Iran's nuclear 'threshold' opens window for engagement

Leading security analyst tells The National that Tehran's nuclear programme might have become 'immune' to Washington-led pressure

Iran's Khorramshahr-4 missile is launched at an undisclosed location. The country could use becoming a nuclear threshold state to blackmail the Middle East. AP
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Iran appears set to develop its uranium enrichment programme to within the “threshold” of making a nuclear bomb to blackmail the region, a leading analyst has told The National.

Looking at the options on the table for Tehran when it reaches this point, the mostly likely outcome is to disperse its nuclear bomb components, said Hasan Alhasan, Middle East specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

These would be guarded as valuable assets kept at secret locations, where nuclear and weapons experts would stand by in readiness to quickly assemble components to make a device.

But prior to that point, Dr Alhasan sees a small window of opportunity for neighbouring states to launch a policy of engagement to prevent Iran from gaining the bomb.

Iran is likely to have enriched its uranium to 80 per cent – 10 per cent away from making it viable for a nuclear device, which could happen within months.

Dr Alhasan, who advised the Crown Prince of Bahrain on foreign policy for five years, said once it reached the 90 per cent threshold, the regime could become a “de facto nuclear state” without doing public detonation tests or “announcing it in a very provocative way”.

“It could simply be a matter of having all the components ready, but disassembled in different locations where they retain the ability to assemble a nuclear delivery system within a very short period of time,” he said.

“The expectation is that Iran will teeter on the brink of breakout because in that zone Iran can continue to blackmail everyone else and to derive strategic gain.”

In recent days, US officials have been searching for ways to curb Tehran's nuclear efforts since the breakdown of indirect talks, suggesting a rising sense of urgency in western capitals about Iran's programme.

The talks are aimed at finding steps that could limit the Iranian nuclear programme, release some detained American citizens and unfreeze some Iranian assets abroad, it has been reported.

The virtual absence of western appetite to engage with Iran, especially following Tehran supplying attack drones to Russia that have killed civilians in Ukraine, has been another drag on diplomacy.

With Russia’s relations towards the West almost entirely broken, resurrecting the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran has been considered near impossible.

“The other issue is that we no longer see the kind of consensus within the UN Security Council that we used to see against Iran, preventing it from proliferating,” said Dr Alhasan, speaking from Bahrain.

“There used to be a degree of consensus in the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, that did not want to see Iran proliferate.”

He added that Iran's nuclear programme might now have become “immune” to Washington-led pressure as a result of “the broader breakdown of Russian Chinese relations with the US”.

A factor that has altered the overall dynamic is that US security guarantees were undermined by Washington’s underwhelming response to Iran’s missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019 and the UAE in 2022.

“That really demonstrated the limits of the US security guarantee,” said Dr Alhasan. “It has driven the lesson home that the US is not going to be a comprehensive security partner.”

As a result, this has seen the Gulf region “adapting a different approach to Iran” that not only relies on deterrence and containment “but also on engaging with Iran”.

The region also recognises that Iran is now a “nuclear threshold state” – but there is “very little that they expect the US to be able or willing to do to stop Iran from weaponising, should Iran wish to do so”, he said.

“To their mind, the US has already failed to block Iran's pathway to nuclear weapons.”

There is also a concern over an “asymmetry of pain”, in that Iran has witnessed decades of strong sanctions that has pushed its economy to “rock bottom”, inuring it to more hardship.

“So it's very difficult to inflict really any more economic pain,” Dr Alhasan added. “Meanwhile Iran had grown its military capabilities.”

As a result, a way forward has been to de-escalate and engage diplomatically with Iran, “giving a positive incentive to an attempt to moderate Iran's behaviour in the future”.

In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations as part of a Chinese-sponsored initiative, following a breakdown in ties seven years ago.

There was a “potentially small window of opportunity” to engage with Iran while its “relations with the West are in a poor state” and facing diplomatic isolation, the academic said.

Given Iran’s progress towards becoming a nuclear state, there might also be a move from Gulf states to “obtain a more formal US security guarantee that potentially includes an extended American nuclear deterrence”, Dr Alhasan said.

Updated: June 16, 2023, 6:01 PM