Fears resurface over Tehran’s nuclear plans

Majid Rafizadeh on the possible fallout of Iran's intentions to pursue its nuclear ambitions without restrictions

IAEA director general Yukiya Amano, left, and vice president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akhbar Salehi sign a roadmap for the clarification of past and present issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna. EPA
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The nuclear agreement between Iran and the West is increasingly becoming unpopular within the hard-line faction of Tehran’s political establishment.

The deal can be regarded as the cornerstone of tensions between the moderates, led by president Hassan Rouhani and former president Akbar Rafsanji, and the hardliners, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and senior cadres of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This tension will probably intensify in the lead-up to next year’s presidential election.

Based on the latest intelligence reports, questions can be raised as to whether the IRGC and hardliners are trying to scuttle the nuclear agreement to undermine the moderates’ popularity in the next election and whether the IRGC is persisting in finding ways to explore its nuclear ambitions secretly. It is worth noting that the nuclear programme is mainly controlled by the IRGC generals, not the president.

In its annual report, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, said that the Iranian government had pursued a “clandestine” path to obtain illicit nuclear technology and equipment from German companies “at what is, even by international standards, a quantitatively high level”.

The intelligence report also stated “it is safe to expect that Iran will continue its intensive procurement activities in Germany using clandestine methods to achieve its objectives”. Even the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, criticised Iran and emphasised the significance of these findings in a statement to parliament.

Although Germany did not state exactly what Iran was trying to buy, a detailed report by the Institute for Science and International Security appears to shed light on this issue.

It states that the institute “has learnt that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI) recently made an attempt to purchase tonnes of controlled carbon fibre from a country. This attempt occurred after implementation day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The attempt to acquire carbon fibre was denied by the supplier and its government.”

The report said that the AEOI had enough carbon fibre to replace its existing advanced centrifuge rotors and had no need for additional quantities over the next several years, let alone for tonnes of carbon fibre. It continued: “This attempt thus raises concerns over whether Iran intends to abide by its JCPOA commitments. In particular, Iran may seek to stockpile the carbon fibre so as to be able to build advanced centrifuge rotors far beyond its current needs under the JCPOA, providing an advantage that would allow it to quickly build an advanced centrifuge enrichment plant if it chose to leave or disregard the JCPOA during the next few years.” The report suggested that some of the P5+1 countries that negotiated the deal – the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany – were trying “to keep secret problematic Iranian actions”.

The report, compiled by Andrea Stricker and former IAEA nuclear inspector David Albright, clarifies that Iran is required to get permission from a UN Security Council panel for “purchases of nuclear direct-use goods”. Furthermore, the report identified more than 1,000 affiliates of Iranian-backed groups living in Germany, including Hizbollah and Hamas members working on behalf of Iran.

On paper, the nuclear agreement stipulates a series of regulations, monitoring mechanisms and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. But maintaining these transparency standards and measures is very difficult, if not impossible, if you consider that they are trying to detect what is going on in the world’s 18th largest country.

It is concerning that Iran would begin to cheat after gaining so many benefits from the agreement, including the removal of four rounds of international sanctions that were imposed by the members of the United Nations Security Council, resumption of oil sales at any level that it desires, rejoining the global financial market and obtaining billions of dollars from frozen assets and accumulated interests.

This concern is well grounded since Iran has a history of bypassing the International Atomic Energy Agency by conducting clandestine nuclear activities in Arak, Natanz and Ferdow.

On paper, the nuclear agreement indicates that sanctions will be snapped back if Iran is in violation. To get the nuclear deal through, US president Barack Obama repeatedly emphasised that lifting of sanctions would be reversed if Iran cheated. However, the issue has never been that simplistic. Once the four rounds of sanctions have been lifted, it would require the approval of all five members of the UN Security Council to reimpose one round of sanctions. It goes without saying that getting the approval of China and Russia is not going to be a piece of cake.

IRGC leaders are also more emboldened because their recent actions – including the test firing of ballistic missiles – have been ignored by the United States, as well as the other members of the P5+1.

As the 2017 presidential elections approach, opposition to the nuclear deal within Iran will probably increase. The IRGC clearly wants to pursue its nuclear ambitions without restrictions.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council