May 16, 2021

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Why Iran nuclear talks are moving ahead, despite Israeli attack

Even Iran’s scientists were impressed by the elegant effectiveness of the latest Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program. An explosion in the underground tunnel carrying both primary and backup electricity cables at its Natanz enrichment site last week cut off power to thousands of centrifuge machines as they spun uranium gas at supersonic speeds.

“The enemy plotted the Natanz attack very beautifully, from the scientific point of view,” admitted Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the former head of Iran’s nuclear agency, and survivor of a 2010 Israeli assassination attempt.

The attack came as diplomats in Vienna signaled progress in talks to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with a landmark nuclear deal, three years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from it. Israel rejects that 2015 deal – and any return to it – which imposes strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting harsh sanctions.

The Natanz attack presented Iran with a stark choice: To retaliate, in line with fiery rhetoric that has followed every high-profile incidence of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear program, nearly all attributed to Israel. Or to negotiate, in favor of a diplomatic solution that could bolster Iran’s regional standing and lower the risk of war.

Iran’s choice appears to be to pursue both pathways, simultaneously. It is fighting back by raising uranium enrichment to the unprecedented level of 60% purity – three times higher than its previous high point, and technically a short step from the 90% level necessary for fissile material to make an atomic bomb.

And Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while denigrating U.S. diplomatic offers, last week overruled other hard-liners calling for Iran’s negotiators to “come home” and authorized talks to resurrect the deal to continue.

“The answer to your evilness,” said President Hassan Rouhani, is the boost in enrichment. “Even today, if we wish, we can enrich uranium at 90% purity. But we are not seeking a nuclear bomb,” he said Thursday. “If others return to full compliance with the deal … we will stop 60% and 20% enrichment.”

Iran’s strategic message

Analysts said that, however much the Israeli attack slowed the Iranian production of enriched uranium, the benefits to Israel would be short-lived.

The Natanz attack “was an attempt by Israel to sabotage not just Iran’s nuclear program but the nuclear talks in Vienna, or at least deprive Iran of its leverage at the table,” says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.

“Because Iran is unable to retaliate in kind [inside Israel] right now, some in Israel could conclude that this was a cost-free blow to Iran’s nuclear program for Israel,” says Mr. Vaez. “The reality is that the strategic message that Iranians are sending with 60% enrichment is that the only thing that curtails Iran’s nuclear program is a win-win diplomatic outcome. Sanctions and sabotage would only result in Iran further ratcheting up its nuclear program.”

Meanwhile, signs of a modest kinetic reaction include five rockets fired Sunday at an Iraqi military base housing American contractors, a frequent tactic of Iran-backed militias. And an Israeli-owned cargo ship was struck by a missile last Tuesday off the coast of the United Arab Emirates – the latest in a series of tit-for-tat Iran-Israel attacks on each other’s ships.

Talks in Vienna resumed Monday and reportedly reached a “drafting” stage, despite a lingering dispute over who should move first. President Joe Biden has stated a desire to return to the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, as a starting point to address issues such as Iran’s expanding missile capability and the influence of Iran-backed militias. The U.S. insists that Iran take the first steps.

Iran says that, since it was Mr. Trump who departed the deal, the U.S. should act first to remove sanctions. Iran would then reverse its own breaches of the JCPOA by reducing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, capping enrichment again at 3.67% purity, and ending work on advanced centrifuges.

Iran wants to signal it “still has a lot of options for strengthening its hand, and time is not on the U.S. side,” says Mr. Vaez. “That is the most important message they want to send to Washington. If the U.S. drags its feet and refuses to do what the Iranians believe is right – which is to lift all the sanctions – the Iranian nuclear program will grow exponentially.”

Exhibit A is, for the first time, the laboratory production of small quantities of 60% enriched uranium – measured in grams, not kilograms.

Diplomatic process

While decrying the result of the Israeli attack and its implications for Iran’s security, Alireza Zakani, a hard-line lawmaker, signaled that the cycle of move and countermove is also part of the diplomatic process.

The attack “destroyed a tremendous portion” of Iran’s enrichment capacity, caused lawmakers to “cry blood” over the loss of “thousands” of centrifuges, and is further proof the country has become a “paradise for spies,” he said.

“The Natanz sabotage is part and parcel of the negotiations,” he added. The U.S. and Israeli message is, “if you refuse to shut down your nuclear program, we will shut it down on our own.”

That message has been sent multiple times, as the decadeslong covert war between Israel and the Islamic Republic has expanded. Israel all but claimed responsibility for the assassination in November of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists, widely believed to be in charge of a clandestine Iranian weapons program until it was stopped in 2003.

In response to that killing, Iran boosted uranium enrichment to 20% purity.

A previous explosion at Natanz last July did extensive damage to buildings. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has trumpeted an August 2018 Mossad raid on a Tehran warehouse that spirited away an archive of tens of thousands of pages about Iran’s past nuclear efforts.

In Iran, the Natanz blackout sparked criticism of the intelligence and security community over “the Israel within,” which appears to flourish unchecked. Even the Revolutionary Guard, whose tasks include protecting nuclear sites, came under fire for producing a popular spy thriller TV series called “Gando” that takes jabs at Mr. Rouhani’s centrist government – at the expense, the critics said, of real counter-espionage prowess.

“How is it possible that we are never able to identify those infiltrators?” asked the pro-Rouhani Khabar Online news agency. “While we are preoccupied with making ‘Gando’ and imposing filtering on our internet users, the enemy is staying closer to us than we can imagine.”

An expanding program

Despite the chain of security lapses, Iran’s nuclear program has expanded, sometimes swiftly.

“Whatever has been done against Iran hasn’t worked, including blowing up Natanz,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of the website. Nearly 20 years ago, he notes, Iran “begged” the European Union and Americans to permit laboratory enrichment, with just a few cascades of centrifuges. They refused.

And for years, enrichment above 20% purity was considered an Israeli red line likely to trigger an air assault, of the kind Israel launched to stop nuclear programs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in Syria.

Today Iran is “pushing to 60%, they are moving towards a clear virtual nuclear capability,” says Mr. Shabani. “The reality is, right now in Iran, it’s only a political decision [preventing Iran] from building a bomb.”

Such a political decision is meant to be reaffirmed at the nuclear talks in Vienna. But even if they fail, the successful attacks inside Iran carry their own lesson.

“There is no doubt that this program is deeply penetrated by Israeli intelligence,” says Mr. Vaez at the International Crisis Group.

The string of assassinations, cyberattacks, and explosions “clearly demonstrate that the option for Iran of dashing towards nuclear weapons is nonexistent because … if Iran ever decides to move in that direction, it will probably be stopped way before it’s able to achieve critical capacity.”

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