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Can Islam Be Reformed?

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Islam currently represents a backward, aggressive, and violent force. Must it remain this way, or can it be reformed and become moderate, modern, and good-neighborly?

Can Islamic authorities formulate an understanding of their religion that grants full rights to women and non-Muslims as well as freedom of conscience to Muslims, that accepts the basic principles of modern finance and jurisprudence, and that does not seek to impose Sharia law or establish a caliphate?

A growing body of analysts believe that no, the Muslim faith cannot do these things, that these features are inherent to Islam and immutably part of its makeup. Asked if she agrees with my formulation that “radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution,” the writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali replied, “He’s wrong. Sorry about that.” She and I stand in the same trench, fighting for the same goals and against the same opponents, but we disagree on this vital point.

My argument has two parts. First, the essentialist position of many analysts is wrong; and second, a reformed Islam can emerge.

Arguing Against Essentialism

To state that Islam can never change is to assert that the Koran and Hadith, which constitute the religion’s core, must always be understood in the same way. But to articulate this position is to reveal its error, for nothing human abides forever. Everything, including the reading of sacred texts, changes over time. Everything has a history. And everything has a future that will be unlike its past.

Only by failing to account for human nature and by ignoring more than a millennium of actual changes in the Koran’s interpretation can one claim that the Koran has been understood identically over time. Changes have applied in such matters as jihad, slavery, usury, the principle of “no compulsion in religion,” and the role of women. Moreover, the many important interpreters of Islam over the past 1,400 years—ash-Shafi’i, al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, Rumi, Shah Waliullah, and Ruhollah Khomeini come to mind—disagreed deeply among themselves about the content of the message of Islam.

However central the Koran and Hadith may be, they are not the totality of the Muslim experience; the accumulated experience of Muslim peoples from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond matters no less. To dwell on Islam’s scriptures is akin to interpreting the United States solely through the lens of the Constitution; ignoring the country’s history would lead to a distorted understanding.

Put differently, medieval Muslim civilization excelled and today’s Muslims lag behind in nearly every index of achievement. But if things can get worse, they can also get better. Likewise, in my own career, I witnessed Islamism rise from minimal beginnings when I entered the field in 1969 to the great powers it enjoys today; if Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline.

How might that happen?

The Medieval Synthesis

Key to Islam’s role in public life is Sharia and the many untenable demands it makes on Muslims. Running a government with the minimal taxes permitted by Sharia has proved to be unsustainable; and how can one run a financial system without charging interest? A penal system that requires four men to view an adulterous act in flagrante delicto is impractical. Sharia’s prohibition on warfare against fellow Muslims is impossible for all to live up to; indeed, roughly three-quarters of all warfare waged by Muslims has been directed against other Muslims. Likewise, the insistence on perpetual jihad against non-Muslims demands too much.

To get around these and other unrealistic demands, premodern Muslims developed certain legal fig leaves that allowed for the relaxation of Islamic provisions without directly violating them. Jurists came up with hiyal (tricks) and other means by which the letter of the law could be fulfilled while negating its spirit. For example, various mechanisms were developed to live in harmony with non-Muslim states. There is also the double sale (bai al-inah) of an item, which permits the purchaser to pay a disguised form of interest. Wars against fellow Muslims were renamed jihad.

This compromise between Sharia and reality amounted to what I dubbed Islam’s “medieval synthesis” in my book In the Path of God (1983). This synthesis translated Islam from a body of abstract, infeasible demands into a workable system. In practical terms, it toned down Sharia and made the code of law operational. Sharia could now be sufficiently applied without Muslims being subjected to its more stringent demands. Kecia Ali, of Boston University, notes the dramatic contrast between formal and applied law in Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, quoting other specialists:

One major way in which studies of law have proceeded has been to “compare doctrine with the actual practice of the court.” As one scholar discussing scriptural and legal texts notes, “Social patterns were in great contrast to the ‘official’ picture presented by these ‘formal’ sources.” Studies often juxtapose flexible and relatively fair court outcomes with an undifferentiated and sometimes harshly patriarchal textual tradition of jurisprudence. We are shown proof of “the flexibility within Islamic law that is often portrayed as stagnant and draconian.”

