In this interview conducted by the "Iran Desk" at ITSS Verona Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad addresses and analyzes Iran's nuclear policy and the revival of the JCPOA. The interview focuses on the possible outcomes of Iran's nuclear policy, the effect of Iran's nuclear policy in the region, and the international response and reaction from the international community.
Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a German–Iranian political scientist focusing on Iran, the Middle East, and the post-unipolar world order. He is an associate fellow with the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (AUB-IFI) and author of the much-acclaimed book Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani (2021). Ali holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from SOAS.
Interviewers: Shahin Modarres, Yasmina Dionisi and Filippo Cimento.
In recent weeks the debate has heated up on whether Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force, the elite extraterritorial operations unit, should be removed from the US’ Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list in order to advance the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA was first signed in 2015 before being abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018, essentially annulling the agreement, despite the fact that Iran and other countries (UK, Germany, France, Russia, China) and the EU were still committed to it – with some more committed than others.
For now, US President Joe Biden has dismissed the idea of de-sanctioning the IRGC and opted to keep it on the FTO list. However, it is safe to say that if reviving the deal would benefit Biden politically and the IRGC issue remains a deal-breaker for the Iranians, the former is likely to ease or lift the sanctions altogether on Iran’s most powerful and dangerous tool – a tool that is in its essence more important than military nuclear capabilities.
Therefore, it is alarming that the ongoing indirect talks in Vienna between the US and Iran focus solely on the latter’s nuclear project , rather than on the more pressing issue – the IRGC’s destabilizing efforts across the Middle East and Iran’s existing tools, including its ballistic missile program. We argue that Iran uses the nuclear issue as a decoy – a very costly, yet beneficial and effective one – to allow its forces to spread its worldview, religious beliefs and geopolitical interests across the region – all of which are prioritized over obtaining military nuclear capabilities. A nuclear bomb is not the tool to achieve these goals, but it can clear the way for another tool to do so.
We argue that the IRGC’s operational capabilities are crucial to Iran’s interests more than obtaining nuclear military capabilities, with the latter aimed to enable the former. We allow ourselves to make this statement by analyzing the answer to the following question, which seems to largely be ignored: why does Iran want nuclear military capabilities and, once Iran has these capabilities, what will Iran do with them? Would Iran attack Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel or the US and its strategic assets with a nuclear bomb? There is only one possible answer and that is it is highly unlikely, considering the anti-Iran military coalition that would form and retaliate, as well as the expected excommunication of Iran from world politics and economic spheres. Iran, then, has a different end-goal than dropping a nuclear bomb.
Simply put, Iran’s nuclear military capabilities would allow Iran to divert all of its security effort to create relative superiority across the Middle East, through which it will promote its vision, attempt to recover its economy and become the leading regional super-power. That is the end-goal of the Iranian nuclear project. In practical terms, Iran aims to deter its enemies from intervening in its satellite territories and in Iran itself by obtaining nuclear military capabilities, essentially freeing the IRGC to operate with as little opposition as possible.
Before concluding, it is important to state why the IRGC is on the US’ FTO list in the first place and what is expected to happen if the organization is de-sanctioned. To begin with, the IRGC’s internal security mechanisms terrorize Iranians in Iran – most Iranians live in fear of the authorities. Civil protests can turn into mass arrest operations, or mass killings. Second, the IRGC‘s Quds Force directly and indirectly destabilize Middle Eastern countries and the region as a whole via terror tactics by arming, advising, and financing terrorist organizations, as well as by subversion and sabotage. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been on the receiving end in recent months, it is mostly the citizens of Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon who had their lives ruined by the IRGC. Both Syria and Yemen have been torn apart by civil wars, with Iran playing a decisive role in each country (siding with President Assad in Syria and with the Houthi rebels in Yemen).Whilst in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran supports local militias that destabilize and undermine the local political and military systems. In fact, the Iranian-backed terror organization Hezbollah has been directly at fault for thousands of deaths in Lebanon, either by acting as the judge, jury and executioner, or by dragging the country into armed conflicts with Israel. Essentially, the US’ focus on the nuclear issue rather than on Iran’s actual and planned meddling allowed the IRGC to “run amok across the region, better funding its destabilizing proxy militias… while developing advanced ballistic missiles.”
If the US hopes to help stabilize the region by reviving the JCPOA then it must not concede to Iran’s demands to drop the sanctions on its most effective tools, the ballistic missile program and the IRGC, as ultimately these are the most destabilizing forces in the Middle East today. Instead of miscalculating Iran’s intentions and following its decoy, the US should focus on Iran’s regional aspirations and its role in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in particular. Once Iran’s influence is marginalized, all that a leverage-less Iran will be left with is nuclear military aspirations but without any interest to utilize them even if these aspirations are achieved, as it will lose its significance in the regional balance of power. Its nuclear military capabilities will become an obvious bluff.