Tehran could be capable of building a nuclear weapon within just a few weeks. In an interview, scholar Nasser Hadian says that Tehran is interested in more than just calculated provocation – and discusses what the West should do next.
Interview Conducted by Susanne Koelbl in Teheran
05.04.2023, 17.29 Uhr
Ballistic missiles being launched as part of a Revolutionary Guard exercise in 2021. Foto: IRGC / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO
Tehran continues to enrich uranium. The nuclear deal with Iran is dead and negotiations aimed at resuscitating it have been suspended.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said he would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, and Israel has also threatened to attack the country should Tehran build a nuclear weapon.
Recently, the U.S. again established contact with Iran through intermediaries, says Nasser Hadian, an Iranian professor of political science who regularly participates in background discussions. Here, the Tehran analyst, who earned his Ph.D. in the U.S., explains Tehran’s risky strategy and why the West must take action now.
DER SPIEGEL: You say that the nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), may soon be relaunched, despite all contrary indications. What makes you so optimistic?
Hadian: All the alternatives to the JCPOA are inconvenient and costly. They are bad options for all sides, as they may lead towards war.
About Nasser Hadian
Nasser Hadian, 65, is an Iranian political scientist at the University of Tehran. He earned his Ph.D. in the U.S. and taught for a time at Columbia University in New York. Hadian is considered to have significant influence among the Iranian elite. Because of his critical stance toward his own government, he is also respected internationally. Hadian lives in Tehran.
DER SPIEGEL: How so?
Hadian: Let’s take a look at the two possible alternatives to the JCPOA currently under discussion in Iran. One is the continuation of the status quo, and the other is escalation.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean in concrete terms?
Hadian: The continuation of the status quo would involve a temporary agreement with Iran, whereby Iran would agree to some conditions and, in return, would receive sanctions relief – similar to the predecessor of the JCPOA, called the JPOA.
Iran, for example, would be allowed to sell more oil or petroleum products to earn revenues in exchange for turning the cameras back on (cameras at nuclear facilities that monitor activity there) and reduce uranium enrichment. A second possible pathway is called “freeze-for-freeze.” It basically means Iran would cease enriching uranium at the current level, and the U.S. and Europe would keep nuclear-related sanctions in place but would refrain from imposing any new sanctions. In other words, it could prevent escalation.
An IAEA inspector in Natanz in 2014. Foto: imago stock&people / UPI / IMAGO
DER SPIEGEL: Would that be a solution?
Hadian: In the absence of the JCPOA, freeze-for-freeze is the most practical option, in my opinion. But could not be an end deal.
“If Iran were to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the JCPOA, inspectors would be expelled from the country, the cameras would be switched off and there would no longer be any sort of monitoring.”
DER SPIEGEL: What about escalation? What does that actually mean?
Hadian: Escalation would involve the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officially accusing Iran of a violation and then sending the dossier to the United Nations Security Council.
DER SPIEGEL: Such a step could be taken if Iran were to produce weapons-grade uranium, thus deliberately violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it once signed.
Hadian: Still, any Security Council resolution regarding sanctions against Iran would be vetoed by China and/or Russia. This situation then would lead other European members to consider the “snapback mechanism.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard at a 2008 military parade in Tehran. Foto: Behrouz Mehri / AFP
DER SPIEGEL: That mechanism is an agreement allowing any JCPOA party to request further sanctions at the UN Security Council – sanctions which cannot then be vetoed, not even by Russia or China.
Hadian: Exactly. Iran has already warned that if the snapback mechanism is activated, it will leave not only the JCPOA, but also the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
DER SPIEGEL: That would be a dangerous step. What exactly would Iran be intending to accomplish with such a move?
Hadian: If Iran were to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the JCPOA, inspectors would be expelled from the country, the cameras would be switched off and there would no longer be any sort of monitoring. This would lead to a condition of complete ambiguity regarding its nuclear program.
“Any accidents, miscalculations or misunderstandings could lead to a major war.”
DER SPIEGEL: A calculated provocation that would naturally spread concern and fear internationally. With what aim?
