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As Iran approaches nuclear threshhold, US is running out of leverage

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As Iran approaches nuclear threshold, US is running out of leverage

Marco Carnelos

22 October 2021 11:35 UTC | Last update: 1 day 22 hours ago
The strategic balance has shifted dramatically in two years, as the US-led policy of punishing sanctions has failed to keep Tehran in check

President Ebrahim Raisi is pictured in Tehran on 18 October 2021 (Iranian Presidency/AFP)

As if by magic, intelligence analysts and diplomats have collectively gone into overdrive on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Institute for Science and International Security in September judged that Iran was about a month away from possessing enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, an assessment reportedly shared by US officials.
But the outgoing head of Israel’s military intelligence, Tamir Hayman, contended that Iran still had a long way to go before acquiring a nuclear bomb, bringing the clock back two years - an evaluation echoed by former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.
The Iranian leadership is not keen to be cheated again by another US withdrawal
While American analysts were focused on the highly enriched uranium required for a nuclear device, their Israeli counterparts were talking about a ready-to-use device, which requires more time. At the same time, the US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, recently said that the US and its allies must brace for a world in which Tehran “does not have constraints on its nuclear programme’’.
Iran with enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb is a game-changer - so much so that it has prompted two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, to question whether Israel should declare the status of its own nuclear programme. So far, Israel has neither confirmed nor denied possessing nuclear weapons. Barak argued that with Iran likely crossing the “point of no return”, Israel should review its posture, while Olmert stressed that such a step would only serve the Iranian position that it needs nuclear weapons to deter Israel.
Military option
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett does not believe that his country should change its policy of nuclear ambiguity, remaining committed to the “death by a thousand cuts” policy to bend the Islamic Republic. Bennett and other Israeli officials have visited Washington recently, but they do not seem to have gotten much from the US in terms of a potential Plan B - a credible and agreed-upon military option should nuclear talks fail definitively.
The bald truth is that Israel’s ability to dictate policy to the US has waned. In 2015, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt confident enough to address both houses of Congress, and he went on to successfully lobby for the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden meet in Washington on 27 August 2021 (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden meet in Washington on 27 August 2021 (AFP)
Now, Israeli leaders are clinging to semantics, parsing every inflection from top US officials for signs that policy is changing. In August, Biden told Bennett that if all diplomatic options were exhausted, the US would examine “other options”; last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken confirmed that “every option” would be considered.
In the diplomatic lexicon, terms such as “examine” and “consider” commit the speaker to very little. Washington is playing the same game on whether it is prepared to license a military strike on Iran as Israel is playing with respect to the existence of its military nuclear arsenal.
Over the last decade, the US and Israel have gone from insisting that Iran cannot enrich uranium, to seeing the Islamic Republic close to the nuclear threshold. The tragicomic aspect of this blunder is that the US and Israel inflicted it on themselves: the former by leaving the nuclear deal in 2018, and the latter by incessantly lobbying the Trump administration to this end.
Israel's dilemma
Israeli historian Benny Morris has effectively summarised Israel’s dilemma: either it destroys Iran’s nuclear facilities, or it will have to live with a nuclear Iran in the years to come.

It is unclear as to whether Israel has the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme. Even it if got bunker-buster bombs from the US, the outcome of such an attack would be uncertain, as would the response from Iran and its regional allies.

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Semantics aside, Washington does not appear willing to do this job for Israel. The Biden administration’s future hangs on two major spending bills stuck in Congress, and it is not concentrating on Middle Eastern geopolitics. And why would Biden pull the rug out from under the war in Afghanistan, which lasted two decades, only to start an even more risky intervention in Iran? It is hardly the best strategy for staying in the White House past 2024.
What is truly dismaying is that so many pundits - in Washington, Tel Aviv and elsewhere - continue to believe that sanctions will force Iran to comply. Biden had initially sought a reinforced nuclear deal accompanied by an Iranian commitment to curb its regional activities; unsurprisingly, Tehran rejected this, and instead demanded precise guarantees on US compliance - which Washington, apparently, is unable to provide.
The Iranian leadership is not keen to be cheated again by another US withdrawal. Restoring the deal at this juncture would be complex, but not impossible. The main problem, however, is that as time passes, the original deal appears less and less attractive to both sides.
Ignoring the tea leaves
The US and its European allies seem to believe that the conditions in place when nuclear talks launched a decade ago still remain in place today. At the time, the assumption was that Iran only came to the negotiating table because of sanctions pressure. In fact, Iran was only willing to talk after the Obama administration dropped the previous administration’s precondition that Tehran suspend its uranium enrichment prior to any dialogue.
Today, ironically, Iran is demanding that the US show it is serious in returning to the deal, such as by releasing $10bn in frozen assets.
The US and its European allies seem to believe that the conditions in place when nuclear talks launched a decade ago still remain in place today
A decade ago, Russia and China pressured Iran through internationally approved sanctions, which were effective. Today, the US is leading the sanctions battle alone, reluctantly followed by the Europeans due to secondary sanctions.
Moscow and Beijing do not seem keen to throw Tehran under the bus. Quite the opposite: Iran recently joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and signed a major economic agreement with China. Tehran believes it can weather US sanctions. So far, the US-led policy of maximum pressure has not prevailed; rather, it appears Iran is the one applying pressure by approaching the nuclear threshold.
In too many of the world’s capitals, the tea leaves have been read wrongly or not at all. In less than two years, the strategic balance has changed. As the Trump era came to an end in early 2020, the US assassinated Iran’s main strategist, Qassem Soleimani, while the Abraham Accords between Israel and some Arab states furthered Iran’s isolation.
Today, Biden is disengaging from Western Asia and focusing on the Indo-Pacific. Netanyahu is no longer in power, the Abraham Accords without Saudi ascendance may lose momentum, and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been in talks with Iran, whose own proxies are maintaining or reinforcing their grip in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. These are tectonic shifts. Perhaps the current world order should now prepare for Iran being a nuclear threshold state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Marco Carnelos
Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.