While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It is not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational, constitutional texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by purists. Indeed, premodern Muslim history featured many such challenges, including the Almohad movement in 12th-century North Africa and the Wahhabi movement in 18th-century Arabia. In each case, purist efforts eventually subsided and the medieval synthesis reasserted itself, only to be challenged anew by purists. This alternation between pragmatism and purism characterizes Muslim history, contributing to its instability.

The Challenge of Modernity

The de facto solution offered by the medieval synthesis broke down with the arrival of modernity imposed by the Europeans, conventionally dated to Napoleon’s attack on Egypt in 1798. This challenge pulled most Muslims in opposite directions over the next two centuries, to Westernization or to Islamization.

Muslims impressed with Western achievements sought to minimize Sharia and replace it with Western ways in such areas as the nonestablishment of religion and equality of rights for women and non-Muslims. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), symbolizes this effort. Until about 1970, it appeared to be the inevitable Muslim destiny, with resistance to Westernization looking rearguard and futile.

But that resistance proved deep and ultimately triumphant. Atatürk had few successors and his Republic of Turkey is moving back toward Sharia. Westernization, it turned out, looked stronger than it really was because it tended to attract visible and vocal elites while the masses generally held back. Starting around 1930, the reluctant elements began organizing themselves and developing their own positive program, especially in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and India. Rejecting Westernization and all its works, they argued for the full and robust application of Sharia such as they imagined had been the case in the earliest days of Islam.

Though rejecting the West, these movements—which are called Islamist—modeled themselves on the surging totalitarian ideologies of their time, Fascism and Communism. Islamists borrowed many assumptions from these ideologies, such as the superiority of the state over the individual, the acceptability of brute force, and the need for a cosmic confrontation with Western civilization. They also quietly borrowed technology, especially military and medical, from the West.

Through creative, hard work, Islamist forces quietly gained strength over the next half century, finally bursting into power and prominence with the Iranian revolution of 1978–79 led by the anti-Atatürk, Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89). This dramatic event, and its achieved goal of creating an Islamic order, widely inspired Islamists, who in the subsequent 35 years have made great progress, transforming societies and applying Sharia in novel and extreme ways. For example, in Iran, the Shiite regime has hanged homosexuals from cranes and forced Iranians in Western dress to drink from latrine cans, and in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime has torched girls’ schools and music stores. The Islamists’ influence has reached the West itself, where one finds an increasing number of women wearing hijabs, niqabs, and burqas.

Although spawned as a totalitarian model, Islamism has shown much greater tactical adaptability than either Fascism or Communism. The latter two ideologies rarely managed to go beyond violence and coercion. But Islamism, led by figures such as Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (1954-) and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), has explored nonrevolutionary forms of Islamism. Since it was legitimately voted into office in 2002, the AKP gradually has undermined Turkish secularism with remarkable deftness by working within the country’s established democratic structures, practicing good government, and not provoking the wrath of the military, long the guardian of Turkish secularism.

The Islamists are on the march today, but their ascendance is recent and offers no guarantees of longevity. Indeed, like other radical utopian ideologies, Islamism will lose its appeal and decline in power. Certainly the 2009 and 2013 revolts against Islamist regimes in Iran and Egypt, respectively, point in that direction.

Toward a Modern Synthesis

If Islamism is to be defeated, anti-Islamist Muslims must develop an alternative vision of Islam and explanation for what it means to be a Muslim. In doing so, they can draw on the past, especially the reform efforts from the span of 1850 to1950, to develop a “modern synthesis” comparable to the medieval model. This synthesis would choose among Shari precepts and render Islam compatible with modern values. It would accept gender equality, coexist peacefully with unbelievers, and reject the aspiration of a universal caliphate, among other steps.

Here, Islam can profitably be compared with the two other major monotheistic religions. A half millennium ago, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all broadly agreed that enforced labor was acceptable and that paying interest on borrowed money was not. Eventually, after bitter and protracted debates, Jews and Christians changed their minds on these two issues; today, no Jewish or Christian voices endorse slavery or condemn the payment of reasonable interest on loans.

Among Muslims, however, these debates have only begun. Even if formally banned in Qatar in 1952, Saudi Arabia in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980, slavery still exists in these and other majority-Muslim countries (especially Sudan and Pakistan). Some Islamic authorities even claim that a pious Muslim must endorse slavery. Vast financial institutions worth possibly as much as $1 trillion have developed over the past 40 years to enable observant Muslims to pretend to avoid either paying or receiving interest on money, (“pretend” because the Islamic banks merely disguise interest with subterfuges such as service fees.)

