The clandestine war against the Iranian nuclear program seems to intensify as Teheran is replenishing its low enriched uranium stocks. Production was resumed in response to the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. However, it’s not clear whether the ayatollahs are really determined to build a bomb now or they are rather using the threat of a nuclear weapon to get the crippling economic sanctions lifted. The other side is invoking the danger of an atomic bomb, but seems at least as concerned with other Iran related problems that were not addressed by the nuclear deal.
Trump’s belligerence and the Israeli secret war
Donald Trump would’ve been on the verge of leaving Joe Biden the legacy of a war with Iran, in addition to the other crises he’d already caused or amplified by the way in which he understood to manage them (see, for example, the coronavirus pandemic). The New York Times wrote in November that Trump had sought options for an attack against one or several targets relating to the Iranian nuclear program, most likely the center in Natanz, but Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the head of the Pentagon and the army commander managed to persuade him to give up. Donald Trump has shown before that he can be quite stubborn and that sooner or later he will carry through his ideas, so a surprise, even if unlikely, is not ruled out until Biden takes over the presidency.
Just days after Trump was persuaded not to attack, the Iranians received a blow: Mohsen Fakhrizade, a General in the Revolutionary Guard Corps and a scientist suspected of being in charge of the military side of the Iranian nuclear program, was assassinated in Teheran. The assassination was seen as an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block a potential return of the United States, under Joe Biden, to the nuclear deal, given that, beyond harshening its rhetoric, Tehran was expected to also react to the attack. The Israelis did not confirm or deny that they were involved in the assassination, but Fakhrizade had been nominated by Netanyahu in 2018, when he presented evidence - some of it controversial – of the military dimension of the nuclear program.
Until the assassination of Fakhrizade, sabotages took place in Iran that year as well, targeting both the nuclear program - at the main Iranian center in Natanz - and the ballistic one. Everything is reminiscent of the older campaign against Iran's nuclear program, before the agreement was signed, which was marked by assassinations committed between 2007 and 2012, sabotage and the famous cyber-attack with the Stuxnet virus. In that underground warfare, the Israelis were the main suspects too, but it's most likely that the Americans knew what was going on and quite likely that, to some extent, they were involved - Stuxnet, for example, was believed to have been a jointly developed program. So probably this time too, the Americans knew that the assassination of Fakhrizade was being prepared and Trump may have encouraged the Israelis.
The game of the ayatollah: short-term bluff, potential bomb in the future
Iran's nuclear program has returned to the forefront with the International Atomic Energy Agency announcing that Tehran has exceeded ten times the amount of low-enriched uranium allowed by the nuclear deal. Iran now has enough uranium to make two atomic bombs. This does not mean that it will do it: firstly, it needs the know-how, and it is not very clear whether its scientists have reached the level where they can make a bomb. Secondly, it takes time (the bombs would be ready by spring at the earliest), and thirdly, the risk of a harsh reaction from the international community is too big for the leaders of the Islamic republic to take without really having to. The fact that Tehran has produced more low-enriched uranium than it would have been entitled to is more related to its efforts to exert pressure in order to escape the effects of US sanctions imposed again after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018.
The sanctions apply to any entity doing business with Iran in the areas concerned, and no major company in the world is willing to risk getting into Washington's sights. Europeans' promises to find a way for their companies to circumvent US sanctions did not materialize, so Iran was thrown into a deep economic crisis that threatened the regime's stability, faced with widespread, brutally stifled protests in the winter of 2019 - 2020. Tehran's priority in the last two years has therefore not been to build a nuclear bomb, but to somehow get out of the current economic stalemate.
This does not mean, of course, that the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the ayatollahs do not consider, in the long run, having nuclear weapons, or that they have not tried to obtain them in the past. The sabotages and assassinations were aimed at diminishing Iran's ability to build a bomb someday. International sanctions until 2015 and UN Security Council resolutions were adopted precisely because there were serious suspicions about Iran's nuclear program. China and Russia voted alongside the West, despite better relations with Tehran, because no one wants an Iranian atomic bomb. The ayatollahs' regime has too often gone too far - attempts to block the flow of oil in the Gulf by attacking oil companies during the 1980s war with Iraq, fostering brutal terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, and even attacking the U.S. embassy and the hostage crisis that showed a willingness to violate international conventions - for someone to take the chance of letting them have nuclear weapons.
Why the nuclear deal does not solve the Iran-related problems
The 2015 agreement severely limited Iran's nuclear activities, and the country had to give up most of its low-enriched uranium at the time (several times the amount it currently has). In the years following the signing of the agreement, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly found that Tehran has fulfilled its obligations. But the nuclear program is not the only issue related to Iran, and the nuclear deal does not solve the others - on the contrary, they could grow bigger thanks to funds to which Tehran would have access if there were no sanctions.
The first such issue, which is the subject of a separate set of US sanctions, is that of the Iranian ballistic program. The missiles developed by Tehran are becoming more accurate and their range longer - which means they can reach American targets in the Middle East, Israel, Saudi Arabia and even Europe; the Iranian threat is, moreover, one of the reasons why it was decided to place the anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe. The fact that oil fields and Saudi installations can also be targeted turns this threat into a global one, as it happened in September 2019 when, following a drone attack (so much less sophisticated than a rocket one) the Saudi production went down to half and the price of crude oil got impacted at global level.
Another issue is that of Iranian expansionism and the instability it brings. Tehran has managed to create a sphere of influence that extends to the Mediterranean Sea, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (the so-called Iranian crescent), in the Gulf area, to Yemen, and Afghanistan. Everywhere Iranians have relied on Shiite communities and their militias that have engaged in civil wars and gained so much strength over time that they have become impossible to control by the governments of those countries; some of these militias have been involved in acts of terrorism and war crimes. In Iraq, Shiite militias have been at the forefront of the Sunni civil war and are responsible for the deaths of many civilians; in addition, they were used as Iran’s armed wing against American forces.
In Syria, the support of Hezbollah and Iranian advisers helped the regime survive until the Russian intervention, and the regime's survival led to a radicalization of rebel groups, with moderate rebels being replaced in time by extremists such as those in the Islamic State or the local branch of Al Qaeda network. In Lebanon, the same Hezbollah practically founded its own state in the south and plays a key role in national politics as well, fully contributing to the political deadlock that brought the country to the brink of collapse. Yemen, relatively stable until a few years ago, has become the scene of the world's worst humanitarian crisis after Shiite Houthi rebels started a revolt and the Saudis intervened because they feared Iran's growing presence along their borders.
The recent formalization of ties between Israel and a number of Arab states was fueled precisely by the Iranian threat, especially in the case of those in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates, which has territorial disputes with Iran, and Bahrain, which has faced protests by its Shiite minority. Saudi Arabia is the one behind this expansion, although it has not yet formalized its ties with Israel.
The nuclear weapon: a story that sells
The whole issue of Iran is far too complex and complicated to be concise and, on top of that, to have an impact. Why would American taxpayers care after all about the unrest of the Arabs in the Gulf, the suffering of civilians in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, or even the worries of the Israelis? But everybody understands "atomic bomb". The "atomic bomb of the ayatollahs" is likely to make any American shiver, be they Democrat or Republican. That is why the scary bomb is brought up so frequently: it can help address other issues related to Iran.
And if the bomb stories are messing up with Biden’s plans, as a bonus, it’s very unlikely that Trump, Bibi or the Saudis will get too upset about it.