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Iran is waiting to reach a nuclear capability
By Aviram Balleishe
In recent years, we have witnessed the Iranian regime's weakness and lack of response to physical or verbal provocations by enemies acting to harm it, whether concerning its food, water, resource security, or dignity. Iran is courageous so long as it can hide behind proxies that fight for it against Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, Iran flaunts itself as a missile superpower in the media sphere, circulating videos of underground bunkers containing long-range precision missiles and attack drones. Is Iran, indeed, weak compared to its neighbors? What explains Iran's timing in launching a war on Israel, at this stage, employing Hamas?
What stands behind the Shiite power's restraint and the fear of engaging in direct hostilities, whose ideological objective—for which the revolution was waged—is the reappearance of the Hidden Imam and the establishment of worldwide Shiite Islamic rule?
Is Iran Weak Compared to Its Neighbors?
Afghanistan: The Waters of the Helmand
Since August 2, 2022, when the Taliban again took control of Afghanistan, the Iranian regime has shown a distinct weakness and flexibility toward them—from Iranian Majlis member Ahmad Naderi referring to the Taliban as a movement with roots in the region and calling for negotiations with them eight months before their rise to power, to the official transfer of the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban on February 26, 2023.
Since October 2022, the Taliban have denied the waters of the Helmand River to the residents of Iran's Sistan and Baluchestan province. "On May 18 this year, Ibrahim Raisi, president of Iran, demanded that the rulers of Afghanistan restore the water rights to the residents of Sistan and warned them of the consequences of not doing so." The Taliban leadership, however, mocked the threat with videos they circulated on social media. For instance, Afghan General Mobin Khan Muhammad sent out a video in which water is drawn from a dam on the Helmand with a yellow barrel and derisively called to Raisi: "Here, please take the barrel and don't attack us; we're scared." This video went viral and inspired many imitations by Afghans.
And if that were not enough, on May 27, 2023, a video was posted featuring a military threat by the Taliban in the form of a song, in which they promise to attack the land of the Shiites with hundreds of armored vehicles of the best American manufacture and dozens of trucks loaded with explosives in yellow barrels. Nor did the Taliban settle for messages: on May 27, they attacked a base of the Iranian Border Guard near the city of Zabol, killing two Iranian soldiers and wounding two. The Taliban documented the attack and posted it online. In the aftermath of the attack, it was also revealed that the death of the base commander, earlier on May 16, 2023, had resulted from an attack by Taliban fighters and not from a clash with smugglers—as initially claimed, for obvious reasons, by news agencies affiliated with the Iranian regime. Later, on August 7, the Bloomberg news agency reported that on the same day as the Taliban attack, they had also deployed thousands of fighters and hundreds of suicide bombers to the border with Iran and were prepared for war. The Taliban also posted documentation of the transfer of the bodies of the Iranian soldiers to Iranian forces.
Almost a year earlier, the Taliban had closed off the Doosti Dam in Afghanistan, the primary water source for Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city. Iran responded on a psychological level, seeking to minimize the event's importance in the eyes of Iranians. Likewise, when the Iranian Border Guard soldiers were killed, the Kayhan Daily gave the event only minimal coverage in a small and peripheral frame on its front page. On May 28, General Kothari, a member of the Majlis Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said in an interview: "Elements such as Zionists who despise us enjoy creating insecurity on our borders and bringing about a military clash between Iran and the Taliban, but such a clash will never occur. We can't even talk about a military option against the Taliban. May God have mercy on the souls of the martyred Border Guard soldiers. Such incidents also occur between children who live together in a house. Certainly, this problem can be solved with negotiations."
The IRGC's Cyber Army has stepped up its efforts, spreading theories that if a war breaks out between Iran and the Taliban, the countries in the world will want Iran bogged down in the Afghan mud to prolong the war as much as possible.
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia: The Arash Gas Field
The enormous Arash gas field, or A-Durra in Arabic, is located in the Persian Gulf in the south of the Bushehr province. Close to 40 percent of this field is within Iran's territorial waters. It was first discovered in 1967, and its ownership has since become a bone of contention between Iran, on the one hand, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, on the other.
