IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

Iran’s calculated risk

11th December, 2020 International Relations

Context: Iran is enhancing its nuclear programme, which can be reversed if talks with the U.S. are revived.


  • The P5+1 nations (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., plus Germany) reached an agreement with Iran in 2015 to scuttle the country’s nuclear programme.
  • It was expected that the agreement would lead to a new beginning in West Asia. However, this did not happen.

The Iran problem

  • The Barack Obama administration’s calculation was that denying Iran a path to the bomb was in the best interest of everyone, including Iran’s rivals in the region.
  • Washington saw Iran’s nuclear programme, which was at an advanced stage in 2015, as a national security problem and tackled it via diplomacy.
  • But Iran’s regional rivals, mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are also America’s allies, saw the Iran problem differently.
  • For them, Iran’s nuclear programme was not the problem but was part of the larger geopolitical challenges Iran posed.
  • The problem was Iran itself: Tehran’s influence across West Asia, its backing for non-state militias, and its ambition to emerge as a dominant pillar in the region based on the political heft of the Shia community.
  • Obama’s nuclear deal cut off the path to the bomb, but by lifting sanctions, he allowed Iran to move towards claiming its natural economic and political might. This upset the Israelis and the Saudis.

Change in policy

  • The Donald Trump administration took an entirely different line towards Iran.
  • It pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, despite United Nations certification that Iran was compliant with its terms, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
  • In practical terms, Mr. Trump’s approach towards Iran had aligned with that of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
  • The Trump years gave Israel a window of opportunity to step up its covert and overt operations.
  • In 2018, Israeli spies carried out a daring mission at a warehouse inside Iran and stole thousands of documents related to Iran’s nuclear programme. Iranian nuclear scientists came under attacks.

Chance to relook  

  • Newly elected President Joe Biden has promised to take the U.S. back to the nuclear deal — with more riders and would leave the regional issues to the regional players to settle.
  • Iran have passed a Bill that obliges the government to enrich uranium to a higher level, from less than 5% now to 20%, which is a technical step away from the weapons-grade level of 90% — and stop access for UN inspectors to the country’s top nuclear facilities in two months if sanctions relief is not given.
  • Within two months, Mr. Biden will be in the White House. So, Iran is taking a calculated risk by enhancing its nuclear programme, which can be reversed if talks are revived.
  • Israel wants Iran to be contained, not just Iran’s nuclear programme. This leaves the region vulnerable to a prolonged crisis.