DUBAI: Cornered by the West, Iran is ramping up uranium enrichment, suppressing dissent and deepening ties with Russia in a challenge to the United States and Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Tehran next week to meet the Iranian leader – his second trip abroad since sending troops to Ukraine. The surprise announcement came a day after the White House said Tehran was preparing to send armed drones to Russia for use in Ukraine and before US President Joe Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Tehran, cut off from the global banking system by Western sanctions, wants to show that it has alternatives. Talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its atomic program, have stalled.
Pressures are mounting on the Islamic Republic, with its economy in decline and its people struggling, with no relief in sight.
A look at the challenges Iran faces and what it means for the world:
A smoldering nuclear crisis
Former US President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers in 2018 and sought to squeeze Iran economically until it returned to the negotiating table. A defiant Iran has resumed banned nuclear work.
Biden took office with a promise to restore the deal. Then the extremist cleric Ebrahim Raisi became Iran’s leader, and the nuclear talks hit a dead end.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, reports that Iran now has 43 kilograms (more than 94 1/2 pounds) of 60% enriched uranium – just steps military grade levels. That’s enough fissile material for a weapon, if she chooses to pursue one. However, Iran would still need to design a bomb and delivery system, which would likely take months. Tehran is running more advanced centrifuges and has dismantled more than two dozen IAEA cameras monitoring its work.
Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes. UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.
Experts say Tehran increasingly sees a future without the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, paving the way for a possible crisis.
“The Iranians have come to the conclusion that the JCPOA no longer serves their interests,” said Ali Vaez, director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran project. Iran cannot guarantee that the United States will not resign from the pact and reimpose sanctions if a new president takes office in 2025.
“This political risk is something no one wants to take on,” Vaez added.
The stakes extend beyond Iran. Israel, its great rival and the only nuclear power in the region, has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities militarily.
“Iran could get 90% rich, but that would be a very dramatic escalation, and I’m pretty confident that would trigger a (military) response,” John Krzyzaniak, an Iran proliferation expert at the Wisconsin Project, said. referring to weapon-grade enrichment levels.
The intensification of repression in Iran
In 2019, some believed Iran’s 40-year-old revolution could be undone by a 50% increase in fuel prices, and the country’s security forces responded ruthlessly to nationwide protests.
Almost three years later, Iran remains under crippling sanctions. Inflation soared, eroding workers’ incomes. The Iranian currency plunged, wiping out savings. The government has cut subsidies on basic foodstuffs, stoking public outrage. In May, a 10-storey tower collapsed in southwestern Iran, killing at least 41 people and exposing corruption.
To avoid unrest, authorities recently arrested protesters unhappy with high prices, teachers’ union activists, acclaimed filmmakers and a prominent reformist politician.
Two of the detained dissident filmmakers are said to have expressed support for protests against the building’s collapse.
Under pressure to break promises of sanctions relief, the “system sends a direct signal to the people of Iran that they will not tolerate dissent”, said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program. at Chatham House. .
This message has gained momentum as a kind of shadow war between Israel and Iran unfolds in the open – on the high seas and on the streets of Tehran.
“Ordinary Iranians who push for better rights are going to face more persecution because the crackdown is now in the name of national security,” Vakil added.
Alliance with Russia
Faced with a Western economic reaction because of its action in Ukraine, Moscow sees Tehran as a key partner and a potential source of weapons. Amid deepening diplomatic isolation, Iran has increasingly found common ground with Russia, including a common adversary in Washington.
Biden is traveling to the Middle East this week — first to Israel, Iran’s biggest enemy, then to Saudi Arabia, another Tehran rival — and it’s no coincidence that the White House said that Iran was preparing to provide Russia with drones and training days before the trip.
“We think it’s of interest, to say the least, to the countries we’ll be visiting on this trip,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.
Quoting a Russian Foreign Ministry source, the Interfax news agency called the drone deliveries “disinformation” intended to “further stoke anti-Iranian sentiments in Arab states”.
One of the goals of Biden’s trip is to encourage Arab nations to strengthen security alliances, based on shared fear of Iran.
“We are seeing the emergence of two opposing blocs,” said Yoel Guzansky, a Gulf expert and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The United States is trying to unite the Arab world…with Russia and Iran and maybe China on the opposite side.”
Military coordination between Tehran and Moscow has intensified since they joined forces to support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war.
Iran’s advanced drone capabilities could prove invaluable to Russia, Krzyzaniak said. Iranian planes, in some cases mimicking the designs of US military drones, are being battle tested by Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting a Saudi-led military coalition, according to Western officials and UN experts.
But the Iran-Russia relationship is not free from friction.
Their former empires were age-old rivals, and Russia’s occupation of Iran during World War II – and its refusal to leave afterwards – bred decades of mistrust.
These old differences play out in new ways. Sanctioned Russian oil, which is now smaller than Iranian crude, is eating away at Tehran’s share of the crucial Chinese market and forcing it to cut prices, experts say.
Other differences include Putin’s friendly ties to Israel. In a delicate balancing act, the Kremlin has struck deals in Syria, such as in 2018 when Moscow asked Tehran to move its fighters away from the Golan Heights to address Israeli concerns.
But with the growing pressure on the two countries, their bond seems sure to grow.
For Russia, Iran represents a source of expertise in avoiding sanctions and gaining access to global black markets. Bilateral trade is booming, according to Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz, noting that Russia has increased imports of Iranian goods and is seeking trade routes to India.
For Iran, “foreign policy is decided based on what the system considers to be in the best interest for its survival,” said Vaez of the International Crisis Group.

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