Analysis |

For Now, Iran Faces Bigger Threats Than Mysterious Explosions at Nuclear Sites

A deep economic crisis is pushing the latest incidents off the public and political agenda. But Israel and the U.S. should avoid making dangerous assumptions

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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People wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus shop at the old grand bazaar of the city of Zanjan, west of Tehran, July 5, 2020.
People wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus shop at the old grand bazaar of the city of Zanjan, west of Tehran, July 5, 2020.Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Up to now, Iran has been trying to deal with the crises that have been erupting and with the unexpected circumstances. But the crossing of red lines by the enemies of the Islamic Republic, particularly by the Zionist entity, would require a change in its strategy,” Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency stated in an article in response to the three explosions and fires that occurred in the last week.

In one explosion, the military complex at Parchin was damaged. In the second, a fire broke out in a building that was being used to assemble new-model centrifuges at the facility in Natanz, and in the third, there was an explosion in a private clinic that killed 19 people. Iran is not providing information on the cause of the explosions “for security reasons,” but its spokespeople claim that authorities know how they were caused and say that the information will be released shortly. Officially, however, it is not attributing them to any particular cause.

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The Iranian news agency article is the first public Iranian statement linking the explosions to Israel and/or the United States. The change in strategy that the article hints at is aimed at saying that Iran is liable to retaliate against anyone who is proven to be responsible for these incidents. But there is nothing new in that, and that also goes for those involved in the targeted assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in January.

Judging by the political and media agenda in Iran, the “mysterious” explosions are not at the top of the agenda of public discussion or political interest. On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif bore the brunt of the anger of members of the Iranian parliament. He had come to report to them on diplomatic developments, but lawmakers shouted at him, calling him a liar. They put a stop to his remarks with “We don’t want to hear your lies.” One parliamentarian even called for death to the liar.

Apart from being a reflection of the political battle against the government of President Hassan Rohani, the parliamentary anger relates to frustration over the absence of a solution to the country’s deep economic crisis. Zarif tried to explain that he has been in intensive negotiations with a large number of countries, particularly European countries and China and Russia, to find a way to skirt American sanctions against Tehran, and that he had managed to sign trade agreements that are not denominated in dollars. But the remarks fell far short of convincing his adversaries. In a sarcastic question referring to the Iranian currency, he was asked, “Is the fall of the rial to 210,000 to the dollar the result of your diplomatic contacts?”

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, June 16, 2020.Credit: Reuters

The new speaker of parliament, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a conservative who plans to run for president in the election expected in June of next year, proposed changing the name of the Iranian Foreign Ministry to the Foreign and International Trade Ministry, because, as he put it, “the war that we are fighting now is an economic war.”

Zarif told the members of parliament that “we are all in the same boat. The Americans and the Zionist entity do not distinguish between conservatives and reformists, revolutionaries from those who are not revolutionaries. We have to show solidarity and come together.” But solidarity and unity are not currently part of Iran’s political lexicon. And none of the parliamentarians mentioned the explosions.

If the economic crisis represents a portion of “the crises that have been erupting and with the unexpected circumstances” mentioned in the Islamic News Agency article, the coronavirus, which is at record highs in Iran, is much more of a threat than sanctions. The number of COVID-19 deaths, which has now topped 11,000, and the resurgence of the virus in cities that had appeared to have recovered from the pandemic will require the government to reimpose closures on districts and cities after the economy had been almost entirely reopened. It will also boost the frustration and despair and the readiness of the population to rebel.

President Rohani’s adversaries are making efforts to pin the blame on him and his government for the failures in handling the coronavirus, but ultimately it is the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will have to face the public criticism.

Worshipers wearing masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus pray at a mosque in Zanjan, Iran, July 5, 2020.Credit: Vahid Salemi /AP

Even after the series of explosions, it’s doubtful that Iran will resort to that well-known trick that governments use — finding an external enemy to pounce on to divert attention from their own failings. Iran is currently waging a tough fight against American efforts to extend the term of the conventional arms embargo against it, which is due to expire in October.

Fighting sanctions

Foreign Minister Zarif is trying to enlist European countries and China and Russia to oppose the American effort and it appears that even without Iranian lobbying they will vote against the American resolution at the United Nations – if only because it is led by U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

And as long as the international infighting continues, it’s doubtful that Iran would wish to inject military action into the diplomatic arena, which would harm its efforts to foil the American plan. Iran can in fact again resort to Shi’ite militias in Iraq to hit American military targets, but that could play into the hands of the United States, which is in intensive negotiations with the new Iraqi government on new deployment arrangements there.

In addition, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been acting much more energetically recently against the Shi’ite militias. All of their operations against American targets simply strengthen the hand of the Iraqi government and constrain the militias.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani after delivering a speech on the opening ceremony of Iran's 11th parliament in Tehran, May 27, 2020.Credit: Wana News Agency / Reuters

But beyond these considerations, Iran, like every other country, is waiting for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. This waiting period will require Iran to limit its military activities to lay the ground for renewed negotiations with the United States under a Biden administration.

Such considerations could create a working assumption in Israel and the United States that there is a window of opportunity in Iran at the moment for military action against the Islamic republic. That would be a dangerous assumption amid the intense political battle currently being waged in Iran. An “appropriate national” response against the enemies could serve the interests of conservatives in the country, whose power has increased since the elections to parliament. The diplomatic logic guiding President Rohani and his government might not be enough in the face of adversaries looking for his head.

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