By H Rastgoo
November 19, 2019
On the first anniversary of the return of United States’ sanctions against Tehran, the Islamic Republic announced that it was restarting uranium enrichment at its Fordo facility located 32 kilometers northeast of the Iranian city of Qom.
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), finalized in 2015, Fordo’s 1044 centrifuges were to be used for “purposes other than enrichment.” But Iran has announced that 696 Fordo-based centrifuges will be used for enrichment, in contravention of the JCPOA.
In response to the Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal on May 8, 2018 and the re-imposition of US economic sanctions on November 4, 2018, Iran has reduced its commitment to the nuclear deal in four consecutive stages. After taking the third step, the Iranian government had clearly announced it would further reduce its commitments, but very few analysts could have imagined that next step would be such a radical move. The Fordo facility is especially important because it is built 90 kilometers underground, below a solid rock surface that no conventional bomb can penetrate.
Given Iran’s recent decision, the important question that emerges on the first anniversary of the re-imposition of US sanctions is whether or not Iranian officials have decided to leave the JCPOA since the deal continues not to bear any economic fruits for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The JCPOA-Skeptic Stance
Iran’s recent decision to resume uranium enrichment at Fordo is in line with the position of those powerful politicians who say the Islamic Republic must continue its nuclear activities regardless of the terms and conditions of the JCPOA. These politicians suggest that Tehran will not be able to compromise with the West over the issue of sanctions, and must therefore not count on any deal with the West, including a nuclear deal.
Some of the above-mentioned assertions may be made as a way of frightening world powers and encouraging them to grant more concessions to Iran at the negotiating table. On the other hand, many Iranian officials have never believed in the usefulness of any effort to reduce tensions with the United States and its allies. The latter group has become more pessimistic about such efforts since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA.
The positions taken by Ayatollah Khamenei in recent months appear to reflect his tendency toward the gradual departure from the “useless” nuclear deal, although one might dispute whether his real intention is actually to leave the JCPOA or to frighten European powers so that they grant more concessions to Iran.
Examples of this approach include the Leader’s remarks on October 2 while speaking to Revolutionary Guards commanders. He said: “in the nuclear issue, we will continue to reduce our commitments and we must continue this move with seriousness … until we reach the desired outcome.” This stance led to the resumption of uranium enrichment at Fordo facility on November 6.
Of course, there is no certainty that Ayatollah Khamenei’s “desired outcome” is mass-scale enrichment of uranium or getting economic concessions from the European Union. But the date when the Leader made this statement was quite significant: the statement came just a week after the UK, France and Germany had warned Iran that if Tehran continued reducing its commitments to the JCPOA, European powers might withdraw from the nuclear deal. As a result, Khamenei’s remarks apparently indicated the extent to which he was dedicated to follow through on his JCPOA-skeptic approach.
On the other hand, recent attacks in the Persian Gulf might also be connected to specific forces in Iran who disagree with the Rouhani administration’s compromise-seeking approach toward the West. The most controversial of these was the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Although Iran denied involvement in the attacks and the Houthi forces in Yemen claimed responsibility for them, it was very difficult to suggest the attacks were carried out without Iranian involvement. Because although there are disagreements on the extent to which Yemeni military operations are coordinated with Tehran, it was unlikely that Houthi forces could handle the very complicated attacks of September 14 — which led to the temporary suspension of half of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports — without the assistance and consent of the Revolutionary Guards.
The operation came at a time when the chances for direct talks between Trump and Rouhani substantially increased — on the eve of the UN general assembly’s session in New York, and four days after Donald Trump dismissed John Bolton, the president’s National Security Adviser at the time, who was opposed to Trump’s plan to hold a face-to-face meeting with Rouhani.
According to some Iranian analysts, the timing of the September 14 attacks shows how far some anti-American forces, in particular the Revolutionary Guards, might be prepared to go in order to prevent a possible compromise between Iranian and American officials.
Following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the most common approach among Iranian officials has been maintaining the status quo until a possible change in circumstances. These officials do not consider it possible or useful to negotiate with the Trump administration and, on the other hand, they try not to make the current situation worse by leaving the JCPOA.
Many Iranian government advocates for maintaining the status quo hope that Donald Trump will not be re-elected as US president. This is reflected in decisions such as Iran remaining in the JCPOA in the year and a half following the US withdrawal from the agreement. This has happened despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s earlier repeated warnings that should Washington withdraw from the nuclear deal, Iran would leave the agreement (in a famous speech given on June 14, 2016 before the US presidential election, he even said if Americans leave the JCPOA, Iran will “burn” it).
A year-long failure to ratify two bills to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism is another example of Iranian officials’ tendency to maintain the status quo without taking major decisions to change the existing situation. The EU has demanded that Tehran ratify the two bills to facilitate some minimum transactions between Iran and Europe, but Iranian officials are pessimistic about the actual effect of the bills on such transactions. The final decision on the legislation is up to the Expediency Discernment Council, an Iranian government decision-making body that operates under the Leader’s supervision. However, over the course of the last year, the Expediency Discernment Council has neither ratified nor rejected the bills. During this period, the Leader, too, has not assumed responsibility to advise (order) the council to take any particular decision about the bills.
