Iran and the West in risk of escalating conflict

A new crisis emerged in relations between Iran and the West, as the United States and the European Union (EU) have increased pressure on Tehran, demanding that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be allowed to access its two nuclear facilities. In response, Iran has continued to maintain a tough attitude and is seeking Russian support in a new confrontation with the West.

An Iranian navy vessel is seen during war games in the northern Indian Ocean and near the entrance to the Gulf, Iran, on June 17, 2020. (Photo: West Asia News Agency via Reuters)
An Iranian navy vessel is seen during war games in the northern Indian Ocean and near the entrance to the Gulf, Iran, on June 17, 2020. (Photo: West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

The 35-member IAEA Board passed a resolution calling on Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA and allow its inspectors to access two Iranian nuclear facilities. This is the first IAEA resolution related to Tehran's nuclear programme since 2012. The resolution could pave the way for bringing controversy related to Iran's nuclear issue to the UN Security Council, the only UN agency capable of issuing sanctions against Tehran.

The resolution came after the IAEA published a report saying that Iran prevented the IAEA inspectors from accessing its suspected facilities, after the agency identified a number of doubts regarding Tehran's nuclear activities. According to the IAEA, Iran's enriched uranium reserves are now eight times higher than the limit under the nuclear agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Tehran signed with the P5+1 group in 2015. While such uranium enrichment is far below what is required to make nuclear weapons, Western powers still consider this a potential threat. Three countries participating in the JCPOA, namely the UK, Germany and France, have submitted a draft resolution to the IAEA calling on Iran to stop refusing IAEA inspectors' access to its two nuclear sites, while requesting Tehran to fully cooperate with the IAEA under the obligations set forth in the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned the IAEA's resolution, as well as Western countries pushing for the resolution. Tehran rejected the IAEA's "political and non-technical solution," affirming that it still cooperates with IAEA at the highest level. Iran's Foreign Minister said that the IAEA was under pressure from a number of countries, including the US, to create a new front against Tehran. Pointing to Western "fabricated and unfounded allegations" about Iran's nuclear programme, Tehran vowed to take appropriate action.

The "punchers" that the West point to Iran are now believed to help the US implement its "maximum pressure" policy on Tehran, promoting the restoration of UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran, which banned the sale of conventional weapons to Iran. Washington is aggressively seeking ways to extend the UN sanctions against Iran, which are due to expire in October. Meanwhile, Iran continues to show its uncompromising attitude and is ready to respond to any move from the US. While the debate is not over, the "words exchanged" between Iran and the West are increasingly fierce. The Iranian Navy has conducted drilling in the northern Indian Ocean and near the entrance to the Gulf, with Iranian-made new generation cruise missiles as an assertion of its "formidable" military strength and defensive capacity.

Although European powers have always insisted on protecting Iran from US sanctions, the three EU countries submitting a draft resolution to the IAEA expressing doubts about Tehran's nuclear programme has prevented Iran from continuing to believe in the "empty promises" of European countries. To avoid isolation, Iran is seeking Russian support in the new confrontation with the West. During his visit to Russia, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif received a pledge that "Moscow will stand side-by-side with Tehran" in dealing with all anti-Iran plots. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov affirmed that Moscow was strongly opposed to plots to take advantage of the current situation to influence the UN Security Council and promote the anti-Iran agenda, and Russia will not let any forces destroy JCPOA. The US wants to assert that it is still an important element of the JCPOA, and only aim to re-enable all UN sanctions against Iran. However, the Russian representative at the UN stated that it was "ridiculous" to think that the US was still a part of the JCPOA, two years after Washington withdrew from this historic agreement.

New tensions in the relations between Iran and the West make Tehran's nuclear problem more difficult to remove, even triggering conflict, threatening stability and security in the region. The tough views from both sides further reduce the opportunity to create a favourable environment for dialogue, which is absolutely necessary for the thorny issue related to Iran's "nuclear records".