Reformist Muslims must do better than their medieval predecessors and ground their interpretation in both scripture and the sensibilities of the age. For Muslims to modernize their religion they must emulate their fellow monotheists and adapt their religion with regard to slavery and interest, the treatment of women, the right to leave Islam, legal procedure, and much else. When a reformed, modern Islam emerges it will no longer endorse unequal female rights, the dhimmi status, jihad, or suicide terrorism, nor will it require the death penalty for adultery, breaches of family honor, blasphemy, and apostasy.

Already in this young century, a few positive signs in this direction can be discerned. Note some developments concerning women:

  • Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has responded to rising public outrage over child marriages by setting the age of majority at 18. Though this doesn’t end child marriages, it moves toward abolishing the practice.
  • Turkish clerics have agreed to let menstruating women attend mosque and pray next to men.
  • The Iranian government has nearly banned the stoning of convicted adulterers.
  • Women in Iran have won broader rights to sue their husbands for divorce.
  • A conference of Muslim scholars in Egypt deemed clitoridectomies contrary to Islam and, in fact, punishable.
  • A key Indian Muslim institution, Darul Uloom Deoband, issued a fatwa against polygamy.

Other notable developments, not specifically about women, include:

  • The Saudi government abolished jizya (the practice of enforcing a poll tax on non-Muslims).
  • An Iranian court ordered the family of a murdered Christian to receive the same compensation as that of a Muslim victim.
  • Scholars meeting at the International Islamic Fiqh Academy in Sharjah have started to debate and challenge the call for apostates to be executed.
  • All the while, individual reformers churn out ideas, if not yet for adoption then to stimulate thought. For example, Nadin al-Badir, a Saudi female journalist, provocatively suggested that Muslim women have the same right as men to marry up to four spouses. She prompted a thunderstorm, including threats of lawsuits and angry denunciations, but she spurred a needed debate, one unimaginable in prior times.

    Like its medieval precursor, the modern synthesis will remain vulnerable to attack by purists, who can point to Muhammad’s example and insist on no deviation from it. But, having witnessed what Islamism, whether violent or not, has wrought, there is reason to hope that Muslims will reject the dream of reestablishing a medieval order and be open to compromise with modern ways. Islam need not be a fossilized medieval mentality; it is what today’s Muslims make of it.

    Policy Implications

    What can those, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who oppose Sharia, the caliphate, and the horrors of jihad, do to advance their aims?

    For anti-Islamist Muslims, the great burden is to develop not just an alternative vision to the Islamist one but an alternative movement to Islamism. The Islamists reached their position of power and influence through dedication and hard work, through generosity and selflessness. Anti-Islamists must also labor, probably for decades, to develop an ideology as coherent and compelling as that of the Islamists, and then spread it. Scholars interpreting sacred scriptures and leaders mobilizing followers have central roles in this process.

    Non-Muslims can help a modern Islam move forward in two ways: first, by resisting all forms of Islamism—not just the brutal extremism of an Osama bin Laden, but also the stealthy, lawful, political movements such as Turkey’s AKP. Erdoğan is less ferocious than Bin Laden, but he is more effective and no less dangerous. Whoever values free speech, equality before the law, and other human rights denied or diminished by Sharia must consistently oppose any hint of Islamism.

    Second, non-Muslims should support moderate and Westernizing anti-Islamists. Such figures are weak and fractured today and face a daunting task, but they do exist, and they represent the only hope for defeating the menace of global jihad and Islamic supremacism, then replacing it with an Islam that does not threaten civilization.

     

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Netanyahu-Pompeo secret meeting with MBS: A clear message to Joe Biden and Iran

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Israeli media reported on Monday, November 24, 2020, that Netanyahu had secretly traveled to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to some media reports, the meeting took place in the city of Neom on the Red Sea coast, and was attended by Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence and security service, but Benny Gantz, the Minister of Defense, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli Foreign Minister, They were not during this trip. Although some claim that Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman have met before, this secret trip is very important in this sensitive situation. That means less than two months before the end of the Trump administration, the US move could have far-reaching implications for Middle East countries, regional security policies and the future of their relations with Israel.

