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Middle Eastern rivalry spills onto Asian soccer pitches

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Saudi Arabia’s bitter rivalry with Iran has spilled onto Asian soccer pitches with the newly created South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) reflecting the kingdom’s bid for regional hegemony, including domination of soccer.

Saudi Arabia’s most recent victory on the pitch was evident in the absence in SWAFF, formed by a merger of the West Asian and South Asian football federations, of almost half of the members of the West Asian grouping, including Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. Also, not included were South Asia’s Nepal and Bhutan.

The absence of Jordan and Palestine speaks volumes about the depth of polarization in the Middle East and the willingness of some states to quietly but firmly resist Saudi aspirations.

So does the fact that Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family that is closely associated with Saudi Arabia, did not attend SWAFF’s founding in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. SWAFF will be initially headed by Adel Ezzat, the president of the Saudi football federation.

Mr. Al-Khalifa’s absence fuelled speculation that SWAFF seeks to create a Saudi-dominated governing body in Asia in competition with the AFC and launch Asian soccer championships that would compete with AFC tournaments.

The AFC groups all Asian soccer federations, including Iran and other countries at odds with Saudi Arabia’s regional power-grabbing efforts.

“The South West Asian Association aims to develop the sport in Asia and hold many tournaments and events on an annual basis,” SWAFF said in a news release that also announced Saudi sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as its honorary president.

Pakistani news reports suggested that the Saudi effort to impose its will on Asian soccer may not be smooth sailing. Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials refused to confirm membership in SWAFF despite the participation of two its representatives in the Jeddah meeting.

The PFF has close ties to Mr. Al-Khalifa and its Bahrain counterpart which funds the salary of the Pakistani national team’s coach.

SWAFF has been tight-lipped about its ambitions with members reluctant to discuss the federation’s purpose in public. “I am not authorised to talk about it,” said All India Football Federation general secretary Kushal Das.

There was also no explanation for the exclusion of Nepal and Bhutan. Sources said the founding meeting of SAFF had been so hastily arranged that Nepal and Bhutan were unable to attend. They said the two countries were likely to join at a later stage.

With Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its closest regionally ally, heavily invested in Central Asian nations, SWAFF is likely to want to expand to include former Soviet members of the Central Asian Football Federation (CAFF).

Mr. Al-Khalifa recognized Central Asia as a separate region within the AFC after CAFF was established in 2014 at the initiative of Iran. Iran swapped its membership in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) for association with CAFF, a grouping in which it expected to be able to wield greater influence.

“Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are seeking a political return on their investment in Central Asia” said Gulf expert Theodore Karasik in an article discussing the Gulf states’ Central Asia strategy.

Central Asia is likely to emerge as an ever more important Saudi-Iranian battlefield in the wake of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program given plans for multiple pipelines, some of which include Iran.

A potential inclusion in SWAFF of Central Asian soccer federations at the expense of Iran would tally with Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its attitude toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Once one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban when the group controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia today is pressuring the group to engage in negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani in a bid to ensure that a Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative force shares power in a country that borders on Iran.

To achieve that, Saudi Arabia has moved from supporting the Taliban to trying to isolate it. Saudi Arabia has endorsed US allegations of Iranian support for the Taliban and is seeking to force the group or dissident elements within it to come to the negotiating table.

The Saudi pressure is also intended to thwart plans for a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

Saudi Arabia initiated the creation of SWAFF after Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the head of the WAFF, a former FIFA presidential candidate, and advocate of reform of soccer governance that has been wracked by multiple corruption scandals, reportedly resisted Saudi pressure to move the headquarters of the West Asian group from Jordan to Saudi Arabia.

The refusal amounted to a rejection of Saudi efforts to create one more building block for regional dominance.

Relations between Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been strained over Amman’s refusal to back the 11-month-old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar and Jordan’s refusal earlier this year to succumb to Saudi pressure regarding its participation earlier this year in a summit of Islamic leaders in Istanbul called to confront US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestine’s exclusion from SAFF suggests Saudi irritation with Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to accept the United States as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and protests by soccer fans against a Saudi effort to impose a coach on the Palestinian national team who has close ties to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s bid for regional soccer hegemony runs parallel to Mr. Trump’s vow to sanction non-American companies that do business with Iran in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement. It suggests that Saudi Arabia intends to expand its battle with Iran into areas beyond the Middle East and sectors that claim to be aloof of politics.

In doing so, the Saudi move challenges international sports governance’s insistence on a separation of sports and politics and is likely to put pressure on East Asian nations who are influential soccer powerhouses within the AFC and maintain close economic and diplomatic ties to the kingdom but have studiously remained on the side lines of its battles.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Iranian media and Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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Freedom of the press and the Media are both considered the fundamental pillars of Democracy across the globe.  However, some authoritarian regimes restrict and ban the media and freedom of speech.  These regimes establish and monitor their broadcasting system and media activity. The Iranian regime’s nature is authoritarian and dictatorial, and the country is ruled based on Shiite ideology and Persian nationalism. Security forces, especially the Iran intelligence ministry, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have a robust interconnection with media. Through cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, security agencies can monitor the media and the press.  Undoubtedly, Iran’s state-driven media have to pursue and consider the procedures based on ideological and national interests, focusing on the Shiite religion rules and Persian nationalism. The Iran State Press and media and other foreign opposition news media stood by Armenia and refused to hold a neutral position during the second Nagorno-Karabakh (Internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory) conflict lasting September 27th to November 10th, 2020.

