While the world has been distracted by the circus in Washington DC following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat, 10,000 kilometres to the east sinister moves have been quietly taking place with the aim of creating the world’s 10th nuclear armed nation.
In the space of a matter of weeks, Iran has said it will boost its weapons program, has taken a Korean tanker apparently hostage and the US has flown nuclear armed bombers to the Persian Gulf.
It’s a high stakes game of nuclear chess that Tehran hopes will give it negotiating sway with President Joe Biden – but could see outgoing President Donald Trump strike back as his leadership peters away.
A defence analyst has told news.com.au right now is a “dangerous time” with an “unpredictable president” in the White House.
On the sidelines is Israel, that wants to ensure it remain the pre-eminent military force in the Middle East.
At risk is the last fraying remnants of a 2015 deal, signed by then US President Barack Obama and six other nations, to keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check.
RELATED: How Trump was goaded into killing Iranian general
President Trump, untrusting of Tehran, tore up that deal. Ever since Iran hasn’t even tried to hide its increasing efforts to create its own nuke.
The heart of that effort is around two hour’s drive south of Iran’s capital Tehran, close to the city of Qom and bordering the salt lake of Hoz-e-Sultan.
Here is the Fordow fuel enrichment plant where the uranium for Iran’s nuclear program is enriched.
In December, it was reported that Iran had begun fresh construction works at the site. This appeared to be confirmed by satellite images given to the Associated Press.
Defence analyst Clive Williams, from the Australian National University’s Centre for Military and Security Law, said Fordow has been in existence since 2009 but work on the site had been increased since 2018.
“Iranian authorities state the facility is built deep in a mountain because of repeated threats by Israel to attack such facilities,” he told news.com.au.
“However, Iran is probably more concerned about strikes by the US.”
RELATED: Iranian politician offers bounty for ‘anyone who kills’ Trump
IRAN UPS URANIUM ENRICHMENT
On January 1, Tehran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which inspects its nuclear facilities, that it would begin enriching uranium to 20 per cent.
That is far above the maximum enrichment level of 3.67 per cent agreed under the now essentially abandoned 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) that aimed to give Iran incentives to not produce a nuclear weapon
It is also at a higher level than is needed for civilian nuclear power needs – but it’s closer to the level of enrichment needed for a bomb.
“20 per cent is about 90 per cent of the work required to get to weapons grade,” Kelsey Davenport, from the non-profit Arms Control Association told NBC News.
“Washington and Israel view the increase in uranium enrichment levels to 20 per cent as worrisome, as stockpiling of uranium enriched to that level would substantially reduce the time needed to produce a weapon,” said Mr Williams.
On January 4, this enrichment began at Fordow in earnest. Bomb development is also taking place at Natanz, near the city of Isfahan.
Iran’s foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said the enrichment could halt as quickly as they began. There will be strings, of course.
TENSIONS BETWEEN US AND IRAN HIGH
Tensions are high. It’s been just over a year since the US assassinated high ranking Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Iran bombed a US base in Iraq in retaliation.
Soon after, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the US to be forcibly removed from the Middle East and in June that nation issued a “arrest warrant “ for Mr Trump.
“Resistance must continue until the region is completely freed from the enemy’s tyranny,” he said.
But in recent months the leadership in Tehran has become increasingly concerned the US could launch an attack as the clock ticks down on the Trump presidency.
At the same time, Tehran has become more isolated in the region with the Trump administration’s successful brokering of a number of diplomatic détentes between Israel and Middle Eastern powerhouses such as the United Arab Emirates.
Then just weeks ago, the alleged head of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated, it’s suspected Israeli Special Forces.
Mr Biden may move into the White House in weeks, but there are powerful forces at play that could see conflict erupt in some form before then.
Tehran’s boosting of its uranium enrichment could be all the excuse needs for Israel to strike Fordow.
“Israeli is the only nuclear power in the Middle East and it is determined to keep it that ways,” Mr Williams wrote on website The Conversation.
TRUMP A WORRY
However, it’s the lame duck inhabitant of the White House that is the real worry.
“This month is a dangerous time because the US has an unpredictable president who would probably relish making it difficult for Biden to establish a better working relationship with Iran,” he said.
“The obvious way to do that would be authorising military strikes. Trump has multiple options for doing this, including the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the submarine USS Georgia.
“The most likely scenario for conflict would be a pre-emptive US strike against Iran in anticipation of an Iranian military action against US forces, or retaliation for action by Iranian proxies that can be linked to Iran.”
Any American military response against Iran, he said, would make it much more difficult for Biden to potentially resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal.
An unexpected parallel action by Tehran in recent days was the forcing of South Korean tanker Hankuk Chemi, which was sailing through the Gulf, to dock in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
It’s not the first time Tehran has taken to seizing other nation’s vessels.
“Iran detained the tanker for allegedly polluting Iranian waters, but has probably more to do with trying to get South Korea to release Iranian funds frozen in South Korea in response to US sanctions,” said Mr Williams.
An exit strategy that satisfies the US, Israel and Iran will be tricky to find.
“Tehran believes that Iran is continually under threat from those who would seek to destroy it and that its national security can only be assured if it has nuclear weapons,” said Mr Williams.
“It would need powerful international safeguards for its security and a lifting of sanctions to desist from continuing covert development of a nuclear weapon capability.”
BIDEN’S BIG IRAN PROBLEM
The best case scenario is that Mr Trump becomes so consumed by his departure from the White House, he forgets about all thoughts of striking Iran.
In turn, the leaders in Tehran might try and defuse the situation until they see how relations change under a President Biden. The incoming administration of Mr Biden has indicated they will try and revive the nuclear deal.
For now, while the increased uranium enrichment is a concern, it’s still far below the level needed for a working bomb.
“It gives Iran something to use for leverage in any negotiation with the Biden Administration,” said Mr Williams.
“Iran is sending a clear message to the Biden administration that Biden needs to act fast before the window closes,” said Ms Davenport
“But Iran has to be careful not to overplay its hand.”
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israel’s determination to see those ambitions are never achieved, and a growing US military presence in the Gulf with an erratic commander in chief in DC is a potent mix.
It wouldn’t take a lot for the situation to turn hot.