On the other hand, the Donald Trump administration has helped mediate an Israel’s peace agreement with neighboring Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain. The normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as one of the most important Muslim countries in the Middle East, has always been on the agenda of the administration of US President Donald Trump and he hopes to lead Saudi Arabia and Israel to an agreement. About two months ago, the UAE and Bahrain signed a joint statement in Washington on a commitment to peace called the “Ibrahim Agreement” with Israel. The agreement has been described as a turning point in the official relations between the Arab states and Israel in recent decades. Following the announcement of the agreement, Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but stressed that his country wanted a permanent solution to the Palestinian question.Therefore, in this text, by examining the reasons for this secret trip, the possible consequences for the future security of the Middle East region as well as regional coalitions towards Iran have been explained.

The normalization of Arab countries’ relations with Israel has been largely due to their shared concerns about Iran. However, the interesting thing about this secret trip is that the Saudi authorities deny it. This means that Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin FarhanAl-Saud tweeted: “I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi”.However, Saudi Arabia does not talk about this trip for various reasons, which could include the following: 1) Saudi Arabia is the cradle of the Islamic world and is not yet internally ready to establish open relations with Israel. However, Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the Arab world, and the normalization of relations with Israel will allow other Arab countries in the region to follow the path of other countries to establish relations with Israel. 2) Saudi Arabia stated in the Arab League that it does not allow direct flights to Israel and does not even allow Israeli planes to cross the skies of Riyadh, and if it does so and establishes a relationship with Israel, its credibility will be reduced. Saudi Arabia has said in the past that it will only recognize Israel if the Palestinians achieve an independent state. Israelis also usually travel to Saudi Arabia with a special permit or with foreign passports, most of whom are Muslims, a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Send a clear message to Joe Biden’s government

After the Trump administration came to power in 2016, the Israeli and Saudi sides were very happy. This means that the foreign policy of the Obama administration (2008-2016) in the Middle East was not very satisfactory for Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is why the actions of the Trump administration, and especially the efforts of Jared Kushner and Pompeo to improve relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries, have improved their regional situation. For Examples can mentioned US-Saudi military agreements and the withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, maximum pressure on Iran, the Century Deal Plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and normalization Israel’s relations with Arab countries such as the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. However, with the end of the Trump administration’s presidency in less than two months, concerns have grown for Joe Biden as the next US president for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

Therefore, one of the main points of this trip is to send a clear message to the Biden administration to show that Israel and Saudi Arabia are in the same direction on regional issues, especially confronting Iran, and that the Biden administration must continue the path of the Trump administration. Although it should be noted that Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party has warmed over the past half century, it is imperative that any government that wants to rule in the United States must pay special attention to Israel’s interests and security. Perhaps one of the levers of pressure on the US government is the powerful Zionist lobbies in the United States, which play a special role in US security strategy and foreign policy. Thus, the secret meeting between Mohammed bin Salman, Netanyahu and Pompeo means that Saudi Arabia considers the US presence in the Middle East necessary and to maintain security in the region.

Maintaining a regional coalition against Iran

Another reason for this trip is the issue of Iran. This means that during the four years of the Trump administration, the toughest measures were taken against Iran, which was acceptable to Saudi Arabia and Israel. These include the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, maximum pressure on Iran and further economic sanctions, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, the formation of a regional coalition against Iran, and attacks on Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. Israel considers Iran its greatest enemy, and Saudi Arabia, which cut ties with Iran four years ago, sees the Islamic Republic as a serious rival and threat.

But in his remarks, Biden said a return to a nuclear deal with Iran had raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel have openly sent a message to Biden that Riyadh and Tel Aviv will continue the Trump-formed coalition against Iran, and that Biden must follow Trump’s lead, keep up the pressure on Iran, and respond to Iran’s regional presence, ballistic missiles, nuclear deal, and tensions in regional crises such as Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Israel, in order to maintain their security, want the United States to be present in the region and, as the leader of the region, to be able to reduce the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Therefore, the main demand of Saudi Arabia and Israel from the Biden government is that Iran must abide by all its obligations.

Netanyahu also met with Mohammed bin Salman and Mike Pompeo after the media reported about two weeks ago that the Trump administration was planning a series of new sanctions against Iran in the final weeks of its work, in coordination with Israel and several Gulf Arab states. The reason for such a move is the increase in non-nuclear sanctions and the increasing pressure on Iran to make it harder for the Biden administration to return to the nuclear deal. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel are waiting for the next government in Iran. It is unlikely that the Biden government will consider the Iran issue as one of its priorities in the next year. Economic problems and the Corona crisis will be the most important issues for the Biden government.