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Darius77

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nuclear Iran will negate the only advantage of nuclear Pakistan
Iran is already a nuclear armed state technically. It has enough enriched fissile material for several warheads and sophisticated delivery means. That is the primary reason the US and its little barking Zionist poodle were militarily not game to take on Iran. If they had Iran would have openly tested a nuclear weapon. Now it is too late as the Italian Ambassador has astutely observed, the regional and global power balance has shifted to Eurasia with China at the helm. Sanctions are self-defeating mechanism in the multi-polar world and hurt the deadbeat US economy more. Iran is a very rich country and a huge market with 84 million educated consumers, who have a wide choice of trading options. Even tiny isolated Cuba with barely 10 million people 90 miles off the coast of Florida did not buckle after 60 years of "sanctions", let alone Iran sitting on the global strategic power fault lines and the original Silk Route.
 

nahtanbob

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Iran is already a nuclear armed state technically. It has enough enriched fissile material for several warheads and sophisticated delivery means. That is the primary reason the US and its little barking Zionist poodle were militarily not game to take on Iran. If they had Iran would have openly tested a nuclear weapon. Now it is too late as the Italian Ambassador has astutely observed, the regional and global power balance has shifted to Eurasia with China at the helm. Sanctions are self-defeating mechanism in the multi-polar world and hurt the deadbeat US economy more. Iran is a very rich country and a huge market with 84 million educated consumers, who have a wide choice of trading options. Even tiny isolated Cuba with barely 10 million people 90 miles off the coast of Florida did not buckle after 60 years of "sanctions", let alone Iran sitting on the global strategic power fault lines and the original Silk Route.
the original silk route is irrelevant

there is a race to wean the world off fossil fuels
 

Darius77

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the original silk route is irrelevant
One Belt One Road Initiative, The Belt and Road Map & List & Impact

there is a race to wean the world off fossil fuels
The Silk Road is the most important initiative by China and Iran is the geographical key as a key node of transport. May I suggest you buy a map first. One Belt is the modern day continuation if the Silk Road. Iran has the most diversified and industrialized economy in the region that excels in technology, including nano-tech. Iran also graduates as many hard science and engineering grads than US, which has a population of 335 million.

Set To Take Over Tech: 70% Of Iran's Science And Engineering Students Are Women

What??? What are yiu smoking and can we all have some
The gentleman is confused and a product of failed US "education system" and simply is out of touch with reality.
 

waz

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nuclear Iran will negate the only advantage of nuclear Pakistan
It's Israel that will be worried. What's it got to do with Pakistan? The two nations have strong ties, and share historical, religious and cultural links.
Nice try to pit the two against each other, but you're not fooling anyone here.
 
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Enigma SIG

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the original silk route is irrelevant

there is a race to wean the world off fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are the only leverage the US has in the Middle East. OBOR is being laid down to serve the world sans USA when fossil fuels do become irrelevant.
 

Darius77

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It's Israel that will be worried. What's it got to do with Pakistan? The two nations have strong ties, and share historical, religious and cultural links.
Nice try to pit the two against each other, but you're not fooling anyone here.
The Zionist tactics of imperialist "divide and rule" may work on the Arab world, but there is less than zero chance of creating disharmony between Iran, Pakistan or Turkey. Two major Islamic nuclear powers in the region are better than one and also show maturing of the strategic framework in the new Eurasian power shift. Iran has also downgraded its ties with India and literally kicked it out of the Chah Bahar project which will be linked with CPEC. India has not made too many friends in the new hardline Iranian government by kissing US and Zionist a$$ and bringing in Zionist military advisors. During the latest visit by Major General Bagheri, Iran has pledged to open air bases at Chah Bahar, Birjand and Zahedan to both civilian and military Pakistani aircraft in case of a conflict with India. The defence cooperation strategic cooperation agreement agreed upon is much deeper than most realize. A very large number of Iranian pilots will train along with PAF counterparts.
 

