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ELN Iran Brief




07 Jan 20. As planned, Iran announced its fifth (and apparently final) cut to its implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) this past weekend: it will no longer restrict its quantity of centrifuges. As the JCPOA does not exist in a vacuum and current geopolitical tensions between the US and Iran are remarkably high, experts who predicted more provocative nuclear measures from Iran in retaliation to the targeted killing of General Qassem Soleimani were relieved with this news – for now. In turn, headlines claiming that Iran has let go of all of its nuclear obligations are reductionist and false, especially since Iran will continue to accept inspections under the JCPOA, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and IAEA Additional Protocol and are willing to return to full implementation if the US lifts all secondary sanctions.

Laurence Norman said it best: “Effectively today’s statement was ‘we’ll do what we want in enriched uranium – continuing to breach limits already breached at whatever rate we please.’ But this is NOT an exit from [the] deal.” 

Key points on 05 January announcement by Iran on JCPOA implementation: 

• Iran’s initial statement was fairly vague. In comparison, Iran’s November cuts to JCPOA implementation were framed as a doubling of the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, as well as injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at Fordow and research and development of the IR-9. In this month’s case, there have not been any specific new breaches mentioned – yet.

• To some, this means that there are no immediate grounds for Iran’s announcement to be used as an impetus for European countries party to the JCPOA to trigger the agreement’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM). If Iran increases purity or beefs up its stockpile, then the DRM being pursued is more likely. However, this would likely have little to no added value and will cause blowback as Iran will see it as a punitive measure after months of being open to mediation. It should not be forgotten that the two-month windows for diplomacy that Iran has been offering followed a year of IAEA-certified full implementation even after the US left the deal.

• The primary limits on Iran’s centrifuges, research and development, purity and stockpiles were already breached before this fifth round of cuts, but the pace of such breaches and what trajectory they move in are now what matters. It is likely that if Iran is to give more insight into what will follow, the next step will occur in a phased manner to build pressure and leverage, matching the overall Iranian strategy. 

Mark Fitzpatrick and Mahsa Rouhi commented: “Withdrawing from enrichment limits, while ominous, is ambiguous both numerically and temporally. What higher level of enrichment, how many more centrifuges and what type, as well as what additional work on research and development will be forthcoming, were all left unspecified and without timeframes. Nothing was said about the restrictions on the Arak research reactor that keep the lid on any progress toward a plutonium path to nuclear weapons.” 

• The deal is not dead. Iran has not left “all” JCPOA commitments because they will still allow full IAEA inspections. Thus, this fifth step is still a “remedial” one for Iran who still sees itself as within the letter of the JPCOA, especially under Paragraph 36 which entitles Iran to reduce implementation if the other parties are not holding up their end of the deal. If US secondary sanctions are lifted, then Iran will bring its own implementation back to the original terms of the agreement.  

• Iran has not used this opportunity to make changes to its compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or IAEA Additional Protocol, although previous and current threats against such measures should not be forgotten or ignored.

Richard Nephew commented:

1. Iran has NOT announced it is going for a bomb. There are some who will say this announcement is the same thing. It is absolutely not. It is consistent with Iran seeking to rebuild international diplomatic leverage AND physical capabilities that could permit it to build the bomb, but there are not the same thing. And, in the context of the frantic, confused, and aggressive talk out of Washington, everyone needs to bear this in mind when you here Administration officials and their proxies speak about the topic in the days ahead.

2. The apparent intention to continue with IAEA inspections means that the Iranians are going to be playing still for international, political goodwill. They want to be seen as transparent and they will in fact be transparent, insofar as inspections are concerned. This hopefully will provide some measure of stability on the nuclear file, even as the overall situation (nuclear and regional) gets decidedly worse. Keeping IAEA inspectors in country remains in the US and international security interest.

3. It is now time to end all wishful thinking. Iran is not going to sit on its hands, as some Administration folks suspected in May 2018 when we exited the JCPOA and as they probably thought when it came time to kill [Iranian General Qassem] Soleimani and claim public credit for it. I honestly don’t know why those folks thought that was likely anyway, but its time to put this delusion away. Likewise, though, it is time for us to stop thinking that we just have to wait out the Trump Administration and things will get better. That’s also sadly unlikely.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj shared with the ELN: 

“For now, Iran is led by the same people as those who delivered the deal. Implementation of the deal may have changed, but I don’t see much evidence that the nuclear doctrine has changed. Iran gains nothing by proliferating in the short or medium-term–it would only isolate itself further. Based on Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi’s statement to parliament today, KSA/UAE are coming to some understanding with Iran, and I don’t expect they would do so if Iran intends to go far beyond the JCPOA restrictions, even if it no longer recognizes them.”

