The looming threat of a nuclear crisis with Iran


The first six rounds of diplomacy this spring, Malley told me, have made “real progress.” In June, he presented a nuclear package that included an end to most of Trump’s sanctions. “The collective feeling of everyone – obviously the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese, but also the Iranian delegation at the time – was that we could see the contours of an agreement,” he said. “If each party was prepared to make the necessary compromises, we could do it. “

“It’s cardio day for me and external obliques day for Joan.”
Cartoon by Julia Suits

Talks were halted this month after Iran’s presidential election. Hassan Rouhani, the former president and reformist, won in 2013 and 2017 on a platform for dialogue with the United States. But Trump’s sanctions sabotaged the economic benefits promised by the nuclear deal, so in 2021 a majority of Iranians didn’t bother to vote. Ebrahim Raisi, a rigid ideologue and head of the judiciary, was elected. The United States had previously sanctioned Raisi, noting his role in a “death commission” that ordered the execution, in 1988, of some five thousand dissidents. At his inauguration in August, Raisi promised: “All the parameters of national power will be strengthened.”

Malley had left his suits at the hotel in Vienna, expecting talks to resume before long. But five months have passed, and Iran’s nuclear program has made further progress. Malley finally had his costumes shipped home. By the time diplomacy resumed in late November, Malley told me, the Iranian program had “exceeded” the limits imposed by the JCPOA. “He said. The Biden administration has backed down.” We are not going to accept a worse deal because Iran has developed its nuclear program, “Malley added. Soon, trying to revive the deal” would be tantamount to trying to revive a corpse. ”The United States and its allies could then“ have to deal with a runaway Iranian nuclear program. ”Without a return to the deal, a senior official said. As a state, it is “more than plausible, possible and perhaps even probable” that Iran is trying to become a threshold nuclear state.

The wild card is Israel. In September, during the United Nations General Assembly, the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, accused Iran’s nuclear program “of having reached a turning point, just like our tolerance. Words do not prevent centrifuges from spinning. Israel is expected to begin training soon for possible military strikes against Iran. During a visit to Washington in December, Defense Minister Benny Gantz urged the Biden administration to hold joint military exercises with Israel. “The problem with Iran’s nuclear program is that, at the moment, there is no diplomatic mechanism to stop them,” Palti told me. “There is no deterrence. Iran is no longer afraid. We have to give them the stop sign. US officials counter that Israeli operations have often provoked Tehran and pushed back diplomacy.

Iran can still reverse technological advances if a deal is struck. His knowledge, however, is irreversible. “Iran’s nuclear program has taken new steps over the past year,” said Kelsey Davenport. “Mastering these new capabilities will change our understanding of how the country can pursue nuclear weapons on the road. Even as the Biden administration negotiates a return to the deal, Republicans have vowed to scuttle it. In October, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted: “Unless an agreement with Iran is ratified by the Senate as a treaty – which Biden knows will NOT happen – it is 100% certain that any future Republican president will tear him apart. . Again.”

As nuclear talks collapsed earlier this year, I flew to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq’s remote Western Desert with Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., a Marine General. from Alabama, which directs US military operations in the Middle East and South. Asia. It was part of an extended tour of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Qatar and Lebanon. In the cavernous cabin of a C-17, he sat alone in a room-sized container draped in an American flag. McKenzie’s military experience with Iran has been perilous and bloody. When he was a young officer, two hundred and forty-one Marines were killed in the 1983 suicide bombing attack on US peacekeepers in Beirut. It is the biggest loss of marine life in a single day since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. The Reagan administration blamed Iran and its then nascent Hezbollah proxies. Nearly four decades later, McKenzie told me that Tehran’s nuclear capabilities were far from the only danger it poses now.

Under Trump, hostilities between the United States and Iran escalated. They culminated in 2020, when Trump ordered the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, the revered leader of the Iranian Quds Force, the elite wing of the Revolutionary Guards. As Suleimani arrived in Baghdad to meet with local allies, McKenzie called in an M-9 Reaper drone to fire four Hellfire missiles at the general’s convoy. Suleimani and nine others were shredded. Her severed hand was identified by the large red stone ring often pictured on her wedding finger.

