Iran may have no intention of building a nuclear bomb but is instead using the mere threat as a “diplomatic lever”, an ex-CIA chief who is an expert on the region has told the JC.
Norman Roule, who worked for the US agency for 34 years, was one of the architects of President Obama’s 2015 deal with Tehran to curb its nuclear programme.
With talks continuing to resurrect the same Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was abandoned by President Trump in 2018, Mr Roule suggested that Iran’s apparently sustained ambition to build a bomb may be part of a game of deception.
He told the JC: “The evidence suggests Iran will not rush to develop a nuclear weapon, but instead test Western red lines on what weapons-enabling activity it might undertake without
consequence. The narrowing gap to a weapon becomes a diplomatic lever against the West.”
Mr Roule was in charge of America’s intelligence and security policy towards Iran for almost a decade, until late 2017. Despite this, his claim may surprise many observers of Iran’s recent activities.
Recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) say Iran is continuing to build large stockpiles of 60 per cent-enriched uranium, and that it may be just months away from acquiring enough fissile material to build a nuclear device.
Yet Mr Roule suggests the risks of going all-out for the bomb may be too great for the regime.
He said: “Press reports speak of routine sabotage at Iran’s most sensitive nuclear sites and the assassination of key nuclear officials, although it is hard to imagine personnel or locations with better security in Iran.
“With this history in mind, is it reasonable to think that Iran’s leaders can believe that weaponisation — which involves many personnel and facilities — can be kept secret and protected?”
This, he suggested, might well deter Tehran from taking the final steps which might invite massive targeted air strikes by Israel and the US.
But other experts on Iran are sceptical that even these threats are enough to deter the theocracy.
Dore Gold, the former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry and the author of the book The Rise of Nuclear Iran, told the JC: “I have long believed that Iran is seeking regional hegemony, and its main instruments are the use of proxy militias such as Hezbollah and acquiring nuclear weapons.
“I think that if Iran had the opportunity to take the next steps towards nuclearisation, it would do so. The prospect of retribution would be part of their considerations, but I don’t think it would deter them.”
As to attempts to resurrect the JCPOA, Mr Roule is doubtful that the talks in Vienna, involving Iran, Britain, America, China, Russia and the EU — which began last year — will succeed, saying of the treaty: “It’s hard to argue that it isn’t dead.”
Europe had always supported engagement with Iran in the hope this “might address the latter’s hostage-taking, nuclear and regional actions”, Mr Roule said, while “there are also those in Washington who believe that the solution to the Iran problem is engagement and trade”.
Unfortunately, he went on, even the comparatively moderate Iranian government led by Hassan Rouhani had failed to justify such hopes. But the team around the new hardline president Ebrahim Raisi — who has been dubbed “the Butcher of Tehran” — represents what Roule say is
“Iran’s bloodiest set of leaders since the first days of the revolution”, rendering the prospects of a significant change in Iran’s non-nuclear policy remote.
“It should worry us that the international community pays little attention to Iran’s proxies,” Mr Roule said. “As a direct result of Iran’s training, support, and equipment, Yemen’s Houthis are now capable of launching missiles and drones against Israel, let alone Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”
Mr Roule said one reason why a revived JCPOA was unlikely was that that the “strategic drivers” that had enabled the original JCPOA were now “largely absent”.
He told the JC that before 2015 “Iran faced a united international community. There was a sense that Russia’s then-President Medvedev was more willing to cooperate in pressure against Iran. Chinese violation of sanctions was not a broad as today.”
At the same time, merely talking without reaching a deal brings Iran significant benefits, Mr Roule said.
“Iran has no reason to end talks. Negotiations give it routine engagement with the major powers, something its political and economic status would normally not merit,” he said. “The talks have normalised engagement with the Raisi administration and Iran has used talks to delay international action and to expand its nuclear programme far beyond levels that were considered red lines in 2014.”
Meanwhile, the West had to consider how to deal with Iran’s broader threats: “If you believe Iran’s malign behaviour will continue, you need to consider what tools policymakers have to use in response.
“Diplomacy is unlikely to halt Iran’s support for terror. No one seeks a regional war, but too many policymakers now equate any military action as a prelude to such a conflict.”
A revived JCPOA might in itself make non-military action to tackle Iranian aggression more difficult, Mr Roule added. “Does a nuclear deal fence off the only effective sanctions tools for the West? Does this invite further Iranian aggression that could lead to the conventional conflict we seek to avoid? It seems reasonable that we ask such questions now,” he said.
He fears that the prospects for restraining Iran are not good. “When Tehran felt we were serious about regime overthrow, they stopped the behaviour they believed responsible. But to be clear, this occurred only once — when Tehran suspected during the 2003 period that the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan would also turn against it.
“Then, Iran ended its last nuclear weaponisation effort. Today, deterrence can prevent specific actions or slow programmes, but stopping a single terrorist act won’t stop Iran from proliferating missiles, hostage-taking, and so on.
“But as long as the international situation prevents a return to multilateral diplomatic and economic pressure against Iran, this may be the best we can do.”