On March 26, 2022, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to work together to extract natural gas from this field. The deal triggered a protest by Iran, and Saeed Khatibi, then the spokesman of its Foreign Ministry, claimed it was illegal and said Iran was prepared to negotiate with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on ways of extracting the gas.
In response to Iran's protest, Kuwaiti foreign minister Ahmad Nasser al-Sabah declared that the Arash field is a joint issue between Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, confirming Iran's claim.
On July 4, 2023, however, Kuwait changed its stance. Its Foreign Ministry and oil minister, Saed al-Barq, announced that the gas field is a national possession of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and that Iran has no right or ownership. For its part, Saudi Arabia declared on July 5, 2023, that the natural resources of the A-Durra field belong exclusively to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and that Saudi Arabia was inviting Iran to renew the talks on "delineating the maritime border in this region."
The Kuwaiti oil minister reiterated these claims in the Arab media. On July 27, 2023, al-Barq asserted that his country and Saudi Arabia would wait no longer to set the maritime borders with Iran and would soon begin extracting gas from the field. On August 2, 2023, Iran's oil minister, Javad Owji, answered Kuwait and Saudi Arabia's claims, saying Iran would not give up its right to this field. In response, the Kuwaiti oil minister declared that Iran's contentions could not change the reality and the fact that the field belonged only to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Azerbaijan: Growing Tension
The Iranian regime views the Republic of Azerbaijan as a threat. Azerbaijan declares its support for Iran's Azeri population, which constitutes 25 percent of the total population, aspires to establish an expanded Azeri state that would include a large part of northwestern Iran, and has close ties with Israel, which possibly provides surveillance facilities on Iran's border. It is also claimed that the attack drone that fell close to the Natanz nuclear reactor in 2015 belonged to Israel and had reached Iran from Azerbaijan's soil and that the Iranian nuclear archive pilfered by Israel on January 31, 2018, was first conveyed to Azerbaijan and from there to Israel. In a WikiLeaks document related to Azerbaijan, its president, Ilham Aliyev, said, "What is visible of our relations with Israel is the tip of the iceberg."
During and after the second Nagorno-Karabakh War on September 27, 2020, defiant statements by the Azeri leadership have contrasted sharply with conciliatory Iranian messages. On November 3, 2020, Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei said, in his first reference to the war, that "all the Azeri lands under Armenian occupation must be liberated, maintaining the integrity of the international borders and not altering them."
The contrast was also evident on October 5, 2021, when the Azeri president uploaded a video in which, radiant with joy, he caressed an Israeli-made attack drone near the border with Iran. Nevertheless, Iran maintained its conciliary tone: the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency noted that the Azeri deputy prime minister had visited Iran. Furthermore, the Iranian press claimed, "Azerbaijan cannot cause us harm because 85 percent of its population are Shiites, and we have historic ties with them." The absurdity is that this support was expressed publicly—when in Iran, it is known that one of Azerbaijan's goals in this war was to create a Zangezur corridor linking Azerbaijan and its enclave Nakhchivan. If established, this corridor would entail a total severance of Iran and Armenia and the closing of a land route between Iran and Europe.
Members of the Azeri parliament remind Iran that 30 million Azeris live on its soil and threaten Iran's territorial integrity and political stability because it supports Armenia. Even President Aliyev has bragged that he prevented Iranian trucks from transferring goods to Armenia.
On January 27, 2023, the Azeri embassy in Tehran was attacked by a gunman who killed one of its workers and wounded two. The police later arrested the shooter, and it was claimed that the motive for the murder was a family matter. Iranian foreign minister hastened to condemn the attack and, in a telephone conversation with his Azeri counterpart, asserted: "The enemies are happy to exploit this incident negatively; we must not allow this incident to affect the relations between the two states." The Azeri deputy foreign minister announced a total halt of the embassy's activity in Tehran and said that, despite efforts of the regime in Tehran to distract public opinion, the Azeris had testimonies and documents to prove that the incident was an act of terror and said they did not believe the Iranians' words about the incident and its investigation. Iran did not respond to Azerbaijan's accusations, and members of the media associated with the regime chimed in, saying Iran would not respond to tongue-lashing by Azeris.