Hadian: The situation would escalate. In order to make its threat credible, the U.S. would send aircraft carriers to the region and prepare for an attack on Iran, together with its allies. Iran then would assume a regional war posture. The situation would become tense, and any accidents, miscalculations or misunderstandings could lead to a major war.
DER SPIEGEL: That would be extremely risky for Tehran. In the event of a war, Iran would also suffer extensive damage.
Hadian: Iran would suffer most in the event of a conflict. But the main point is that it would not be a war between the U.S. and Iran, but a regional conflict with many countries involved. Thus, while Iran would suffer, all countries in the region would be tremendously harmed by such a war. Thus, on the basis of any reasonable calculations, one would want to avoid such a situation and would consider returning to the JCPOA as the most efficient, practical and least costly option.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in his office in Tehran. Foto: Iranian Supreme Leader’S Office / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO
In 2019, Iranian drones attacked the Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia as an act of revenge for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Foto: Susanne Koelbl/ DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: Such a scenario suggests that Tehran wants to reach an agreement at almost any price and is even willing to risk a possible Israeli-American attack.
Hadian: Nobody wants war. But Iran would respond strongly in the face of a military attack. It has shown its determination before. After General Soleimani was killed in 2020, the Revolutionary Guard fired 21 missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, and they didn’t care how strong the retaliation would be. In another incident, Iran also fired drones at Saudi Aramco oil facilities …
DER SPIEGEL: … and destroyed 50 percent of its oil production, in an act of revenge for U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, a decision Riyadh had pressured him to make.
Hadian: Then, too, the Revolutionary Guard took the risk of a strong retaliation. For me, that is an indication that they will react strongly if they find themselves pushed into a corner.
DER SPIEGEL: In Tehran, the word is that the Iranian leadership, Ayatollah Khamanei, President Ebrahim Raisi, the foreign minister and even the Quds Brigades are now in favor of the JCPOA agreement. But not the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Why not?
Hadian: They want Iran to stay in a stronger position. They want a better, longer and stronger agreement. But that would take years to negotiate. None of us have that time.
“The balance of power in Iran is, at present, in favor of the JCPOA, but this may not be the case in the future.”
DER SPIEGEL: How powerful is the Revolutionary Guard when it comes to this issue in Iran?
Hadian: As is the case in all countries that have signed the JCPOA, there are differing political forces in Iran, some who are in favor of this deal, and some who are opposed. The balance of power in Iran is, at present, in favor of the JCPOA, but this may not be the case in the future. Thus, I believe the U.S. and Europe are better off seizing the current opportunity to return to the JCPOA.
DER SPIEGEL: What could a nuclear agreement look like, following the last failed attempt in August 2022?
Hadian: At the moment, ideas are being discussed which I helped formulate some time ago, and which are now being advocated by some experts and policymakers in Iran. Iran’s absolute first priority is to ensure the sustainability of the treaty so that no future U.S. president could out of the nuclear agreement, as President Donald Trump did in 2018.
U.S. President Trump in Ohio in 2020: “The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA proved its unreliability and untrustworthiness, and proved Europe’s strategic irrelevance.” Foto: Saul Loeb / AFP
DER SPIEGEL: How might that be possible? No U.S. president can dictate to the next what to do during their term.
Hadian: One possible path would be for Iran to uninstall its centrifuges and put them into storage with the enriched uranium inside Iran.
DER SPIEGEL: Not in Russia, like the last time?
Hadian: Exactly. It could be both sealed and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency inside Iran. Should the United States pull out of the agreement, Iran could rapidly access the material and expand its nuclear program again. That would have a deterrent effect on the decision of future U.S. presidents to withdraw from the JCPOA.
“Tehran wants a committee of experts and diplomats to review compliance with the JCPOA agreement in the U.S. and Europe as well.”
DER SPIEGEL: Is that Tehran’s primary demand?
Hadian: There are four main demands. The second is the snapback mechanism, allowing any signatory to the agreement to request the re-imposition of UN sanctions if Iran “materially fails to comply” with its obligations. Iran is demanding that either a consensus or a majority of the six major powers be required to invoke the mechanism, not just one country. The third concern for Iran is ensuring that the commitments made by Western powers are also monitored by an observing body.
