In the absence of a new Iranian nuclear deal, a prospect that appears more elusive by the day, Tehran has a couple options at its disposal. As Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, opined for Al Jazeera on Sunday, there are alternatives by which Iran could take its future into its own hands. Dabashi distinguishes them as the Egyptian option and the Israeli option. Taken together, they could best be described as polar opposite extremes which already makes them both unlikely. However, the present stalemate is something Iran is unlikely to tolerate for much longer and both options would afford Tehran a way out.
The first option, and perhaps the least likely, is the Israeli option. Dabashi stated that Iran could “withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and build with haste a nuclear arsenal to match Israel’s.” While Israel has never officially admitted to or denied having nuclear weapons, its possession of them is perhaps the worst keto secret in the Middle East. By this point, most states operate under the assumption that it has an advanced programme featuring both land and sea-based capabilities.
Israel built its programme by stealing nuclear secrets through a spy programme known as Lakam. Through Lakam, powerful figures arose in industries such as Hollywood, but these people were secretly in the employ of Israel’s government as they worked to siphon nuclear secrets. Due to the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust, Israel’s nuclear programme, and its spies within America, grew beyond reproach. If one were to accuse an Israeli spy, the common defense would be to argue that the accuser is antisemitic, a defense which would shift the argument from claims, no matter how justified. Similarly, Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear programme continues to exist without international condemnation due to its unique status.
Iran could argue against the unfairness of the situation while covertly developing its own arsenal. While this would be a relatively easy – Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran is less than a year away from producing a nuclear weapon – it would have far-reaching and perhaps irreversible consequences. So far, Iran has only breached a couple of limits that were set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and all of those actions can simply be undone, said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. If a deal is not reached by September, Tehran will break another provision of the agreement, but that too will be painless to rollback should a deal be reached.
Going the Israeli route, however, and extricating itself from the nonproliferation treaty would undoubtably draw intense international backlash, particularly from Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. Already, Israel is engaging Iranian soldiers and proxy groups across Syria and Afghanistan, so it would have little hesitation with starting a full-scale war.
The Egyptian option is more intriguing because of its broader implications for the region. In 2015, Egypt pushed the United Nations to consider a weapons of mass destruction ban for the Middle East. The measure would have brought together representatives from the region’s governments for a conference to discuss the idea, but the idea was killed by former U.S. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry. Why would they have argued against it? Dabashi points to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who coincidentally thanked both of them after the idea was shot down.
Iran could renew Egypt’s call by arguing that it would bring about more regional stability and peace. Once again, Israel and Saudi Arabia would likely oppose it as the latter is in the process of building out its own programme, thanks to U.S. help. But by offering to put an end to its own programme, Iran would undoubtedly earn some good will among its neighbors, a vast majority of whom have no nuclear capabilities nor even ambitions.
Backed into a Corner
Recent developments with Iran’s geopolitical situation are going to force Tehran to at some point make a move. While U.S. President Donald Trump renewed sanction waivers, an unexpected move which Iran is likely to appreciate, its economy has slipped too far for it to be enough at this point. Continued action in the Strait of Hormuz, with Iran threatening to take complete control of the shipping channel, is one of the only cards Iran has left to play. It has been unsuccessful in convincing European leaders to give it some economic relief despite two meetings last week.
Therefore, Irani leadership is likely reaching its breaking point. Faced with an international community that seems to have no intention of providing economic support, Tehran will hit back by exercising greater control over oil shipments. However, this action is designed to pressure the opposing powers into coming to the discussion table or taking favorable action, but neither seem to be happening anytime soon. Therefore, it is worth considering what will happen if the JCPOA completely falls apart. In this event, Tehran has two paths it could follow, one being the successful covert Israeli nuclear program, and the other the failed Egyptian attempt at a nuclear-free Middle East.