waz

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The Zionist tactics of imperialist "divide and rule" may work on the Arab world, but there is less than zero chance of creating disharmony between Iran, Pakistan or Turkey. Two major Islamic nuclear powers in the region are better than one and also show maturing of the strategic framework in the new Eurasian power shift. Iran has also downgraded its ties with India and literally kicked it out of the Chah Bahar project which will be linked with CPEC. India has not made too many friends in the new hardline Iranian government by kissing US and Zionist a$$ and bringing in Zionist military advisors. During the latest visit by Major General Bagheri, Iran has pledged to open air bases at Chah Bahar, Birjand and Zahedan to both civilian and military Pakistani aircraft in case of a conflict with India. The defence cooperation strategic cooperation agreement agreed upon is much deeper than most realize. A very large number of Iranian pilots will train along with PAF counterparts.
Spot on, they would be overjoyed if two brotherly nations fight, as it kills two birds with one stone. The fact remains our leaders and collective people are not naive and have caught on to their game years ago. Both Pakistan/Iran have strong ties and will continue to grow stronger, and they're built upon on several thousand years of commonality, not some alliance forged decades ago, or a pact put together on the back of a piece of paper.
The recent visits by the Iranian chief, FM etc are all testament to how strong ties are, and much much more is going to come. Make the regions strong and move with the Eurasian alliance.
You're on the money regarding India, they're interest was only to hurt Pakistan, and we know how friendly they can be when they stabbed Iran in the back during the IAEA vote back in 2009. This was also under a more considerate secular government, not the crazed Hindu nationalists they have jumping around now in the corridors of power.

 

Darius77

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India has also stiffed Iran on oil payments and cancelling many contracts. They did not fulfill their Chah Bahar investment due to US masters pressure. Only the military front, India is totally subservient to US and Zionists and will only do their bidding. Major General Bagheri is Iran's foremost strategic planners and fully understands future military equations and India's cannon fodder spoiler role in the so-called QUAD and other anti-China and Islamophobic alliances. However, the Indian military of 2021 is a very ineffective low quality, low morale and unprofessional military, which like its Zionist masters has been repressing unarmed Kashmiris and killing children. India has deployed over half a million soldiers in Kashmir against a very lightly armed and small freedom movement at this stage, but even against them hardly made a dent and attacks on the Indian occupation forces are growing.

Most professional western analysis now even recognizes that India would lose both a conventional or nuclear war against Pakistan. The west is deluded, if they think that India is a counter to anything.
 

KaiserX

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India has also stiffed Iran on oil payments and cancelling many contracts. They did not fulfill their Chah Bahar investment due to US masters pressure. Only the military front, India is totally subservient to US and Zionists and will only do their bidding. Major General Bagheri is Iran's foremost strategic planners and fully understands future military equations and India's cannon fodder spoiler role in the so-called QUAD and other anti-China and Islamophobic alliances. However, the Indian military of 2021 is a very ineffective low quality, low morale and unprofessional military, which like its Zionist masters has been repressing unarmed Kashmiris and killing children. India has deployed over half a million soldiers in Kashmir against a very lightly armed and small freedom movement at this stage, but even against them hardly made a dent and attacks on the Indian occupation forces are growing.

Most professional western analysis now even recognizes that India would lose both a conventional or nuclear war against Pakistan. The west is deluded, if they think that India is a counter to anything.
You are spot on. Even in a conventional war, Indias defeat will be very swift and far less bloody than people here want to believe.
 

nahtanbob

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It's Israel that will be worried. What's it got to do with Pakistan? The two nations have strong ties, and share historical, religious and cultural links.
Nice try to pit the two against each other, but you're not fooling anyone here.
It is a nice try for a country that plays the Iran card to extract money from Gulf royals !!!
The amount of economic trade between Pakistan and Iran speaks for itself


Rhetoric aside Iran poses no direct threat to Israel. They do not share boundaries.
 

waz

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It is a nice try for a country that plays the Iran card to extract money from Gulf royals !!!
The amount of economic trade between Pakistan and Iran speaks for itself


Rhetoric aside Iran poses no direct threat to Israel. They do not share boundaries.
Pakistan doesn't play any 'Iran' card, nor does it extract money from the Gulf royals in order to do so. There was new a few months back of terms being extended on a loan from the UAE, yes you have to pay them back, like with the World Bank loan. The UAE now has strategic ties with India, and the Saudis give Modi a red carpet welcome. The wind has been sailing in that direction for quite a while now.
Pakistan/Iran trade will gain more ground.
I noted that you linked boundaries to threats and disputes. Well Pakistan and Iran have NEVER had any dispute, despite sharing a 596 mile border, which was also one of the most open, what does that tell you?
Also I'd ask you to stick to the topic, hard I know seeing as you are Indian American.
 
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