Changing the security balance in the Middle East

Less than two months after the end of the Trump administration, some believe that there is a possibility of changing the regional balance. This means that there is a possibility of a limited military attack and covert operation by the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia against Iran and the government of Bashar al-Assad. A claim that may be different from reality. Although some see, the transfers of the B-53 bomber to the region as an important reason for this, Israel and Saudi Arabia themselves know that entering into a limited war with Iran could make things difficult for them. Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv believe that with the advent of the Biden government and its multilateral policy on regional issues and the possible return to a nuclear deal with Iran, crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen may continue, with the threat of Iran and its influence. Security will change the region to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Therefore, before the end of Trump’s presidency, they are trying to form a US-Israel-Saudi regional alliance to maintain the balance of power so that it can somehow intensify it during Biden. With Biden in office, the Middle East regional order appears to be moving toward security, and tensions between key regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Israel and Iran are spreading. Finally, Russia’s mediating role should be mentioned. As an important regional player, it has been able to maintain the balance of power between the countries of the region and has been recognized as an important winner in regional crises. Russia’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel are going well, which is why Riyadh and Tel Aviv want US support to counter Iran. Although Russia is also pursuing its own national interests, it will try to take advantage of the tensions between these actors and undermine the US unilateral presence.The trip is for reasons such as sending a clear message to the next US administration and Joe Biden to cooperate fully with Riyadh and Tel Aviv, and on the other hand, to continue to put maximum pressure on Iran and balance regional powers in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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Iranian nuclear problem again: The storm clouds are gathering

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The nuclear problem of Iran is once again becoming the focus of global media attention, and there are several reasons for this.

First, US President-elect Joe Biden (although no official results of the November 3 vote have been announced yet), who generally rejects the foreign policy of the current President Donald Trump, said that he will make  America’s return to the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, one of his administration’s main priorities. The announcement was certainly not lost on political scientists, analysts and journalists, who started actively discussing the new situation around the Iranian nuclear problem.

Second, this renewed interest in the future of the 2015 accord is also explained by the “persistence” of the Trump administration, which, 60 days now left  before it will be moving out of the White House, is ramping up its  traditional “maximum pressure” on Iran by introducing a new set of sanctions…

Third, this is the internal political struggle in Iran, now that President Hassan Rouhani – one of the main authors of the JCPOA – is due to step down when his second term in office expires in 2021.

Rouhani’s upcoming departure has been a boost to the conservative radicals predominant in the government, who are all set to step up their fight against the JCPOA. Indeed, their discontent was directed not so much at Washington, as at President Rouhani, who in their opinion, which has been gaining popularity at home, made a mistake by joining President Barack Obama in creating the JCPOA. This means that Rouhani’s successor may be less open to communication with the West, and, to a certain extent, unwilling to abide by the terms of the agreement.

Throughout Donald Trump’s four years in the White House, President Rouhani has been trying hard to keep the JCPOA alive and give diplomacy a chance even though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has increasingly warned against contacts with Washington, especially since President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018.

However, mindful of the Trump administration’s aggressive policy towards the Islamic Republic, exactly a year after the US pullout from the JCPOA, the Iranian leadership began to gradually scale back its commitments under the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, the “nuclear situation” in Iran now looks rather alarming and even dangerous.

In a confidential report circulated to member states on November 10, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that, as of November 2, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had reached 2,442.9 kilograms, which is 12 times the amount allowed under the JCPOA. Under the agreement, Iran is only allowed to produce up to 300kg of enriched uranium in a particular compound form (UF6), which is the equivalent of 202.8kg of uranium.

The IAEA added that Iran was continuing to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5% – in violation of the 3.67% threshold agreed under the 2015 deal.

According to the UN nuclear watchdog’s latest quarterly report, Iran has completed the deployment of the first set of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at an underground facility in Natanz. Tehran had earlier informed the IAEA of its intention to transfer three cascades of advanced centrifuges to Natanz. The first cascade of IR-2m centrifuges, has already been installed and connected, but is not yet operational, since gaseous uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for the production of enriched uranium, is not yet supplied to the system. The Iranians are also installing a second cascade of more efficient IR-4 centrifuges. A third cascade of IR-6 centrifuges is now in the pipeline.

