Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the US-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD) where he focuses on Iranian security and political issues, addressed the question “Iran: Is There a Plan B?” at the latest Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) webinar.
Ben Taleblu noted there has been talk of a Plan B as a result of high-level Israel-US talks, but one person’s Plan B is not another’s, with the US Administration keen on de-escalation and pivoting away from the Middle East, while Iran’s hardline regime is interested in escalation and making it look like the US was kicked out.
Iran, he said, feels it has the advantage in risk-taking. The Biden Administration strategy has been indirect diplomacy – talking about strengthening the JCPOA nuclear deal, but taking steps favourable to Iran, such as delisting the Houthis as terrorists, and distancing itself from the Saudis.
At the same time, he added, the Administration developed a pattern of response to violent provocation that actually led to more Iranian violence, and turned a blind eye to growing illicit Iranian oil exports, especially to China, which allowed the regime to stay afloat and remain intransigent in JCPOA negotiations.
Iran, he said, is comfortable that no Plan B will materialise, given that, since April the US has dropped all talk of an improved JCPOA and shown desperation for a deal, only slightly tightening oil sanctions in response to Iranian provocations. The Iranian regime is now inclined to take more risks, having even avoided censure at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such censure would be the first step toward creating real pressure, such as snapping back sanctions, he said.
Ben Taleblu said Biden seemingly believes that imposing pressure will close the door on diplomacy, suggesting he has not learnt the lessons of the much tougher UN resolutions in 2010 – 2013. Iran is therefore creating crises to test the international community’s will, blocking access for inspectors to nuclear sites, refusing to answer questions about previous nuclear work, harassing inspectors, and seeing how far it can push before the international community defends the IAEA.
“The regime is just doubling down on violation after violation, gross action after gross action because it knows many of these things will come off scot-free… as the regime is doing this, it actually is building out more and more capability,” he said.
Noting that Iran has escalated its nuclear program – enriching uranium to 20% and then 60%, which is close to weapons-grade, advancing its centrifuges and producing uranium metal, which has no civilian use – he said, “the Islamic Republic of Iran has been making irreversible nuclear gains… at the same time that the Administration in Washington continues to talk about a closing window, a closing door, a diminishing runway, ending patience.”
He added that every time the US talks like that but acts inconsistently, the Iranians are incentivised to escalate further. Meanwhile, Israel and others in the region are coming to understand that Iran is not just bargaining, but intending to evict the US from the region and continue advancing its nuclear program.
It is, he warned, now stockpiling enriched uranium, and its constant touting of its nuclear facts on the ground is designed to pressure the US and its partners.
It is now not only providing weapons to its terror proxies, like Hamas but teaching them to manufacture armaments, so is pursuing its military aims in forcing the US out of the region and for beyond then.
He noted an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander had recently told Hezbollah media that the day former IRGC leader Qassem Soleimani had been killed, Iran made a pact to evict America from the region.
Ben Taleblu added that Iran’s moves have long been aimed at forcing the US and other countries out of the region, so Iran’s regional adversaries lose their backing and Iran has an easier pathway towards hegemony.
He noted that the IAEA has plainly set out how far Iran’s nuclear program has advanced, even though it’s had incomplete information due to Iran’s non-compliance with its obligations to provide information, allow inspections, and allow cameras monitoring nuclear sites to be maintained and footage to be retrieved. Yet the US and its allies have refrained from bringing censure resolutions to three consecutive quarterly IAEA Board meetings.
There is also the question of whether Iran has undeclared nuclear sites. So, he said, there is a “highly, highly, highly imperfect picture” of Iran’s current nuclear program, which Iran is intent on blurring further to pressure the international community into removing sanctions.
One ultimate fear, he said, is that a nuclear-armed or nuclear weapons-capable Iran would feel immune from counter-action, but there is also a real fear it may use a bomb. It originally had a program to produce five nuclear weapons, and only developed a civilian use rationale once it was caught, he noted.
Iran may now feel a US in retreat is no great threat. It always saw the JCPOA nuclear deal as only a delay.
“If it does more risk-tolerant things now, imagine the sorts of risks the regime will run when it feels it has the safety of a nuclear umbrella… and that is what I fear the most” he warned.
Iran, he said, won’t let the unrest in Lebanon escalate too much. Hezbollah fights for Iran in other countries and trains other Iranian proxies, and Iran uses Hezbollah as its conventional artillery, to threaten Israel if Israel attacks its nuclear program. It also wants Hezbollah, and Hamas, to continue fighting Israel so Israel never feels secure, and so it can continue to learn about how Israel fights.
He said protestors within Iran have changed from wanting reform to wanting a revolution, targeting the regime’s security and foreign policies. He expects it will one day come to a head, despite the regime’s violent suppression, as the chasm between the regime and its people is growing.
He is concerned about the US withdrawal from the Middle East, saying the US still needs to invest there, or Russia and China will fill the vacuum and empower US adversaries. Now the Saudis are talking to Iran, and Iran’s talking point is that, unlike the US, it doesn’t abandon its friends.
On what the US should do now, he said it’s a long way from even discussing a military option, but there is much room for improvement on informational operations, economics, financial sanctions and “the military card”.
He said it is not correct to try to resurrect the JCPOA, but if the US insists on doing so, it should at least commence diplomatic pressure, first censuring Iran at the IAEA and working with its European partners to start the process of snapping back sanctions, and then improve the JCPOA to include missiles and other matters, then work on economic pressure and at the same time continue the previous pace of sanctions on nuclear and non-nuclear threats. This should be used to crack down on Iran’s oil revenues.
The US should also, he added, talk to its regional partners about a regional approach, including expanding the Abraham Accords and other issues Iran has expressed concern about that make it feel surrounded.
Also, the US should never be afraid to do the right thing and stand up for the Iranian people against the regime. It should make sure Israel has a free hand in Syria, work with the Gulf States to make sure all US assets are protected, not withdraw from Iraq and have a wider Iraq policy than just fighting ISIS.
All this, he said, is absolute de minimis, and if even that is not done, it is proof there is no Plan B.
He said Australia if it doesn’t want to get ahead of the US on the nuclear issue, could develop a niche to focus on other issues such as Iran’s missiles and drones, as well as designate the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and shine a light on Iran’s hostage diplomacy.
Source » jwire