Iran’s announcement on its nuclear commitments occurred as millions of Iranians poured onto the streets across the country to mourn the US targeted killing of Iran’s most powerful and popular military commander, General Qasem Soleimani. The helicopter (Drone: Ed)attack, which took place in Baghdad, also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of the Iraqi Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah. President Trump justified his actions by citing the harm caused by General Soleimani’s long-standing leadership of Iran’s Qud Force (a unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations), as well as citing imminent attacks on American assets in the Middle East. However, officials briefed with intelligence on such claims of imminent attacks have called it “razor-thin”. In turn, members of Congress and their constituents are demanding more information. 

Other options reportedly included strikes on Iranian ships or missile facilities or against Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq. The Pentagon reportedly tacked on the choice of targeting General Suleimani, mainly to make other options seem reasonable.

“The Iranians will not be able to approach us on diplomacy until there’s revenge, until there’s adequate revenge to satiate the people, who want some kind of revenge. The death of Soleimani, I think, is the death of diplomacy with Iran…

You would have to be brain dead to believe that we tear up the agreement, we put an embargo on you and we kill your major general, and they’re just going to crawl back to the table and say: ‘What do you want, America?'”

– US Senator Rand Paul 

The Defense Department also ordered the deployment of more than 3,000 additional US forces to the Middle East, and President Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten strikes on 52 important sites inside Iran, including “cultural sites,” if Tehran retaliates for the Soleimani assassination. The targeted destruction of cultural sites is a war crime under international law. 

This week, the US House of Representatives will introduce and vote on a War Powers Resolution to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran. This resolution is similar to the resolution introduced by Senator Tim Kaine in the Senate.  It reasserts Congress’s long-established oversight responsibilities by mandating that if no further Congressional action is taken, the Administration’s military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within 30 days. The House Resolution will be led by Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin. Congresswoman Slotkin is a former CIA and Department of Defense analyst specializing in Shia militias.  She served multiple tours in the region under both Democratic and Republican Administrations.

While there is not an American equivalent of General Soleimani’s role, especially given his vast popularity and close ties to the Iranian Supreme Leader, former US official Colin Kahl rightfully noted that his death is the equivalent of another country taking out the “director of the CIA, secretary of defense, and shadow secretary of state all rolled into one”. 

Kahl continues: Reacting to Soleimani’s demise, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that “forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.” Revenge could come in many forms:

• Iran could greenlight Shiite militia groups to significantly escalate rocket and roadside bomb attacks against US personnel in Iraq, and to organize additional protests and assaults against the US Embassy in Baghdad.

• Iranian proxies may target the few hundred American forces protecting oil fields in eastern Syria or direct attacks against US troops in Afghanistan.

• Iran could fire ballistic missiles at US facilities in Iraq or the Persian Gulf, ramp up the sabotage of international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, launch additional missile or drone attacks against critical energy infrastructure in the region, or encourage Lebanese Hezbollah or Palestinian militants to attack Israel.

• Tehran could orchestrate terrorist attacks against Americans or US interests in the region, as it did in the 1980s in Beirut and in 1996 at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, or plot an attack inside the United States, as it attempted to do in 2011 against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

• Or Iran could use its increasingly sophisticated cyber capabilities to strike at the US homeland.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called US President Donald Trump’s decision to order the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Lt. Gen. Qasem Soleimani an act of “state terrorism” in an interview with CNN today.  “This is an act of aggression against Iran and amounts to an armed attack against Iran, and we will respond. But we will respond proportionally not disproportionally,” he said. “We will respond lawfully, we are not lawless people like President Trump.” 

IRGC General Esamil Ghaani, the new commander of Quds Force, was asked by a reporter to make a promise to General Soleimani, the “general of our hearts”. Ghaani said the first promise is “to continue the path of the martyr Soleimani with the same determination”. He said: “We will take many measures to remove the American presence from the region” and to bring about the “global rule of the Hidden Imam”. The reporter asked Ghaani for a promise of revenge, saying “this is the demand of the people”. Ghaani replied that the main avenger of Soleimani’s death will be God, however “obviously, some actions will be taken”.

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said that everyone in the region must “seek just retribution” for Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. Nasrallah continued to say that many people have suggested that a senior American military figure should be killed in retribution, however, no one is of the caliber of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. He said: “Qasem Soleimani’s shoe is worth the heads of Trump and all the American leaders.” Nasrallah stated that it was the American military who killed Soleimani and Al-Muhandis so they will be the ones to pay the price. He promised that “the Americans will leave our region humiliated, defeated, terrorized, and horrified, just as they had left before.” He added that “when the coffins of the American soldiers and officers […] start arriving in the United States, Trump and his administration will understand that they have lost the region and will lose the elections as well.” MEMRI reports. 

Nasrallah also added: “I want to be very clear, we don’t mean the American people. All across the region there are American citizens – traders, journalists, engineers, and doctors. They cannot be touched… any harm to US civilians will only serve Trump’s agenda.”

(Source: ELN Iran Brief)

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