Moving underground equipment previously located on the surface, and using more advanced centrifuges than the first generation IR-1 units is a violation of Tehran’s obligations under the JCPOA.

The Natanz nuclear facility, located about 200 kilometers south of Tehran, is an advanced complex, consisting of two main facilities – the Experimental Plant, commissioned in 2003, and the Industrial Plant, commissioned in 2007. The latter consists of two underground reinforced concrete buildings, each divided into eight workshops. The plant is well protected against air strikes with an almost eight-meter-thick high-strength concrete roof, covered with a 22-meter layer of earth.

In late October, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi confirmed that Iran is also building an underground facility in Natanz to assemble centrifuges of a new generation, more productive and efficient. This is equally at variance with the terms of the JCPOA accord, which has suffered erosion and destabilization since the US withdrawal.

Just as Academician Alexey Arbatov very aptly noted in his article “Iranian Nuclear Perspective”: “There is no reason for such underground structures and, accordingly, for colossal additional costs if, as Tehran says, they are for peaceful nuclear energy generation. References to the threat of an Israeli air strike are equally unconvincing, since what we are talking about is ‘peaceful atom.’ Indeed, all other elements of the nuclear industry are not protected from an airstrike and can be destroyed if the enemy seeks to prevent the development of peaceful, rather than military, nuclear energy in Iran. History knows only two examples of similar underground nuclear power projects: an underground nuclear power plant (Atomgrad) built by the Soviet Union near Krasnoyarsk to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and a uranium enrichment complex, apparently being built in the mountains of North Korea. Both of a military nature, of course, meant to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials even during the war, despite air strikes.”

Judging by the latest IAEA report, the agency is also unsatisfied with Tehran’s explanations about the presence of nuclear materials at an undeclared facility in the village of Turkuzabad (about 20 km south of Tehran), where man-made uranium particles were found last year, and continues to consider the Iranian response “technically unreliable.”

In his November 13, 2020 report about the agency’s work to the UN General Assembly, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said that the IAEA continues to verify the non-proliferation of nuclear materials pledged by Iran in keeping with the terms of its Safeguards Agreement. In August, Grossi visited Tehran and met with President Rouhani and other senior Iranian officials. During the visit, the sides agreed to settle certain issues pertaining to the implementation of safeguards, including IAEA inspectors’ access to two facilities in Iran. Inspections have since been carried out at both locations and environmental samples taken by inspectors are being analyzed.

“I welcome the agreement between the agency and Iran, which I hope will reinforce cooperation and enhance mutual trust,” Rafael Grossi summed up.

Even though Iran is formally de jure involved in the nuclear deal, the hardline conservative majority in the country’s political elite opposed to the JCPOA has taken a new step towards Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT.

In a statement issued on November 11, 2020, Khojat-ol-eslam Mojtaba Zonnour, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Mejlis (Iranian parliament), said that the MPs had approved (but not yet passed as law) a “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions.”

According to the “Plan,” upon its approval in parliament, the government shall suspend within the next two months any access by IAEA inspectors outside the provisions of the Additional Protocol.  And also, if Iran’s banking relations with Europe and Iranian oil sales do not return to normal within three months after the adoption of the law, the government is to stop voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.

The Iranians insist that the level of cooperation that has in recent years been going on between Tehran and the IAEA in monitoring the country’s nuclear program was even higher than what is envisaged by the Additional Protocol, including their introduction of a special checkup regime for IAEA inspectors. Moreover, Tehran never misses a chance to remind that before the JCPOA, Europe was buying between 700,000 and one million barrels of Iranian oil a day, and that economic and banking relations were normal.

Mojtaba Zonnour emphasized that the United States walked out of the JCPOA in order to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, adding that the Europeans had failed to meet their obligations under the JCPOA and had been cheating Iran for several years. He also noted that in keeping with the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” the IAEA will only be allowed to monitor the implementation of the Safeguards Agreement and the NPT requirements.

Upon its approval by the Mejlis, the “Plan” envisions a radical refusal by Iran to comply with a number of key obligations under the JCPOA.

Thus, the Fordow nuclear fuel enrichment plant, redesigned in line with the JCPOA requirements into a research center, will again become a plant for the production of enriched uranium. The number of new IR-6 centrifuges there will be increased to 1,000 by the end of the Iranian calendar year (March 20, 2021) to turn out up to 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20% a year.