Five days later, Iran fired eleven ballistic missiles, each carrying at least one thousand-pound warhead, at Al Asad air base. US intelligence had tracked Iran’s deployment of the missiles, giving the Americans a few hours to evacuate their warplanes and half their personnel. Lt. Col. Staci Coleman, commander of an air expeditionary squad, had to decide which of his 160 crew members should leave and who was “emotionally equipped” to stay. “I decided who would live and who would die,” she later told military investigators. “I honestly thought whoever was left behind would perish.” Many soldiers leaving Al Asad hugged those who remained anxiously. No American serviceman had been killed by an enemy airstrike since 1953, during the Korean War.

The first salvo struck around 1 A M Staff Sergeant Janet Liliu told investigators, “What happened in the bunkers, well, no words can describe the atmosphere. I wasn’t ready to die, but tried to prepare for each announcement of an incoming missile. The bombardment lasted for hours; it was the largest ballistic missile attack ever by a nation against American troops. No American died, but one hundred and ten suffered traumatic brain injuries. Trump rejected the suffering of Al Asad. “I heard they had headaches,” he told reporters. Two years later, many people in Al Asad still suffer from profound loss of memory, vision and hearing. One committed suicide in October. Eighty received Purple Hearts.

Al Asad’s lesson, McKenzie told me, is that Iranian missiles have become a more immediate threat than its nuclear program. For decades Iranian rockets and missiles were grossly inaccurate. In Al Asad, “they hit pretty much where they wanted to hit,” McKenzie said. Now they “can strike effectively across the breadth and depth of the Middle East. They could hit with precision and they could hit with volume.

Iran’s advances have impressed both allies and enemies. After the 1979 revolution, the young theocracy purged the Shah’s army and rebuilt it almost from scratch, despite waves of economic sanctions. Iran waged a ruinous eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s which further depleted its arsenal. Its air force is still weak, its ships and tanks are poor, and its army is unable to invade another country and hold territory.

Instead, the regime focused on developing missiles with longer range, precision accuracy, and greater destructive power. Iran is today one of the world’s leading producers of missiles. Its arsenal is the largest and most diverse in the Middle East, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported. “Iran has proven that it uses its ballistic missile program as a means to coerce or intimidate its neighbors,” Malley told me. Iran can fire more missiles than its adversaries, including the United States and Israel, can shoot down or destroy. Tehran has achieved what McKenzie calls the “overmatch” – a level of capability in which a country has weapons that make it extremely difficult to control or defeat. “Iran’s strategic capacity is now huge,” McKenzie said. “They have an overmatch in the theater, the ability to overwhelm.”

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier general and former head sniper of the Iranian aerospace force, is known for his incendiary bravado. In 2019, he boasted, “Everyone should know that all US bases and their ships up to two thousand kilometers away are within range of our missiles. We have constantly prepared for a full-fledged war. Hajizadeh succeeded General Hassan Moghaddam, founder of Iran’s missile and drone programs, and died in 2011, along with sixteen other people, in a mysterious explosion. They were working on a missile capable of hitting Israel.

The Israelis call Hajizadeh the new Suleimani. McKenzie called him reckless. In 2019, Hajizadeh’s forces shot down an American reconnaissance drone over the Persian Gulf. He also orchestrated the missile strikes on Al Asad. Hours after the attack, his forces shot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737, with one hundred and seventy-six people on board, as it took off from Tehran International Airport. Everyone perished. For three days Iran refused to accept the blame until, under pressure, Hajizadeh went to television to admit it.

Iran now has the largest known underground complexes in the Middle East with nuclear and missile programs. Most of the tunnels are to the west, facing Israel, or on the south coast, facing Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sheikhs. This fall, satellite imagery tracked new underground construction near Bakhtaran, the world’s largest complex. The tunnels, dug in the rock, descend more than sixteen hundred feet underground. Some complexes would stretch for miles. Iran calls them “missile cities”.

In 2020, the Revolutionary Guards marked the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover by posting a video of Hajizadeh inspecting an underground missile arsenal. As upbeat music plays in the background, he and two other Revolutionary Guard commanders march through a tunnel lined with rows of missiles stacked on top of each other. A recording by General Suleimani echoes in the background: “You start this war, but we create the end of it. An underground railroad carries Emad missiles for rapid successive launches. Emads have a range of a thousand miles and can carry a conventional or nuclear warhead.

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