On 1 November The Wall Street Journal reported on a Saudi intelligence assessment that Iran was preparing for a military attack. The motive, according to the assessment, was partly to divert attention from the widespread protests across Iran, some of the most intense and long-lasting in years.
The US and some Gulf states raised their military alert levels, but nothing came of the Saudi concern. However, it does raise the question of whether there is an increasing risk of a confrontation, stemming from the complex interrelationships in the region in the context of parallel political developments.
For example, in Washington, the Biden administration is still attempting to restore the nuclear deal with Iran that was ditched by Donald Trump four years ago, while Iran has been developing its missile capabilities and supplying Russia with armed drones. And Israel has elected a far-right Parliament that includes religious fundamentalists, who will have an influence on Israeli politics that has not been seen in decades.
As to the nuclear agreement itself, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a multi-state deal made in 2015 during the Obama administration. It limited Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in return for some sanctions relief and was considered a useful if incomplete deal. Then came Trump, who withdrew from it in May 2018, and also imposed further sanctions intended to make it difficult for a successor to reverse the process.
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Since then, the Tehran regime has pursued a twin-track response of drawing closer to Russia, especially by supplying drones used in the current war in Ukraine, while eroding its previous commitments to the JCPOA almost to breaking point. These commitments revolved around the low level of uranium enrichment Iran was allowed to undertake and the amount of enriched uranium it could stockpile.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that two months ago Iran already had a stockpile of 55.6 kg of uranium enriched to the high level of 60% and was also increasing its enrichment capabilities so that further enrichment could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb within three to four weeks. The JCPOA deal was rooted in limiting that theoretical ‘breakout period’ to a year, so Iran has essentially bypassed that. But if it is accused of breaching the JCPOA, it can simply reply that Washington ditched the deal in the first place, not Tehran.
Having the weapons-grade material is not the same as producing a bomb, which might take months, but it does make it very difficult to restore the JCPOA, to the extent that the Biden administration may now be merely going through the motions in the continuing, if intermittent, JCPOA talks.