The Iranians are also going to expand their enrichment capacities and bring the production of uranium enriched to 5% up to at least 500 kg per month, compared to just 300 kg allowed by the JCPOA.

Within four months from the date of the Strategic Plan’s entry into force, Tehran intends to restore the 40 megawatt heavy water reactor in Arak to the level it operated at prior to the conclusion of the JCPOA accord, which had it redesigned so that it would not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In January 2016, the reactor core was dismantled.

As Mojtaba Zonnour quite frankly explained in his statement, “In the above-mentioned Plan, we determined the extent to which our nuclear activities would intensify and stated that we had abandoned the measures taken in accordance with the requirements of the JCPOA. For example, we decided to increase the level of uranium enrichment, increase the amount of uranium accumulation, bring the 40 megawatt heavy-water reactor in Arak to its pre-JCPOA state, install modern centrifuges, and the like. <…> The Plan singles out two very important points: one is that if, after we enact the law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions,” the Europeans change their behavior and resume their commitments under the JCPOA, of if the US wants to return to the JCPOA, the Iranian government will no longer have the authority to unilaterally suspend the implementation of this law. It will need permission from parliament – it is the Majlis that makes the final decision. ”

It is worth mentioning here that in its draft law the Mejlis provides for  criminal responsibility for non-compliance by individuals and legal entities with the provisions of the law on the “Strategic Plan…” with violators facing  punishment of up to 20 years behind bars.

Enactment of the law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” and its implementation by the government is tantamount to Iran’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Moreover, Mojtaba Zonnour said that the government could fast-track the adoption of the law on the “Plan,” as there is an administrative and legal opportunity for it to be formally considered by the parliamentary Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy within 10 days, and subsequently adopted by an open session of the Majlis.

This means that by the time US President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, the “Plan” may have already been adopted. The Iranian authorities obviously had this date very much in mind when unveiling the “Plan” to the general public. 

On the one hand, the draft law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” can be seen as an attempt by Tehran to “blackmail” the new US administration, as well as Britain and the European Union, in order to achieve the main goal of lifting the sanctions even by restoring in some form the JCPOA accord (or drawing up JCPO-2), but on Iranian terms. On the other – to get a bargaining chip for a future dialogue, possibly with the very same P5+1 group of world powers (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany), but now a dialogue from a position of strength.

No wonder the already familiar Khojat-ol-eslam Zonnour said: “In fact, the nature of [US] arrogance is such that when they see you weak, they put more pressure on you, and if our position against the system of domination and arrogance is weak, this does not serve our interests. Consequently, the Iranian people have the right to respond to questions from a position of dignity and strength.”

As for Khojat-al-eslam Zonnour, he is a radical politician and the fiercest opponent of the JCPOA and a rapprochement with the West in parliament.  The following statement tells it all: “Unfortunately, today some of our statesmen use expressions that are contrary to the dignity of the Iranian people, our authority and self-respect. The fact that in their tweets and comments our president and first vice president say that ‘God willing, the new US administration will return to the law and fulfill its obligations’ these are not correct or noble things to say. Such words encourage the enemy to defy its commitments, and when it doesn’t see our resolve and thinks we are passive and asking for a favor, it raises the bar and tries to score more points.

Mojtaba Zonnour’s activity can certainly be viewed as an example of a tough internal political struggle, but this way or another his views resonate with the overwhelming majority of members of the current parliament. And the issues of the JCPOA and general opposition to the United States and Europe were not invented by Zonnour alone.

Thus, we can state that the future of the JCPOA is now hanging in the balance as there are powerful forces in both Iran and the US opposed to nuclear deals between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world.  There is still hope, however, that the economic crisis and the threat of social protests will eventually force Tehran to resume contacts with the United States and the other signatories to the JCPOA accord in order to work out conditions for lifting the sanctions.

In turn, as is evident from statements coming from US President-elect Joe Biden, his administration will be ready for a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue, and here the positions of Russia, China, the European Union and the UK are no less important for resolving the newly emerged Iranian nuclear problem.

Just how this negotiation process will be carried out and on what conditions is hard to say now, but there is absolutely no doubt that it is going to be extremely difficult, dramatic, contradictory and protracted. The stakes are too high, it is too important for Iran, its neighbors, the entire Near and Middle East, as well as for preserving the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

 From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

World Powers Must Address the Nexus of Iran’s Terrorism and Diplomacy

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On coming Friday, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat will stand trial in Belgium along with three co-conspirators in a terrorist plot. The prosecution is an opportunity to hold these four individuals accountable for activities that could have harmed hundreds of advocates for democracy in the Middle East. More than that, it is also an opportunity for Western powers to reconsider their overall approach to the regime that enables and actively promotes such terrorist plots.

