Will Iran have a nuclear bomb? – Foreign and security policy


As of Monday, negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program will resume in Vienna. This is good news, although success is by no means guaranteed. After a five-month hiatus in talks surrounding the change of government in Tehran, the first task is to find common ground again.

Three central points oppose a compromise that would severely limit Iran’s nuclear program again in exchange for the lifting of numerous US sanctions. First, Washington is apparently unwilling to give the co-signatories binding guarantees that after its exit in 2018 it will now abide by the 2015 Vienna nuclear deal. Second, Iran has made huge strides in securing it. uranium enrichment meanwhile. The country is now technologically on the verge of possessing a nuclear bomb, which is of great concern to all of its neighborhood – the Arab States as well as Israel. Third, the geopolitical balance of power in the region and beyond has shifted, making cooperation on the nuclear issue increasingly difficult. Apart from Russia as a security actor on the ground, this is notably the case of the global rivalry between the two superpowers China and the USA, which rubs off on the management of conflicts around Iran.

Two reluctant parties

Joe Biden had already announced during his 2020 election campaign that he intended to return to the Vienna Accord, which his predecessor had repealed and to which Iran was no longer bound either. However, all those who expected a quick resumption of talks, ideally ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June 2021, remained disappointed. Instead of preparing a negotiating offer to Iran, the Biden administration continued the previous administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” almost unchanged.

Likewise, the administration has so far failed to provide details on how it envisions the “longer and stronger” deal it is supposed to seek, let alone what it would do if the negotiations failed. Ultimately, the United States has so far reportedly refused to assure Iran that it will abide by the deal at least until the end of the current presidency.

A year after the United States withdrew from the agreement, Iran has started to ignore the agreed restrictions.

While Washington’s trajectory sometimes seems blurry, what is troubling about Tehran’s strategy is precisely its alleged clarity: a year after the United States withdrew from the deal, Iran has started to ignore the restrictions. agreed. Since then, the country has slowly but surely come closer to the bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), responsible for monitoring the agreement still in force, but increasingly hampered in its work by Iran, regularly sounds the alarm in the face of these advances. High-ranking delegations from the UN agency have already visited Tehran several times this year to provide at least basic monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities. Because without this knowledge – for example on the production of advanced centrifuges or the verification of suspicious traces of radioactivity outside the monitored facilities – the international community can hardly get an idea of ​​the country’s nuclear infrastructure.

A neighborhood under pressure

Such a review is necessary not only for a possible new or revised deal, but also for a realistic – rather than alarmist – assessment of Iranian activities by neighboring countries. The nuclear confrontation has long since reached the other side of the Persian Gulf, reinforcing the decades-long Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional domination. Riyadh has made it clear that he will not back down from his rival on any issue: if Iran enriches uranium, Saudi Arabia intends to do the same. The same goes for building a nuclear bomb.

The neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE) is politically more reserved, but technologically already ahead. While Saudi Arabia has so far failed to advance its national nuclear power projects, the first commercially operated nuclear reactor in the Arab world has been operating in Abu Dhabi since late 2020. The UAE has agreed to major international non-proliferation restrictions for this. Riyadh, on the other hand, continues to try to bypass them. The nuclear arms race in the region, which was already taking center stage in previous negotiations between 2003 and 2015, is now within reach. The renewed restriction on the Iranian program would at least reduce the – self-generated – pressure from Arab neighbors to catch up on nuclear technology.

Change of dynamics

Ultimately, however, the negotiating dynamic between regional and world powers has also changed in recent years. The increasing focus of the United States on confrontation with China has led to a gradual but noticeable withdrawal of Americans from the region. This has been particularly felt by Arab allies in recent years when Washington failed to come to their aid after multiple attacks on their own oil infrastructure, which was attributed to Iran.

States like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia are engaged in direct talks with Tehran to reduce tensions in the region.

To offset the threat of weakening US protection, some Gulf states are now pursuing a dual strategy. On the one hand, they have stepped up their cooperation with Israel, with whom they share concerns about Iran’s rise to power in the region. With the 2020 Abrahamic Accords, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the third and fourth Arab states to recognize Israel. At the same time, states like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia are engaged in direct talks with Tehran to reduce tensions in the region. This security policy approach towards Iran is a sign that its strategy has worked: to show its neighbors that they will not be safe as long as Tehran feels threatened.

Meanwhile, through years of cooperation with Iran and Israel in the Syrian civil war, Russia has also become a player with its own security interests in the region. China, in turn, skillfully links the existing tension in Southeast Asia to the nuclear issue. Referring to the AUKUS alliance recently concluded between the United States, Great Britain and Australia, Beijing accuses the American and British negotiating partners of having double standards. Indeed, AUKUS provides for the sale of nuclear-powered submarines from the United States to Australia, including the associated transfer of certain nuclear technologies. Yet this is precisely what Iran is supposed to be deprived of.

Is it worth going back to the negotiating table?

In this context, it will not be easy to bring the world powers to an agreement in Vienna. The situation is made worse by the fact that the United States is only allowed to participate indirectly, as it is no longer part of the agreement – a condition imposed by Iran for the resumption of negotiations. Even the simple return to the original agreement is now seen as delicate because of Iranian progress and the imponderables of American politics.

So, is it even worth going back to the negotiating table? Certainly. An interim deal, for example, could ease tensions and lay the groundwork for broader negotiations by first limiting uranium enrichment and allowing the IAEA to resume full surveillance. In return, countries like the US and UK would release frozen Iranian assets. This has a faster and more targeted effect than the complicated and lengthy lifting of US sanctions. But even such an intermediate step presupposes the political will of all parties to reach an agreement. Only then can the “spirit of Vienna”, which feeds on the summit meetings during the Cold War as well as the conclusion of the negotiations there in 2015, contribute to success.


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