The nuclear issue, the Saudi Arabia-Iran situation

The nuclear issue is a matter of concern to the whole world, it has been in the past, it is today and it always will be.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of events that are causing alarm on the subject in question.
The spectre of the Saudi-Iranian Cold War is intensifying.
Saudi Arabia has for years been building its first reactor in King Abdulaziz’s “city of science and technology” for civilian energy purposes, but it has never officially sworn not to develop nuclear weapons.
In fact, according to the words pronounced in 2018 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman through a statement to the United States, he said: “No doubt if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow their example as soon as possible”.

This argument is related to the 20th-century theory according to which the possession of nuclear weapons acts as a deterrent against enemies who might use them against you.
However, the theory of deterrence has many critical points. Furthermore, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the name of “deterrence” has an even greater negative potential for the nations of the Middle East, given the factiousness and instability in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions date back at least to 2006 when the kingdom began to explore nuclear energy options in a joint programme with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. More recently, the Kingdom has combined its nuclear plans with Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” project to diversify the country’s economy from oil.
Nuclear energy, in the words of the Crown Prince, would allow the Kingdom to export the crude oil it currently consumes for domestic energy needs, generating more revenue for the state coffers. At the same time, this would allow the development of a new high-tech industry, thus creating employment.
As with most of the various nuclear projects, Saudi Arabia is lagging behind, but there is tangible evidence that the Saudis are pushing their nuclear agenda hard.
So what are the concerns about the project?
Firstly, there is no monitoring by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Satellite photos taken between March and May this year revealed that the Saudis have built a roof over the reactor. This development concerns nuclear experts in particular because Saudi Arabia has not yet invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the site and inspect the reactor project.
Saudi Arabia has signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which obliges the country to have a Global Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA. But these agreements do not allow IAEA inspectors to visit whenever they wish at short notice. This level of access is only granted when a country signs an additional protocol with the IAEA – which the United Arab Emirates have done, for example, while the Saudis have not yet signed. The government in Riyadh is not currently obliged to take this step, because it currently operates under a Small Quantity Protocol (SQP) which excludes states with nuclear ambitions from IAEA inspections.
Another very strong cause for concern is related to Iran, as it is known for certain that the country is working on the manufacture of nuclear warheads or nuclear weapons.
This therefore strongly encourages Saudi Arabia to act consequently, according to Mohammed bin Salman’s statements.

The Iranian nuclear situation
What happened in the last few weeks in Iran?
In recent weeks, a series of explosions have hit several sensitive and normally considered safe targets in Iran such as the missile production centre in Khojir and the nuclear enrichment centre in Natanz, Esfahan province.
The explosion that hit the Natanz nuclear plant seems to have had the most significant consequences. Satellite images revealed that the explosion destroyed three-quarters of the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC), a facility for the production of advanced centrifuges (IR-2m, IR-4, IR-6), which opened in 2018.
According to experts, the explosion could have been caused by an explosive placed inside the facility, near the gas pipelines. However, the hypothesis of a cyber attack that would have sabotaged the gas system causing the explosion cannot be ruled out.
The reconstruction of the building would take at least a year: this would, therefore, imply a significant slowdown of the nuclear program, which had resumed speed in recent months after the gradual and selective reduction of Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) in response to what Tehran considers an incorrect implementation of the agreement by the Europeans, under the blackmail of U.S. sanctions.
The Iranian authorities have claimed that the Natanz explosion is the work of “external enemies”.
The list of countries that would have an interest in carrying out actions such as this is a very long one, this list becomes shorter if we take into account the countries that have the real capacity. There are therefore only two countries: Israel and the United States.
Already in 2010, Tel Aviv and Washington were the main suspects of cyber attacks using Stuxnet malware, which had affected numerous Iranian infrastructures, including the Natanz nuclear power plant itself. Israel had also been considered the instigator of the targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
These actions date back to before the JCPOA and had the objective of slowing down Tehran’s nuclear program.

