It is likely that Tehran has concluded that if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, Putin would not have dared to invade the country.
Here’s a question. If Ukraine had retained its nuclear weapons, instead of giving them up in 1994, would Vladimir Putin have so brutally attacked it this year? After all, there was no particular rationale for the attack, other than Putin’s own fantasy legacy, convinced that he is the true successor to Peter the Great? The reason why this question is so important is that it is being asked in small countries around the world. If you are facing a large irrational bully such as Russia, what chance do you have of protecting yourself without nuclear weapons? Of course, if you’re a member of NATO, then you will be protected under Article 5, which means that an attack against one member is considered as an attack against all. In other words, you won’t need your own nuclear weapons. If you’re not a member of NATO, you’re on your own. Which is precisely why Finland and Sweden rushed to join after Russia attacked Ukraine five months ago.
Let me remind you. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile on its soil. A concerned Russia and the West eventually persuaded Kiev to give up the weapons in return for assurances from Russia that its borders would be protected and its sovereignty respected. By signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Russia not only recognised Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent country, but also guaranteed its territorial integrity. Three years later, Russia even signed a Friendship Treaty with Ukraine. We now know that a treaty with Russia isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. We certainly know what President Putin thinks of international treaties that get in the way of his greater glory.
Which leads us to Iran.
Putin is not the only world leader who tears up treaties—former US President Donald Trump did the same. Iran filed a lawsuit against the US when Trump in 2018 unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and announced that he would be authorising new “economy-crippling” sanctions against Iran. Tehran argued successfully at the International Court of Justice that the sanctions violated the earlier Amity Treaty of 1955, leading to an enraged Trump also ripping up this Treaty, as he pursued a determined strategy of confrontation with Iran.
Much has been written about the JCPOA. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it brought Iran’s nuclear programme under tight international control. The JCPOA delivered unprecedented international oversight and access to Iran’s nuclear programme and imposed strict limits to guarantee Iran could not weaponise its programme, in exchange for economic relief from sanctions on the country. Even after the US pull-out, Tehran initially stayed in accordance with the agreement, while also trying to salvage a deal with the remaining stakeholders—Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France. The JCPOA appeared close to being resumed in March, following 11 months of indirect talks between Tehran and the US under President Joe Biden, with the EU acting as a go-between. But they became bogged down over Tehran’s insistence that Washington removes the hugely influential elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US Foreign Terrorist Organisation list.
The latest indirect talks on JCPOA took place in Doha late June, but ended again “without any progress”, according to both the US State Department and the EU. Sceptics believe that Iran is deliberately dragging out negotiations until it has achieved the status of a nuclear weapons threshold state. A few days later, on 29 June, President Putin and Iranian President Raisi met on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan, a meeting which brings together the leaders of the five Caspian Sea littoral countries—Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Emphasising the growing trade between the two countries, Putin noted that Russian-Iranian trade grew by 81% in 2021, and a further 31% in the first few months of this year. For his part, Raisi emphasised that “nothing has stopped or will stop the progress of our trade and economic ties”.
The Kremlin announced on Tuesday that President Putin will visit Iran this week, a day after the US warned that Tehran could provide Moscow with “hundreds” of “killer” drones for use in Ukraine. Iran has long worked on the so-called “kamikaze” loitering drones, similar to the “switchblade” that the US delivered to Ukraine. Putin’s visit is designed to improve economic relations between the two sanctions-hit countries.
Just as with Russia, Iran’s economy has not collapsed, despite Washington’s punitive sanctions. Having proven more resilient and diversified than many predicted, Iran’s economy grew by 2.4% in 2020-21, according to the World Bank, and is forecast to grow 3.1% this year. To sustain this growth, Iran requires major infrastructure investments that many believe can only be afforded if sanctions are lifted. But sanctions will only be lifted if Iran agrees to give up all aspirations to nuclear weapons, even though Tehran has always argued that its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful.
Which brings us back to Ukraine.
It is likely that Tehran has concluded that if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, Putin would not have dared to invade the country, which is why Iran appears determined to develop one. Last Sunday, Tehran announced that it has begun enriching uranium up to 20%, using new sophisticated centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear power plant. That the country is enriching to this level, a technical step from weapons-grade of 90%, deals yet another blow to the already slim chances of reviving the JCPOA. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Authority reported that Iran had 43 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60% purity, enough fissile material, according to experts, for one nuclear bomb. The IAEA is also alarmed by the rapidly diminishing transparency of Tehran’s nuclear activity, a feature of the JCPOA, as last month Iran shut off more than two dozen monitoring cameras from various nuclear-related sites across the country.
Whatever Iran’s intentions, the country’s dedication to nuclear enrichment, even at such enormous costs, can seem bizarrely counterproductive to many people. So why is the country so set on its nuclear programme? There is no one dominant answer, but rather a few plausible explanations.
Iran’s national pride runs deep, and with good reason. It has been an active centre of cultural, scientific, religious and political thought for many centuries, and is still upset by decades of Western interference during the 19th and 20th centuries. The nuclear programme is a way in which Iran affirms, to itself and to the world, that it is an advanced and sovereign nation. The more the world tells it that it cannot have a nuclear programme, the more important building such a programme becomes for the cause of nationalism.
From the time Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, a war that lasted 8 years, Iranian leaders have feared that hostile, Western-backed Arab leaders could also do them terrible harm, particularly the regional pro-American Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia. It has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, that since the signing of the Abraham Accords on 15 September 2020, Israel has exported $3 billion worth of weapons to Iran’s enemies in the Middle East, 20% of its total defence exports in the period. At the same time, 150 security-related meetings have been held between Israeli officials and those countries.
But most of all, Iran wants to defend itself against its bitter enemy, the nuclear armed Israel, a country strongly supported by the United States, illustrated yet again by President Biden’s visit last week. Iranian leaders have long memories and will remind anyone who listens that it was the US Bush Administration that named Iran part of its “axis of evil”. They recall that it was the US that helped Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his brutal war against Iran, in which he killed thousands of Iranians, some with chemical weapons. It’s difficult to overstate how traumatic was this war, and how badly Tehran wants to prevent another, especially against a nuclear Israel.
In many ways, this is a “Catch-22” dilemma between Iran and Israel. Iran feels threatened by a nuclear-armed Israel and believes that the only way of protecting itself is to develop its own nuclear weapons, pointing at the plight of non-nuclear Ukraine as evidence. But the fact that Iran is quickly developing its nuclear weapons, makes it a serious threat to Israel, in the eyes of Jerusalem. The JCPOA was meant to break the Catch-22, but when signatories can simply tear up treaties when a new administration arrives, as did Trump in 2018, can Iran trust any deal? Better build the bomb, concludes Tehran.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.