DER SPIEGEL: How might that look in practice?
Hadian: Tehran wants a committee of experts and diplomats to review compliance with the JCPOA agreement in the U.S. and Europe as well. Even when the JCPOA was completely implemented, Iran did not receive the full economic benefits that had been agreed upon.
DER SPIEGEL: And the fourth demand?
Hadian: The fourth issue, which has been discussed among policy circles involved in the nuclear deal in Iran, involves compensation for the damage caused by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. The government estimates that the sanctions have cost Iran more than $240 billion.
DER SPIEGEL: Who should pay those costs?
Hadian: In Iran, it has been frequently argued that, while Iran fulfilled its part of the deal, the U.S. completely ignored its obligations and walked out of the agreement, putting the Europeans in a position where they, too, had to disregard their JCPOA obligations. There are some other technical issues, which, for reasons of simplicity, don’t need to be discussed here.
DER SPIEGEL: How realistic do the Iranians actually think their demands are? In August 2022, talks collapsed because the demands were unacceptable for Europe and the U.S.
Hadian: The Iranian negotiators know that the Biden administration may not be able to pay Iran directly, due to domestic political considerations. Compensation could come in the form of credit lines or other tangible economic benefits. France and Japan have also made proposals centered on investing tens of billions in Iran.
“Relying on the naive and simplistic analysis that the Iranian government is on the verge of collapse can have catastrophic consequences.”
DER SPIEGEL: What about the other side? What would the West get out of a renegotiated deal?
Hadian: Iran is prepared to take into account U.S. demands. For example, Iran could agree to the extension of all the sunset clauses within the JCPOA by an additional five years.
DER SPIEGEL: That would inject a bit more security into the agreement, but it still isn’t likely to be even close to enough.
Hadian: Additionally, instead of the 300 kilograms of enriched uranium at 3.67 purity noted in the JCPOA, just 200 kilograms could remain in Iran. Iran could also reduce the number of centrifuges from 5,000 to 3,000 and open up access to more nuclear sites.
Demonstrators in Tehran in September 2022. Some fear that a new deal with Iran could boost the country’s current leadership. Foto: AFP
DER SPIEGEL: There are some in the West who are opposed to any new agreement with Iran because it would stabilize an ailing regime that they would like to see collapse. Are such concerns justified?
Hadian: Relying on the naive and simplistic analysis that the Iranian government is on the verge of collapse can have catastrophic consequences – consequences that could lead to the escalation discussed earlier.
“A significant share of the political elite believe that Iran should instead shift its focus to China and Russia.”
DER SPIEGEL: What does the Iran leadership still have to offer the younger generation in lieu of this agreement?
Hadian: Many of the youth and others who enthusiastically supported the JCPOA in 2015 and hoped for better relations with the U.S. and Europe as a result lost their hope in 2018, when the U.S. withdrew from the deal and Europe failed to live up to its obligations. A significant share of the political elite believe that Iran should instead shift its focus to China and Russia.
Satellite image of the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz (2021) Foto: Planet Labs / AP / dpa
DER SPIEGEL: What would such a strategy shift entail?
Hadian: Those who favor the “pivot to the East,” as it is called here, argue that the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA proved its unreliability and untrustworthiness, and proved Europe’s strategic irrelevance. Though Europe verbally supported the JCPOA and positioned itself against President Trump politically, in practical terms, it did what the Trump administration demanded. As such, many elites and experts hope that a closer relationship with China and Russia would enhance Iran’s economic situation and thus satisfy the young population.
“Most Iranians are still more oriented towards the West.”
DER SPIEGEL: What do China and Russia have to offer?
Hadian: China has already significantly increased its scholarships for Iranian students. Chinese companies in Iran have employed many Iranians.
DER SPIEGEL: What do young Iranians themselves want?
Hadian: Most Iranians are still more oriented towards the West, as indicated by the hundreds of private English language institutes. The U.S. and Europe should take advantage of this opportunity. I too am wary of being in China’s orbit and hope that the decisions made in the U.S. and Europe do not push Iran in that direction.