So what is the possible Iranian reaction?
The Iranian authorities have recognised the malicious nature of what happened in Natanz, accusing external enemies but not directly blaming anyone.
The Iranian leadership is currently facing the following dilemma: wait or answer?
In the first case, waiting and not giving any answer involves the risk of appearing weak but the prospects on the horizon could be interesting. These are related to the change of administration in Washington, and therefore the end of the policy of maximum pressure (and therefore sanctions), a priority objective of Tehran.
In the second case, providing a response (which could range from accelerating the nuclear programme to asymmetric attacks in the region) would save face, but would risk alienating the consensus that Europe, Russia and China are giving, at least in words, to the Islamic Republic in the nuclear dispute and other long-standing issues with the United States.
Iran seems at the moment to have chosen the path of patience, the path of waiting.
At this point, it is appropriate to analyze the broader picture of the game that is being played in recent months. Emphasizing the fact that this game next autumn/winter is doomed to enter into very hot phases.
In September, a new meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could lead to a resolution.
This could accuse Iran of failing to comply with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguard Agreement after a resolution emerged from the board meeting held last June calling on Iran to cooperate fully with the agency’s investigations into some suspicious nuclear activities dating back to the pre-2003 period (i.e. before the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme came to the attention of the international community).
The resolution, introduced by France, Germany and the United Kingdom (the same European countries that are part of the group that negotiated the JCPOA), is the first of its kind since 2012 and follows the report by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi of last March.
The report reported that the Agency’s January 2019 requests for clarification on possible nuclear activities at three suspected sites had remained unanswered by Tehran, as had the January 2020 requests for access to two of these sites.
The IAEA’s concerns are not oriented towards possible ongoing suspicious nuclear activities but towards a possible violation by Iran of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol to the NPT, which require the country to declare past activities and to allow Agency inspectors access to nuclear sites as soon as possible.
The resolution in question, the one of last June, has provoked tough reactions throughout the Iranian political landscape.
For example, the conservative Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the new Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, led a parliamentary majority calling for a decisive response, including the cessation of the implementation of the Additional Protocol and/or withdrawal from the NPT.
On the same wavelength also the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, who before the vote warned the Board of Governors from allowing “enemies of the JCPOA” to jeopardize Iranian interests, asking to the E3 not to act as “mere accessories” and reiterating that the country is already subject to a very strict and pervasive system of inspections.
The March IAEA report mentions an informal Iranian response received by the Agency regarding its requests for clarification, in which Tehran stated that it had already provided all the clarifications on its past nuclear activities as requested by the JCPOA and as subsequently acknowledged by the IAEA Board of Governors resolution of 15 December 2015.
Another objection made by Iran concerns the fact that the information on the basis of which the Agency drew up its latest positions was allegedly provided by Israel following the raid carried out by Mossad in January 2018 on a warehouse in the Tehran industrial zone, which would have made it possible to gather secret information about Iran’s nuclear activities.

But then what is the fear of Iran?
The fear is that diplomatic pressure is being exerted on the Agency with the aim of reaching a condemnation resolution in September and also the subsequent referral of the matter to the United Nations Security Council.
At that point the UNSC could decide to introduce (or reintroduce) sanctions against Tehran, leading to the actual end of the JCPOA.
This scenario would therefore also give to the United States the opportunity to pass the resolution prepared by Washington in recent weeks extending the UN embargo on the sale of arms to and from Iran for an unlimited period.
The expiry of the embargo, as provided for by the JCPOA and set out in Security Council Resolution 2231, is scheduled for 18 October 2020.
For weeks now, however, the United States has been engaged in a diplomatic offensive to get the permanent members of the Council to support the request to extend the embargo.
If China and Russia (which voted against last June’s IAEA resolution) appear to be firmly opposed to extending the embargo, the Europeans would be working on a compromise solution extending the embargo for a limited period, and only on certain types of armaments.

It is therefore clear in this context the Iranian strategic calculation regarding the response to sabotage actions.
The Iranian strategy is strongly driven by the need to provide no pretext for Europe, Russia and China to support punitive measures in the Security Council, whether as a result of a referral of the nuclear issue by the IAEA or Washington’s request to extend the embargo on the sale and purchase of armaments.
A response in the form of asymmetric military attacks against US allies in the Gulf region, such as last September’s attack on Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian national hydrocarbon company, could lead to escalation.
It must behave in the same way towards Israel.
In fact, if we consider the trend of Iranian non-response to the various attacks made by Israel in recent years against Iranian targets on Syrian territory, it is clear that the Iranian leadership is reluctant to seek escalation with the government of Tel Aviv.
At the moment, in fact, it is limited to cyber-attacks, therefore, of difficult attribution, such as those carried out in recent months against the Israeli water system.
What is certain is that a possible change of administration in the White House, following the elections to be held next November, will make the word “patience” the watchword for the Tehran government.
The ultimate aim will be to obtain, from a possible Biden administration, the relaxation of the heavy sanctions regime imposed by Trump.
At least as long as those responsible for the sabotage operations of these weeks do not decide to play harder and hit further crucial targets like Natanz in a significant way.
At that point for the Islamic Republic would increase the incentives to provide a calibrated response, which could be the prelude to an escalation.
What is being played, therefore, is a really very dangerous game, “on the edge”.
For months now, this “game” has been keeping the region in an unstable balance: even a simple calculation error could lead to the deflagration of a conflict with disastrous consequences.

By, Michele Brunori

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