In recent months, the Azeris have continued provoking Iran. On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan succeeded in wresting Karabakh from Armenia. The operation ended in two days, with Armenia retreating from the entire region.
Iranian news agencies that followed the operation noted several times that the operation's success stemmed, among other things, from Azerbaijan's use of Israeli-made weapons.
Weakness or the Iranian Chess Game? Delay and Deceit
Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has cultivated the perception of Iran as a military superpower, using promotional films that show substantial underground cities in Iran with vast numbers of precision-guided missiles and advanced drones of different kinds ready for action, indicating that Iran has become a global missile power, alongside reports and interviews in Iran's regime-affiliated press and news agencies. Already on June 4, 2018, Khamenei averred that Iran had succeeded in becoming a missile superpower, and earlier, in 2017, top IRGC officials said the IRGC was the "military superpower of the region" and the leading missile and drone power in the Middle East. It has further claimed the development of different kinds of attack, bombing, spy, electronic-combat, and suicide drones makes Iran one of the five superpowers of the world and constitutes a strong arm of Iran in the wars and the threats that face it.
Nevertheless, in the three episodes presented above over the past two years—involving Afghanistan and the waters of the Helmand River; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Arash gas field; and Azerbaijan with its growing animosity—Iran engaged in almost no aggressive behavior, whether physical or verbal and was undoubtedly seen as ceding its purported rights, not to mention its dignity.
What, then, is the relationship between Iran's advertised military power and its apparent helplessness in dealing with these countries? A wide variety of explanations can be offered. Some are tactical: a study of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, for instance, reveals that the side with superior weapons (Russia, courtesy of Iran) is not the side winning after long months of fighting. In the Afghan case, the Taliban fighters have already proved themselves in fighting the two great powers of the last century and can be expected to show resilience. Iran may also fear a domestic front formed by its Afghan immigrants, who, according to the Iranian foreign minister, number at least five million. Most are Sunni Muslims, and if a war with their homeland erupted, they clearly would side with it and not with the Shiite host. Likewise, regarding Azerbaijan, 25 percent of Iran's residents are Azeris. Moreover, Iran knows that if it attacks, it will find itself in a war with its neighbor to the west, Turkey, which sees itself as the guardian of Turkic states. And regarding Kuwait, attacking it would likely prompt a harsh and immediate response by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states within and outside the Gulf (probably including Qatar despite its ties with Iran).
Iran is also seen as a paper tiger, indeed making threats but, in reality, too weak and afraid to carry them out. Cited as an example is Iran's campaign of threats against the United States after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani—which culminated only in a limited attack on the United State's Ayn al-Assad base in Iraq.
Paper Tiger or Crouching Lion?
On the other hand, other experts posit that it is not a matter of Iranian weakness but of Iranian patience and a long-range perspective. Analyzing the current situation, Iran plays a chess game of delay and deceit while building a decisive advantage against its adversaries by finishing the process of achieving military nuclear capability. Iran's restraint is intended to avoid provocations and present a front of concessions so as not to subvert the primary objective. Once achieved, Iran can address these threats with the upper hand and dramatically change the regional military balance, wielding a real deterrent capability—Iran as the world's greatest Shiite power with military nuclear weapons.
In its situation assessment, Iran does not rely on manpower—the soldiers behind the weaponry—to win battles. After all, the Russian soldiers are equipped with vastly more advanced weapons than the Ukrainian soldiers. Nevertheless, —lacking a fighting spirit, audacity, and a willingness to sacrifice their lives for the homeland—they do not prevail. Undoubtedly, given Iran's ethnic complexity, its soldiers would be similarly hampered. Hence, there is an urgent need for a strategic nuclear advantage that a small and loyal force can operate.