On the other hand, a different group of Iranian politicians suggest that Tehran must directly negotiate with the current US president. Most of those who believe this idea would be beneficial point to the unprecedented impact of US-imposed sanctions on Iran’s economy to justify an urgent need to negotiate. Some advocates for negotiations with the Trump administration, meanwhile, believe that the current US president, despite tough sanctions, is quite eager to hold direct talks with Iranian leaders ahead of the upcoming presidential election. They conclude that if these talks take place, Trump will be ready to grant Tehran considerable concessions.
What has reinforced such a view is the fact that Donald Trump has repeatedly declared his intention to negotiate with Tehran. For example, on July 30, 2018, he said he would be willing to meet with Hassan Rouhani “anytime” with “no preconditions”; on May 9, 2019 he asked Iranian officials to call him, adding that “we don’t want them to have nuclear weapons — not much to ask.” In another important statement on May 27, 2019, Trump declared that Iran “has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership,” and emphasized: “We aren’t looking for regime change; I just want to make that clear. We are looking for no nuclear weapons.”
There are indications that some politicians in Tehran might have considered President Trump’s calls for negotiations. President Rouhani seems to be one of them. On August 26, on the eve of his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting, Rouhani said: “if I know that going to a meeting and meeting with someone will make my country prosperous and will solve people’s problems, I will not hesitate.” On October 14, the Iranian president even emphasized: “Whenever I am assured that a session or meeting will serve the interests of the Iranian people, and a burden is lifted from the people’s shoulders, I am ready [to do so].” In a clear reference to domestic political costs of such a meeting, he added: “I am ready to sacrifice myself in this way.”
Such remarks have met with strong backlash from the Leader’s appointees, who have warned Hassan Rouhani about the grave consequences of his stance. However, the fact that Rouhani has made such suggestions publicly stating that he is “ready to sacrifice himself in this way” probably reflects the intensity of discussions that have been going on in the Iranian government’s inner circle about possible negotiations with the United States.
Which Direction Will the Leader Take?
Until now, it would appear that the Supreme Leader has mostly preferred to maintain the status quo rather than to take radical decisions with respect to the nuclear agreement. This approach has been visible in his hesitation in making decisive moves on certain sensitive issues —for instance, his year-long delay in rejecting or approving anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism bills at the Expediency Discernment Council. However, the impact of US economic sanctions has gradually made it more difficult to continue the current situation. For example, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran’s economy may shrink by 9.5% this year, which is worse than the situation for all pre-JCPOA years when Iran was under the toughest US, EU and Security Council sanctions. In addition, the current level of Iranian oil exports is below 400,000 barrels per day, while in the worst year of the country’s pre-JCPOA oil embargo in 2012 Iran exported around 1 million barrels per day.
Under such circumstances, Ayatollah Khamenei, despite repeated and severe rejection of any negotiation with the United States, has sometimes taken specific positions that implicitly seem to have authorized conditional negotiations with the Americans. For example, on September 17, he said that “if the US… implements the nuclear deal from which they have withdrawn, then the US can also take part in negotiations between Iran and the countries that are part of this deal.”
On the other hand, the Leader has, at times, favored a quite different option; i.e., Iran’s gradual move toward leaving the JCPOA. For example, on October 2, he emphasized that Iran must continue reducing the implementation of its commitment under the nuclear deal — despite Europe’s earlier warning that the European powers would withdraw from the JCPOA if Iran continued to reduce the implementation of its commitments.
In all these cases the main variable of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decisions has apparently been the prospect of the Islamic Republic’s taking advantage of the JCPOA’s economic benefits. It is perceivable that this prospect will continue to be the key factor in the Leader’s future decisions on the nuclear agreement.
At the end of the day, if the Leader is optimistic that Tehran can successfully bypass the sanctions and access the minimum income needed to cover the Islamic Republic’s strategic expenses, his favored choice might still be to maintain the status quo.
On the other hand, if Ayatollah Khamenei’s hopes dampen regarding Iran’s ability to effectively bypass sanctions, and the US government offers big economic concessions to Tehran, the Leader might give the green light to the Rouhani administration to negotiate with the United States.
Finally, if the Leader’s hopes dampen regarding Iran’s ability to effectively bypass sanctions but he is convinced that the US government is not prepared to make any concessions with regards to the sanctions, he may consider the riskiest option, which is leaving the JCPOA.
Given the fundamental impacts of this risky option on the Iranian economy, the only justification for it might be moving toward uranium enrichment as quickly as possible, so that the West’s concerns over Iran obtaining the capability of making nuclear weapons lead them to grant substantial economic concessions.