear programme had been launched in a clandestine manner and a clever use of subterfuge kept the wolves at bay, but not for long.

With the fall of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989, Europe was flooded with rumours of Iran trying to contact nuclear scientists from the former country. Ex-Soviet scientists and army generals, possibly recruited by the Iranians, were disappearing without a trace. Intelligence revealed that Iran had agreements with Russia and China to build small nuclear reactors for energy. Using these reactors as smokescreens against the secret services, Iran had skillfully launched its mission to become a nuclear state with its own indigenous reactors. In addition to this, Iran became a major client of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who eventually came to be known as the ‘Merchant of Menace’. The Pakistani nuclear physicist had developed methods of converting natural uranium into the fissile substance needed for nuclear bombs by passing it through a cascade of centrifuges. He began manufacturing material and had been selling his methods, formulae, and centrifuges in return for huge sums of money.

A.Q. Khan was on the cover of the Time Magazine in 2005. He is said to have sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and stands as an icon of nuclear proliferation. (Credits: Time Magazine)

In the coming years, Iran built its nuclear research facilities in military bases, disguised laboratories, and other remote locations. At even slight hints that a mole might be on to them, the Iranians shifted these plants to other locations, sometimes even removing layers of the earth at their previous locations to remove traces of radioactive substances. They managed to mislead the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and convince its Chairman, who believed everything put before him, allowing them to continue with their plans. However, intelligence agencies had by then begun catching up and key individuals in Iran’s nuclear programme were soon being targeted.

Iran continued to play it cool even as scientists, identified as holding important positions in the nuclear program, were assassinated by external agencies. When Dr Ardashir Hosseinpour fell victim to radioactive poisoning by the Mossad in 2007, Iran brushed it off saying that he was just a renowned electromagnetic expert, even when later investigations proved that he worked at a secret installation in Isfahan. In 2010, Professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by an explosion when he tried to unlock his car. He was deeply involved in the secret nuclear programme that Iran had formulated.  With murder after murder, it was becoming increasingly apparent that foreign intelligence knew about Iran’s activities, yet the country continued to dub them as ‘accidental incidents’ and made no acknowledgements on a diplomatic level.

A Crumbling Facade

Things started to unravel as sources placed all over Iran started leaking out details of the mammoth project to the world. The CIA, MI6, and the Mossad were working togetherthe Mossad inside Iran, and the CIA and the MI6 helping the Israelis outside.

Despite Iran’s secrecy and persistent denial, the US saw the extent of Iran’s work when a Pakistani defector, who introduced himself as Dr Iftikhar Chaudhary, sought political asylum in New York back in 1998. He revealed details of Iran’s cooperation with certain other countries in the making of the reactor. His testimony, however, was in vain as the FBI buried the transcripts and the world had to wait for another four years before the truth was exposed.

In August 2002, a dissident underground group in Iran, the Mujahideen el Khalq (MEK), revealed the existence of two nuclear facilities in Arak and Natanz to the world media. They handed over evidence, including laptops and documents, to the CIA, along with other sensitive data in a periodic manner. The Mossad became an important source of information about Iran. Sabotage attacks carried out by the Mossad destroyed parts of various nuclear facilities located within Iran. The Times reported that the Mossad was also involved in the hijacking of a ship named ‘Arctic Sea’, and had successfully intercepted the shipment of uranium to Iran.

In 2010, a cyber-virus known as Stuxnet ravaged through computers in Iran, including thousands of those controlling the Iranian nuclear project. The virus was programmed to affect a particular system without causing any harm to other networks. Thus while typical government systems were unaffected, it was noted that the virus could modify the speed of centrifuges, often spinning them so fast that they could be torn apart. At that point in time, only two organisationsthe CIA and the Mossadhad the prowess to carry out attacks of such magnitude, but any question of their involvement was denied. As usual, Iran downplayed the incident, and by 2011, half of Iran’s centrifuges were immobilised and a fifth had been ruined.

An aerial view of Iran’s Natanz facility. Stuxnet stands to be one of the most vociferous examples of cyber-warfare that the world has seen to date. (Credits: Space Imaging/Inta SpaceTurk)

Repeated attacks did not fluster the Iranians as they built a completely new facility in Qom between 2005 and 2008, in utter secrecy. As calm as the Iranians seemed, they were getting increasingly nervous as confidential information kept being leaked to the world. Acknowledgements that there were well-placed moles and rebels, including defectors, who were giving away the secret were being made. By 2009, they realised that the intel agencies of the US and the UK already knew about the facility in Qom and reacted straight away. The country voluntarily informed the IAEA about the Qom installation, thus escaping the international condemnation that would have occurred had the US revealed its existence.

Non-Proliferation and America’s Withdrawal

Iran’s 1970 ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international agreement to curtail the development and spread of nuclear weaponry, was a source of complications. It meant little that Iran had become a republic only in 1979 and that decisions made earlier by the preceding monarchy did not reflect the ambitions of the government that would follow. The NPT meant that the IAEA was legally entitled to observe and verify the status of the country’s programme. Following the 2002 reveal of the Arak and Natanz sites, the IAEA launched an investigation into Iran’s facilities and ordered a suspension of enrichment efforts. For several more years, Iran’s processing facilities went in and out of service as disagreements arose from time to time. Found as non-compliant to the conditions laid down by the NPT, international pressure began to build on the country in numerous ways. Finally, an agreement was proposed in the form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would reduce the country’s quantity of enriched material and constrain its processing capacity for a period of 15 years.

Better known as the ‘Iran Deal’, the agreement soon became yet another arena of disagreement when the US, under Donald Trump, pulled out of the deal in 2018, with Trump stating that they would work with their allies to find a ‘real, comprehensive, and lasting solution’ to prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms. What followed was a barrage of American restrictions on matters pertaining to Iran. The US began pressurising its allies to reduce diplomatic ties with the country and cease trade with it entirely, leading to the agitations that formed the backdrop to Soleimani’s assassination.

Tensions had been bursting at the seams. World over, many were worried about what the attacks and retaliation could mean, whether a major war was coming and whether the world could bear the consequences that it would hold. However, in the midst of all the trouble, a civilian tragedy occurred.

The downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 serves as a reminder of the civilian casualties that accompany conflict. (Credits: Akbar Tavakoli/IRNA/AFP)

In January 2020, Iran’s attempts at complete retaliation to the US airstrikes were hampered by the incident of a plane crash. Anti-aircraft systems had inadvertently targeted an airliner and Iran tried denying the fact that one of their missiles hit a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 onboard. The country finally succumbed to international pressure and evidence, and tensions dissipated as talks of retaliation by Iran ceased.  The unprovoked civilian casualty saw nations step away from any kind of support towards Iran’s desire for diplomatic justice. Now as the coronavirus epidemic rages on, Iran has struggled to receive medical equipment and supplies to fight off the virus, with donors resorting to sanction workarounds to deliver supplies.

While Iran still reiterates that its nuclear programme is peaceful and consistent with people-friendly policies, the country’s poor track record with past nuclear agreements is one of many concerns. However, many question whether the sanctions held against the country have any real impact on the government’s authority. Hardline regimes have seldom collapsed under international pressure in the past, at least not before causing the widespread degradation of civilian life, and Iran’s regional influence has simply grown inspite of it. While sanctions harming the economy may weaken Iran’s overall military strength, it might just push the country even closer to nuclear weapons as a comprehensive means of deterrence against stronger powers.

Featured Image Credits: MWI