Iran Operates in Two Modes: Restraint and Delay
Iran's restraint is intended to avoid provocations and present a front of concessions so as not to subvert the primary objective. Once achieved, Iran can address these threats while having the upper hand.
Iran attempts to delay Saudi Arabia from attaining nuclear weapons (so far without success) while staying ahead of the other states in the region.
All this is aimed at dramatically changing the regional military balance and building a true deterrent capability—Iran as the great, global Shiite power with military nuclear weapons.
Returning to the claim about the lack of an Iranian response to Soleimani's assassination and the role of Iran's delay-and-deceit game, it was clear to the Iranians, especially after the assassination, that President Trump would not hesitate to use military force. In a speech by IRGC commander General Hossein Salami in January 2020, he mentioned preparedness in light of Trump's threat of a missile attack on 52 sites throughout Iran. By the direct order of Khamenei, the Iranian proxy forces in Iraq did not fire at American targets until the last moment of Trump's term of office for fear of his reaction.
The Iranians delayed taking military revenge on the United States and deceitfully used their massive cyber army to interfere in the U.S. electoral process in 2020. Their meddling was so blatant and severe that the U.S. administration slapped sanctions on six individuals and one company involved.
Since the Biden administration took office, we have seen the continuation/revival of the nuclear program, lax enforcement of the sanctions, a dramatic rise in Iran's oil exports, the release of $6 billion and more, and not the least, the speech to the United Nations by the "Butcher of Tehran" Raisi, which called to prosecute the murderers of Soleimani, mainly President Trump.
An example of the Iranians' efforts at delaying is their forging of ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis constitute the Sunni-Wahabi branch of Islam, and according to the Shiite faith, Wahabis cast doubt on the existence of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam [a messianic-type figure].
Recently, Iran has made efforts to court Saudi Arabia, epitomized by the opening of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh on June 6, 2023. Iranians expect that the anticipated Saudi-Israeli agreement under American sponsorship will lead to a deal with the Saudis on a nuclear reactor.
The timing of the war with Israel, in which Iran is deploying its proxy, Hamas, is an attempt to sidetrack the agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran seeks to demonstrate to the Saudis that Israel is not the strongest actor in the region.
There is no question as to whether Iran is striving to destroy Israel. The timing of the launch of the Gaza war, so soon after the Saudi statement on progress in the talks with Israel, with peace closer than ever—alongside the Saudi desire to go nuclear, a desire that can be effectuated through the agreement with Israel—is a particle accelerator for the Iranians to initiate a war, making use of Hamas, at present.
In an interview on the war in Gaza with Joad Karimi Kudusi, member of the Iranian Majlis Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to the Rooz Plus News Agency on October 8, 2023, he declared that the war against Israel had only begun. The plan was to activate all the proxies—Hizbullah from southern Lebanon, the Syrian army and the Syrian people from the Golan Heights, the Popular Mobilization Forces from Iraq," and others.
The reason for Iran's conciliatory messages, to the point of not responding to the Taliban's blocking of water from the Helmand River, the denial of Iran's rights to the Arash gas field by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and challenging moves by the Azeri government, does not lie in elemental weakness but only in temporary weakness. A situation assessment of the current state of affairs leads to the Iranian chess game of delay and deceit, which is meant to avoid provocative measures on its borders, Western intervention, or a change in the United States' approach while working all the time, unhindered, to complete the project of turning Iran into a nuclear state.
The Iranians are making the maximum effort to destroy Israel. Although this is not something new, the timing of the activation of Hamas in the war against Israel stems from the progress of the Israeli-Saudi talks, which entail horror scenarios for the Iranians: Israel in an alliance with the Saudis, an approved nuclear program for the Saudis, and Western cooperation across the region.
Aviram Balleishe is VP, Strategy, Security, and Communications at the Jerusalem Center. For over twenty-five years, Aviram Bellaishe served in senior government positions as a business intelligence and Middle East specialist, negotiation expert, and international cooperation manager. Aviram was an Israeli director in a regional initiative for business and economic cooperation dialogue in the regions of the Middle East and North Africa, and is presently a member of the executive committee of MENA 2050.