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stratEGIC Monthly (05/2023):

A Strategic update

By Piercamillo Falasca & Veronica Stigliani

The sixteenth issue of our stratEGIC Monthly, features analyses of key issues that defined the Euro-Gulf space in April 2023. This edition looks at how international  impact that the GCC is having under different points of view.

The Escalation of the Iranian Nuclear Threat

By Piercamillo Falasca


Five years ago, the United States (US), during the Donald Trump Administration, withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal). This landmark agreement was designed to curb Iran’s nuclear programme and provide sanctions relief in return. However, since the US withdrawal, Iran has been far from idle. Recent satellite images suggest that Iran is constructing a new nuclear facility in the Zagros mountains, near the existing Natanz enrichment site. What makes this facility particularly concerning is its deep underground location, rendering it virtually impervious to even the most powerful bunker-busting bombs. Analysis by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies — a US non-governmental organisation — revealed the presence of four entrances into the mountainside, each measuring six meters wide and eight meters high. The facility itself is estimated to be located some 80-100 meters below ground.


To counter Iran’s previous underground facility at Fordow, the US developed a specialised bomb called the GBU-57, also known as the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP). This precision-guided munition was specifically designed to penetrate up to 60 meters of earth and rock before detonating. The new nuclear facility may be even deeper, rendering the MOP ineffective. The Institute for Science and International Security — a Washington-based think tank founded by former weapons inspector David Albright — suggested that the deepest part of the chamber could potentially serve as a hall for advanced centrifuges capable of producing weapons-grade uranium (WGU) at an accelerated pace, enabling Iran to achieve nuclear breakout.


It is now estimated that Iran could produce enough WGU for a nuclear weapon within a mere 12 days. This calculation is based on the quarterly inspection report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By utilising only three advanced-centrifuge cascades and a portion of their current stock of 60%-enriched uranium, Iran could acquire enough material for a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, if Iran were to exhaust its entire stock of highly enriched uranium, they could potentially produce enough WGU for four additional nuclear weapons within a month. Within two months, utilising their low-enriched uranium stock (below 5% enrichment), they could gather sufficient material for two more weapons. While it would take several months to develop a delivery system, such as a crude delivery system using a plane or ship, it is possible that within a year or two, Iran could possess a missile-delivered warhead.


These developments are undoubtedly concerning, particularly in light of the US’ repeated commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the fear of escalation in an already volatile region. Despite extensive indirect talks between the Washington and Tehran, chaired by the European Union’s (EU) top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and held in Vienna for several months last year, the attempts to breathe new life into the JCPOA have so far yielded no progress. The Iranians refuse to accept a new probe by the IAEA into their past nuclear activities and demanded guarantees that they would continue to benefit from sanctions relief, including financial compensation, in case a future US administration decides to withdraw from a deal again.


Experts offer various perspectives on Iran’s intentions and many believe that the death knell for a nuclear deal came with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year since the close defence relationship between Russia and Iran effectively dashed any hopes of restoring the P5+1 process. Furthermore, the surge in energy prices alleviated some of the immediate economic pressures on Iran. Although Iran’s expectations regarding Russia prevailing in Ukraine have been disappointed, they believe they can strengthen their hand in their relationship with a weakened Russia. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) see a more restricted Russia as a valuable transactional partner and have become less interested in the Iran nuclear file compared to the US and Israel. They already view Iran as a de facto nuclear power and would rely on external deterrence support in any case. In contrast, Israel considers a nuclear-capable Iran a significant threat and has repeatedly stated that it cannot tolerate such a scenario. However, Israel faces its own constraints when it comes to taking direct action. Any attack on Iran would be risky and Israel’s intelligence services remain divided as to whether Iran has already taken the decision to pursue weapons-grade enrichment or the necessary steps towards weaponisation. For now, Israel focused its efforts on countering Iran’s regional proxies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and seeks to establish friendlier relations with Saudi Arabia.



Saudi Arabia’s International Rapprochement

By Veronica Stigliani

Saudi Arabia and Canada agreed to restore diplomatic relations, bringing a close to a five-year spat that damaged political and trade relations. In 2018, Canada had taken to Twitter to accuse Saudi Arabia of human rights violations. Riyadh’s reaction was to freeze new trade and investment deals, suspend flights, expel Canada’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and recall its own. Interrupting relations was non-beneficial for both, as they retained key commercial relations, with Saudi Arabia exporting oil and petrochemicals to Canada and importing transportation equipment. They also had extensive relations in education and defence. The decision to reengage followed discussions between Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November 2022 and was motivated by “mutual respect and common interests.” Given that maintaining diplomatic channels tends to be more beneficial than interrupting them, the move can be situated as part of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing process of rapprochement with several states it previously had more complex relations with including: Qatar, Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia is clearly arising as a trans-regional power and has been working to restore its diplomatic energies. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia both regained a central energy position as a hydrocarbon energy giant in an oil-dependent world, while using the financial resources gained to diversify its economy away from reliance on fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly active role in developing diplomatic relations across the globe meets its ambition to strengthen its position as an essential partner in the region and beyond.

Syria’s Return to the Arab League

By Veronica Stigliani

The League of Arab States (LAS) readmitted Syria after an 11-year absence. The decision was taken at an extraordinary, closed-door meeting, held in Cairo, where 13 out of 22 member state foreign ministers formalised the relations between Damascus and other Arab countries. The organisation had suspended Syria in 2011 in order to isolate the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, who was then engaged in a bloody civil conflict. When rehabilitating Damascus, the League stressed the need to take “practical and effective steps” to resolve the Syrian crisis. Syria’s participation in the organisation’s summit, held in Jeddah, was a change of pace together with the attendance of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Beyond pragmatic reasons behind readmitting Damascus — such as the need to repatriate refugees back into Syria, to curb on the trade of the drug captagon, and to provide assistance to the Middle Eastern country hit by last February’s earthquake — there are other advantages as well. In the Gulf the idea of an “equidistance policy” towards the rest of the world has been floated: rather than pursuing more passive policies the Gulf states are now more active which provides the possibility of benefiting from maintaining workable relations with, virtually, all international actors.

For Syria, being readmitted to the LAS is a major success and its regional rehabilitation will force others, notably the US, UK and EU, to recalibrate their approaches to Damascus, which, despite being traditionally aligned with Russia, can become an essential interlocutor. The first step may be lifting the Western sanctions imposed on Syria, which would have an enormous impact on the country.



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