The Rise of Iran Poses Both Opportunities and Dangers

In 2015 the Obama administration signed what is popularly referred to is the Iranian nuclear deal, under which Iran pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange, the punitive sanctions on Iran were to be lifted. The Trump administration cancelled United States participation in the deal, which in any case had not resulted in the lifting of United States sanctions.

The new Biden administration had made promises during the United States presidential campaign that it would re-join the deal. In the event, the new Biden administration not only made no attempt to return to the deal, but in fact inserted new demands that Iran should cease development of modern conventional weapons.

In this endeavour, the United States was strongly urged by Israel for whom intransigence towards Iran is part of its DNA. In all the discussions about Iran becoming or not becoming a nuclear power, the western media entirely overlooks the fact that Israel is in fact a nuclear armed state. Its consistent refusal to admit the fact, or to join any treaty aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons does not remove this singular fact from the equation. It is therefore the height of hypocrisy by Israel to be making demands about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

The Israeli antipathy to Iran goes much further however than supporting any attempts to limit Iran’s nuclear development. That development, the Iranians insist, consists only in the development of peaceful energy projects.  Although the Islamic Republic did have a policy of developing a nuclear weapons capability at the time of its confrontation with Iraq in the 1980s, there is actually no evidence at all that such a program has been developed this century. This has not stopped the Israelis who for at least the past 30 years have been warning of the dangers supposedly attached to Iran ever acquiring a nuclear weapons facility.

What motivates this Israeli hostility is not entirely clear. While there is certainly no love lost between Israel and Iran, the latter has never directly threatened Israel, nor made any serious attempt to limit Israel’s influence in the region, with the exception of supporting Syria which is constantly under attack by the Israeli air force. That this latter fact also escapes the criticism of western nations is yet another pointer to the charmed existence that Israel enjoys in the region.

Iranian self-restraint is also significant when one considers that Iran and its forces have been the object of overt hostility by the Israelis. In this, the Israelis have been supported by the United States which never finds within itself the capacity to criticise Israel’s clearly illegal military attacks upon its neighbours. These attacks include the assassination of key Iranian scientists.  It was however, the United States that carried out the assassination of top Iranians general Qasem Soleimani in January 2001, a fact that United States president Donald Trump actually boasted about. He has not been held accountable for this blatant murder.

It Is unlikely that this relatively low level of warfare against Iran will cease any time soon. The big question among many commentators however, is whether this will escalate to a full-blown attack. There are some signs that this is being planned by the Israelis.  In this they have the undoubted support of the United States.

There are however, some strong signs that such an attack will not happen. Those signs can be detected and inferred from some recent developments in Iran’s situation. The first is that Iran has very recently become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, becoming its ninth full member. This organisation contains, inter alia, Russia and China as members. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has also recently upgraded its status within the SCO and is now an associate member. There has been a notable thawing of the Saudi-Iran relationships this year, with the two countries having a number of bilateral meetings.

A second major factor has been the progressive movement of Iran’s economic interests away from Europe and towards the Asian market. Asian countries have generally been more tolerant of Iran and reluctant to join the United States sanctions, unlike their European counterparts. Although major European countries were signatories to the JCPOA in 2015, their actions towards the Iranian government remain at best rather chilly.

The third factor is the role of China, long a supporter of Iran which was nonetheless constrained by its obligations under the 2015 JCPOA, a deal to which it was a signatory. The transition period envisaged by the JCPOA has not expired, and member states of the United Nations are free to develop closer ties with Iran.

Of those countries, the charge has been led by China, represented most substantially by a $400 billion deal signed between Iran and China in Beijing in 2020. This deal will have an enormous impact on the Iranian economy. It is undoubtedly a harbinger of further future deals between the two countries. It marks a significant shift in Iran’s exports to the Asian market.

The Russians have also been active in the Iranian market. In the past two weeks there have been separate visits in Moscow by Iran’s defence minister General Mohamad Bagheri, the foreign minister Hossein Annerababdallahian, and the Parliamentary speaker Bagher Ghalibaf. The talks between the top Iranian officials and their Moscow counterparts are expected to lead to major arms purchases by the Iranians. Although there is no doubting the bravery and competence of the Iranians armed forces, they have had to deal with often antiquated equipment, of which the air force is the worst example.

This combination of an upgraded military, plus the political and economic support of the two Eurasian superpowers make Iran a formidable opponent. If the United States and the Israelis are stupid enough to directly attack Iran, they risk a war that could quickly escalate out of control. As disappointing as the Biden administration has been in their foreign policy options, it is unlikely that they are so stupid as to risk a war with Iran in the modern geopolitical and military situation in which the country is rapidly developing.

Unfortunately, it is not always the wisest heads that prevail in the United States. This is especially so when they are at one with the Israelis who often give the impression of being prepared to fight to the last American. One sincerely hopes that wiser heads will prevail, but given the recent history it would be a brave person who would bet on continued United States and Israeli restraint.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.