We first need to analyze why the Iranian media holds discriminatory policy and behavior toward the Republic of Azerbaijan.  One of the main reasons is the large population of Turks who reside in Iran. They live mainly in Northwestern regions whom Turkish activists call South Azerbaijan. It is estimated that approximately 30 percent of Iran’s population is Turkish. Iranian officials assume the potent, rich, and attractive the Republic of Azerbaijan can influence Azerbaijani Turks and reinforce their desire to secession from Iran.  One example is a November video report named the “Nagorno-Karabakh War” and shared by Mashregh News, an analytical website affiliated with IRGC, which served as a pretext for Iran’s disintegration. In October, thousands of Azerbaijan Turks from cities like Tabriz, Ardabil, Zanjan, and Tehran gathered to support Azerbaijan and protested to criticize Iran’s aids in Armenia.  Unfortunately, security forces cracked down on these demonstrations and arrested dozens of protesters. Of course, Iran’s state-run media organizations avoided discussing arrest details of the demonstrations, and some, like the IRIB, went as far as distorted and misrepresented the nature of the protests in favor of the government.  The Iranian media using mostly the Persian language represented and conveyed the sovereign and independent Azerbaijan as the major threat to the religious, totalitarian, and Persian-centered government’s interest and security.

  Another important factor impacting Iranian state media policy against Azerbaijan in the recent battle of Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan’s strategic relations with Turkey and Israel. Turkey has been a long-time political rival of Iran regionally. This is the reason why Iran will not tolerate the presence of Turkey in the Caucasus. The Iranian media spread misleading news and inaccurate information against Turkey, which mobilized the Jihadi fighters to go to the battlefield of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Naturally, the Iranian media had no supporting evidence to back up their claims in the news. Furthermore, on November 1st, IRIB interviewed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in deceptive statements claimed terrorists and possibly Zionists participated in the conflict and diverted the issue to those governments involved.  Since then, the war is now over, and there is still no reliable documents or evidence to support his allegations. Propaganda and hate speech against Israel and Jewish people have been a dominant headline in Iranian media since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Due to Iran and Israel’s deep hostility, the Iranian government cannot endure Israel’s presence and strong ties with neighboring countries. Recently, the government news agency, Fars News, published an article by Ehsan Movahedian about the economic consequences of the recent peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Iran. The author emphasized that Israel’s permanent presence in Iran’s northwest border could be a significant threat for the Islamic Republic and create ethnic tensions. Similarly, on November 17th, Mashregh News posted an article about the second war of Nagorno-Karabakh and its effects on Iran’s geopolitical capacity in the energy sector.  In a similar theme, Ministry of Intelligence expert Ahmad Kazemi claimed that in the second Karabakh War, Turkey’s primary aim, The Republic of Azerbaijan, and Israel was to occupy the 42-kilometer border strip between Iran and Armenia by implementing the exchanging corridors in their plan. Kazemi concluded that opening the transit corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan is the American and England idea to restrain China, Russia, and Iran in the coming decades, to strengthen the concept of the Great Turan and Pan-Turkism. The transparent distress and concern of Iranian officials and experts reflected in the media indicated the government’s objective to disrupt the November Russian-brokered truce deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan that was signed between 3 countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Like Iran state media, Iranian overseas opposition media had a similar consensus about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Most of them deliberately distorted and censored the region’s realities and war facts in favor of Armenia in their articles and news. Iranian opposition media such as the BBC Persian, Radio Farda, and Iran International TV describe Nagorno-Karabakh as an Armenian-populated region. They refrain from elaborating on ethnic cleansing, which caused the displacement of one million Azerbaijani people from Karabakh and surrounding areas by Armenian troops during the first war in the 1990s. In the same media, Shusha was announced as an occupied city by Azerbaijan and not as a liberated city. Stemming from their Persian-centric nationalist views, they deem the awakening and empowerment of Northern and Southern Azerbaijanis as a serious threat to national security and unification in Iran.

In most cases, the Iranian media does not analyze events and issues impartially. Comparatively, they evaluated regional problems and national issues influenced by ideological interest and Persian nationalism. In the recent Nagorno-Karabakh battle, the Iranian media supported Armenia by spreading fallacious news and misleading information against Azerbaijan, like Israeli forces’ deployment in Iran’s Northwest border and transferring terrorists to the front lines of the war. Not surprisingly, the media attempted to deceive the public opinion by making accusations to justify Iran’s support for Armenia. Although Iranian Journalists and media activists thought that their anti-Azerbaijani actions would strengthen national security, contrastingly, their destructive activities did not contribute to national unity but instead intensified the ethnic division between Azerbaijani Turks and Persians in Iran. Consequently, with the continuance of the Iranian media’s destructive policies, without considering the Turks’ demands in Iran, maintaining stability, national solidarity, and territorial integrity will be a prominent issue in the future.

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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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