The trial concerns the attempted bombing of an international gathering, organized annually near Paris by the coalition of Iranian opposition groups and personalities, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Collateral damage of the June 2018 plot could have easily included any number of the high-profile dignitaries who had traveled to the event from throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Among these were many members of parliament from across Europe, former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, former PM and Foreign Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and John Baird, former Foreign Ministers of France and Italy, Bernard Kouchner and Giulio Terzi, and President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

This list of potential victims stands alongside the French venue as a reason why it is especially important for Western governments to offer an assertive reaction to the terror plot. Ideally, that reaction could have happened very soon after the plot’s details were revealed, particularly after it was announced that the third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna had been arrested in connection with it. But the trial of that terrorist-diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, represents another opportunity for a unified Western coalition to send a strong message to his handlers in Tehran.

Make no mistake, those handlers were guiding Assadi through the entire process. An initial, months-long investigation into the terror plot led to an announcement from the French Government which stated unequivocally that the plot had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This finding has been corroborated every step of the way by the two-year Belgian investigation. Throughout that time, Tehran has explicitly stood behind its agent, as by trying to obstruct his extradition after he was arrested in Germany, just outside the bounds of his Austrian diplomatic immunity.

Despite those efforts to help him escape accountability, an alternative account of the terror plot has gradually emerged which suggests that Assadi was acting as a rogue agent, without the knowledge or consent of his own government. This is nonsense, and it has been appropriately and repeatedly debunked by persons with knowledge of the case, as well as by persons with a solid understanding of how the Iranian regime operates in general.

“The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership,” wrote Jaak Raes, the head of Belgian state security services in recent communications with the media. “It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”

It is not even clear why anyone would think otherwise, unless it is because the direct involvement of such a high-ranking diplomat doesn’t seem to be part of Iran’s usual modus operandi. This is a valid point, but the change in tactics should raise more questions about the perceived value of the target in 2018 than it does about who is ultimately responsible for setting that target. In fact, the Iranian regime’s attempted attack on the opposition gathering was predictable because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had personally acknowledged, that January, that the NCRI coalition was responsible for an ongoing, nationwide upsurge in unrest.

The January uprising inspired countless protests that carried the same anti-government message through the rest of the year, during which time Tehran became fixated on stamping out dissent both at home and abroad. That fixation called for more carefully managed terrorist activity than is usually channeled through the regime’s various terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah. In essence, the 2018 terror plot only brought the role of Assadi and other Iranian diplomats into the foreground, putting him in a leadership position whereas once he might have simply channeled the regime’s instructions, financial and logistical assistance into the hands of third-party militants.

Now that the curtain has been drawn back on the regime’s existing terrorist infrastructure, the international community must carefully consider how to assure that it is never activated in this or any other way again. It will not be sufficient to just secure conviction for the 2018 conspirators, although this is certainly a step in the right direction. Major world powers should amplify the message of that conviction so the Iranian regime will have no doubts about the consequence of other such terror plots being thwarted in the future.

Many of those who attended the 2018 gathering have recently outlined some of the ways in which this message might be conveyed. In a number of online conferences they used the opportunity to advocate for enhanced economic sanctions on regime authorities, further diplomatic isolation for the regime as a whole and the application of formal terrorist designation of entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

Diplomatic isolation seems to be an especially contentious topic, especially when advocates raise the prospect of shuttering Iranian embassies and consulates altogether. But details of the Assadi case should receive a broader public airing next Friday and then it should become much easier for policymakers throughout the world to sign onto a foreign policy strategy that acknowledges the Islamic Republic is the furthest thing from an ordinary diplomatic partner.

Far from closing off a pathway for promoting moderation within the Iranian regime, embassy closures would actually limit the regime’s ability to convey terrorist extremism beyond its borders, sometimes even into the heart of Europe. In partnership with other assertive Western policies, this sort of diplomatic isolation can be expected to force the regime into a position where it must either fundamentally transform its behavior in order to survive or else focus exclusively on domestic affairs and risk overthrow by an increasingly restive population.

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