It is likely that Tehran concluded that if Ukraine had retained its nuclear weapons, Putin would not have dared to invade the country.
Here is a question. If Ukraine had retained its nuclear weapons, instead of abandoning them in 1994, would Vladimir Putin have attacked it so brutally this year? After all, there was no particular justification for the attack, other than Putin’s own fantasy legacy of being convinced that he is the real successor to Peter the Great? The reason this question is so important is that it is asked in small countries all over the world. If you’re facing a big, irrational tyrant like Russia, what chance do you have of protecting yourself without nuclear weapons? Of course, if you are a member of NATO, you will be protected by Article 5, which means that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. In other words, you won’t need your own nukes. If you’re not a NATO member, you’re on your own. This is precisely why Finland and Sweden rushed to join after Russia attacked Ukraine five months ago.
Let me remind you. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine had the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world on its soil. A worried Russia and West eventually persuaded kyiv to give up arms in exchange for Russian assurances that its borders would be protected and its sovereignty respected. By signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Russia not only recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent country, but also guaranteed its territorial integrity. Three years later, Russia even signed a friendship treaty with Ukraine. We now know that a treaty with Russia is not worth the paper it is written on. We certainly know how President Putin feels about international treaties that stand in the way of his greater glory.
Which brings us to Iran.
Putin isn’t the only world leader who tears up treaties – former US President Donald Trump has done the same. Iran sued the United States when Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and announced that he would authorize new “economically crippling” sanctions against Iran. Tehran successfully argued in the International Court of Justice that the sanctions violated the earlier 1955 friendship treaty, leading an enraged Trump to tear up that treaty as well, as he pursued a determined strategy of confrontation with the Iran.
Much has been written about the JCPOA. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it brought Iran’s nuclear program under tight international control. The JCPOA provided unprecedented international oversight and access to Iran’s nuclear program and imposed strict limits to ensure that Iran could not militarize its program, in exchange for economic relief from sanctions against the country. Even after the US withdrawal, Tehran initially complied with the deal, while trying to salvage a deal with the remaining stakeholders: Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France. The JCPOA appeared set to resume in March, after 11 months of indirect talks between Tehran and the United States under President Joe Biden, with the EU acting as a broker. But they have been bogged down by Tehran’s insistence that Washington remove the hugely influential elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the United States’ list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The last indirect talks on the JCPOA took place in Doha at the end of June, but again ended “without any progress”, according to the US State Department and the EU. Skeptics believe that Iran is deliberately dragging out negotiations until it has achieved statehood on the threshold of nuclear weapons. A few days later, on June 29, President Putin and Iranian President Raisi met on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan, a meeting that brings together the leaders of the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea: Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. . Highlighting the growth in trade between the two countries, Putin noted that Russian-Iranian trade grew by 81% in 2021, and another 31% in the first months of this year. For his part, Raisi stressed that “nothing has stopped or will stop the progress of our trade and economic ties”.
The Kremlin announced on Tuesday that President Putin would visit Iran this week, a day after the United States warned that Tehran could supply Moscow with “hundreds” of “killer” drones for use in Ukraine. Iran has long been working on so-called ‘kamikaze’ roaming drones, similar to the ‘switchblade’ the US delivered to Ukraine. Putin’s visit aims to improve economic relations between the two sanctioned countries.
Just as with Russia, the Iranian economy has not collapsed, despite punitive sanctions from Washington. Proving to be more resilient and diversified than many expected, Iran’s economy grew 2.4% in 2020-21, according to the World Bank, and is expected to grow 3.1% this year. To sustain this growth, Iran needs major infrastructure investments that many believe can only be made if sanctions are lifted. But the sanctions will only be lifted if Iran agrees to give up any aspiration for nuclear weapons, even though Tehran has always maintained that its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful.
Which brings us back to Ukraine.
It is likely that Tehran concluded that if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, Putin would not have dared to invade the country, which is why Iran seems determined to develop one. Last Sunday, Tehran announced that it had started enriching uranium up to 20%, using sophisticated new centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear power plant. For the country to get rich at this level, a technical step up from 90% military quality, deals another blow to the already slim chance of reviving the JCPOA. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Authority reported that Iran had 43 kilograms of enriched uranium at 60% purity, enough fissile material, experts say, for a nuclear bomb. The IAEA is also alarmed by the rapidly diminishing transparency of Tehran’s nuclear activity, a hallmark of the JCPOA, as last month Iran shut down more than two dozen surveillance cameras from various nuclear-related sites. Across the country.
Whatever Iran’s intentions, the country’s dedication to nuclear enrichment, even at such enormous costs, may seem oddly counterproductive to many people. So why is the country so committed to its nuclear program? There is no dominant answer, but rather a few plausible explanations.
Iran’s national pride runs deep, and with good reason. It has been an active center of cultural, scientific, religious and political thought for many centuries, and is still reeling from decades of Western interference during the 19th and 20th centuries. The nuclear program is a means by which Iran affirms, to itself and to the world, that it is an advanced and sovereign nation. The more the world tells him that he cannot have a nuclear program, the more important the construction of such a program becomes for the cause of nationalism.
From the time Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, a war that lasted 8 years, Iranian leaders have feared that hostile Western-backed Arab leaders would also do them terrible harm, especially the powers regional pro-American Sunnis such as Saudi Arabia. It has not gone unnoticed in Tehran that since the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020, Israel has exported $3 billion worth of weapons to Iran’s enemies in the Middle East, or 20% of its total defense exports during the period. At the same time, 150 security-related meetings took place between Israeli officials and these countries.
But above all, Iran wants to defend itself against its bitter enemy, nuclear-armed Israel, a country strongly supported by the United States, illustrated again by the visit of President Biden last week. Iranian leaders have a long memory and will remind all who listen that it was the US Bush administration that designated Iran as part of its “axis of evil”. They recall that it was the United States that aided Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his brutal war against Iran, in which he killed thousands of Iranians, some with chemical weapons. It’s hard to overstate how traumatic this war has been and how hard Tehran wants to prevent another, especially against a nuclear Israel.
In many ways, this is a “catch-22” dilemma between Iran and Israel. Iran feels threatened by a nuclear-armed Israel and believes the only way to protect itself is to develop its own nuclear weapons, pointing to the fate of non-nuclear Ukraine as evidence. But the fact that Iran is rapidly developing its nuclear weapons makes it a serious threat to Israel, in the eyes of Jerusalem. The JCPOA was supposed to break Catch-22, but when signatories can simply tear up treaties when a new administration arrives, as Trump did in 2018, can Iran trust a deal? Better to build the bomb, concludes Tehran.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.