October 30, 2020

Middle East Roundup: Trump Tries to Bind Biden’s Hands & Iran Moves Centrifuge Production Underground

This week, the Trump administration added new sanctions on Iran that it admitted were designed to sabotage a potential Biden administration’s diplomatic prospects. Also, Iran notified the IAEA it was constructing a new underground centrifuge production factory after a previous one was destroyed in a suspected sabotage attack. Please see our breakdown and analysis of these events below: 

New Sanctions Intended to Block Potential Biden Administration’s Iran Policy

  • Designations Do Not Inhibit President’s Legal Authorities
    • On Monday, Oct 26th, the U.S. Treasury designated the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum under counterterrorism authorities. All entities were previously subject to nuclear-related sanctions relief under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal.

    • This adds to the growing list of sanctions that, according to administration officials, are meant to make it more difficult for a potential President Biden to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Nuclear deal opponents have pushed the administration to erect a “sanctions wall” that a Democratic administration could not easily dismantle, as nuclear-related sanctions would be re-designated as counterterrorism sanctions.

    • In describing how these sanctions could affect a potential Biden administration, Elliott Abrams, the administration’s point man for Iran, said, “Those who believe that a President Biden could come to office in January and by the second or third day all sanctions will be gone, will find out that it’s not feasible even if they wanted to do it…The US now has a comprehensive sanctions structure in place that will stay for a while.”

    • In reference to designating Iranian entities under terrorism authorities, Abrams argued that “to lift those sanctions requires stating that Iran is not engaged in supporting terror. So how do you reverse that? No, you don’t.”
  • Key Takeaways
    • The primary target of these sanctions is not the Iranian government but Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The Trump administration has pursued their strategy in bad faith, which has been blatantly choreographed, solely in hopes of undermining a potential incoming President’s Iran policy and forcing them to adopt the failing Trump approach.

    • Politically, the Trump administration has tried desperately to create a “sanctions wall” over the last year to make it more difficult for Biden to reenter the deal. However, their efforts haven’t created a legal “sanctions wall,” only a political one. Sanctions-lifting can still be accomplished by the same mix of statutory waivers, Executive order revocations, and U.S. sanctions list removals as performed by President Obama when implementing the initial U.S. commitments under the nuclear accord.

    • Even though the White House seems to be treating sanctions as a political game, the consequences are shouldered mostly by the Iranian people, with humanitarian trade systematically stifled amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is once again surging in Iran.

Iran Begins Construction of New Underground Centrifuge Plant

  • Comes Months After Factory at Natanz was Destroyed Via Suspected Sabotage
    • Inspectors from the U.N.’s atomic watchdog have confirmed Iran has started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant after its previous one exploded in what Tehran called a sabotage attack over the summer. Satellite images released Wednesday, Oct. 28th, also confirmed the construction.

    • The construction of the new factory comes after a July 9th explosion at the nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran. The blast destroyed the majority of the facility’s centrifuge factory which was responsible for most of Iran’s advanced centrifuge production.

    • Following the explosion, New York Times cited a “Middle East intelligence official with knowledge of the episode” who said that Israel had infiltrated the facility and set off a “powerful bomb” that tore open and destroyed a facility used to calibrate new centrifuges for the enrichment program. The Washington Post cited sources depicting a similar picture of the incident.

    • It remains unclear if the U.S. was somehow involved in the explosion. However, in 2017, the U.S. and Israel created a joint working group to undermine Iran’s nuclear program through covert means, and the Trump administration gave the CIA greater authority to conduct sabotage in Iran. The U.S. also has a history of having knowledge of but not stopping similar alleged Israeli activities against Iran, including the wave of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by Israel between 2007 – 2012 that rocked the country.

    • Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear department, said last month that the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with one “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.” Iran was initially coy about what caused the explosion, but later confirmed that it was an act of sabotage. Iranian officials, however, refrained from placing blame on a specific actor. 
  • Key Takeaways
    • Iran’s response to the attack on its facility was wholly predictable. In July, we warned that attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities would only push them to harden their security and better fortify their nuclear program. As history shows, even though the attack halted centrifuge production in the short term, covert action does not have the ability to change Iran’s strategic calculus and may spur them to double down.

    • In 2011, when the U.S. and Israel released the Stuxnet virus on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, it may have undermined Iran’s nuclear program in the short term, but once the destroyed centrifuges were replaced, Iran dramatically ramped up its production. Iran’s construction of centrifuges accelerated during this period, from over 8,000 centrifuges installed at Natanz in 2009 to 19,000 by 2013.

    • The only viable path that has limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities in the long term has been the diplomatic one. The signing of the JCPOA put in place the most restrictive inspection regime in history, limited Iran’s breakout time to one year, capped enrichment, and greatly reduced the number of installed centrifuges. It will be incumbent on a potentially new administration to reverse all aspects of ‘maximum pressure’ in order to reduce the securitization of the conflict and rechart a path predicated on diplomacy. 
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