The BRICS and Iran’s Ascent in the Nuclear Chess Game
Iran’s influence is expanding significantly. The nation is actively engaged in a variety of conflicts that span from the Red Sea to Gaza, Lebanon, and even Ukraine. Concurrently, Iran has been strengthening its ties with major global powers, notably China and Russia. This diplomatic maneuvering led to a notable development: Iran’s inclusion in the BRICS bloc earlier this month, signaling a significant shift in global alliances.
This expansion of Iranian influence warrants a broader perspective, particularly concerning its implications for U.S.-Iran relations. Historically, Iran’s contentious nuclear program placed it under heavy international sanctions, earning it the reputation of being one of the most sanctioned nations globally. This status persisted until Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, which redirected global attention and sanction efforts. The evolution of these dynamics marks a new low in diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran, underscoring a complex and shifting geopolitical landscape.
The Iranian nuclear narrative is deeply interwoven with the geopolitical fabric of the 20th and 21st centuries. Initiated in 1957, Iran’s civil nuclear journey began under the auspices of the U.S. Atoms for Peace initiative, a visionary program by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This policy aimed to disseminate non-military nuclear technology worldwide, with the dual aims of establishing American influence in the nuclear domain and countering Soviet expansion.
In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran envisioned a robust nuclear program, underpinned by a partnership with German expertise, to achieve a staggering 23,000 MWe nuclear capacity. The intent was strategic: bolstering oil and gas exports by diversifying energy production. However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 dramatically altered Iran’s trajectory, bringing these nuclear aspirations to a halt amid the country’s profound political transformation.
Yet, the aspiration for nuclear capability remained a persistent undercurrent in Iran’s strategic planning. The post-revolutionary government recognized the necessity of international collaboration to revive its nuclear ambitions. Aligning with what are now fellow BRICS bloc members, Iran explored new partnerships. A notable agreement with China in January 1990 marked a cautious step forward, although it notably omitted enrichment capabilities. This cautious approach was somewhat expanded upon in January 1995, when Iran and Russia inked a deal to resume construction on the German-initiated reactor from the previous era, reflecting Iran’s enduring commitment to its nuclear objectives.
Iran’s outreach to South Africa during the latter’s pivotal transition from apartheid to a democratic regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s was marked by mutual strategic interests. Tehran, sensing a kinship in revolutionary spirit, cultivated a relationship with the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, which had observed the Iranian Islamic Revolution with interest.
Under the apartheid regime, South Africa had embarked on a clandestine nuclear program, culminating in the commissioning of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in 1984 and the secretive development and subsequent dismantlement of a small nuclear arsenal.
The dynamic shifted notably following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his election as president in 1994. Amidst this backdrop, the United States voiced concerns over South Africa’s deepening ties with Tehran, particularly given the geopolitical implications. However, South Africa, a significant importer of Iranian oil, firmly resisted U.S. pressures, asserting its sovereign right to forge its own foreign relations. This stance was solidified with the creation of the South Africa-Iran Joint Commission of Cooperation in 1995, emblematic of Pretoria’s commitment to a partnership with Tehran that extended beyond economic transactions to encompass a broader collaborative agenda.
Over subsequent years, South Africa emerged as a key ally for Iran, advocating for its interests within various international platforms, including the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the African Union. Pretoria’s defense of Iran’s entitlement to peaceful nuclear technology was steadfast, and it challenged the sanctions imposed on Iran as both unlawful and illogical.
In a bold move in December 2005, South Africa offered to sell uranium oxide (yellowcake) to Iran, potentially assisting in Iran’s beleaguered enrichment program. South African officials also vocalized criticism of perceived U.S. hypocrisy, condemning the scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear initiatives while seemingly overlooking Israel’s nuclear capabilities.
As Iran’s nuclear endeavors intensified in the 2010s, the interplay of international diplomacy and increased U.S. sanctions became more pronounced. In a decisive 2013 vote, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly supported imposing stricter sanctions. Concurrently, the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—and the European Union sought a diplomatic resolution. This effort bore fruit in 2016 with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an accord that aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, the JCPOA faced a significant setback when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018, casting the future of international nuclear diplomacy into uncertainty.
Efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been met with mixed results post-JCPOA.
Israel has adopted an assertive strategy. In November 2020, an operation attributed to Mossad resulted in the elimination of a pivotal figure in Iran’s nuclear program. This action prompted Iran’s parliament to mandate an increase in uranium enrichment up to 20 percent. Following an incident at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility in April 2021 believed to be orchestrated by Israel, Iran escalated its enrichment levels to 60 percent—a significant leap toward the 90 percent enrichment that signifies weapons-grade uranium.
Parallel to these tensions, the Biden administration sought to reinstate aspects of the JCPOA through covert diplomatic channels, including a hostage exchange and the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets. However, in the wake of a Hamas-initiated attack on Israel in October, the U.S. Congress acted to prevent Iran from accessing these funds.
Despite international efforts to restrict its nuclear program, Iran retains the expertise necessary to develop a nuclear weapon, potentially able to do so expeditiously. Weaponization, the final and most intricate phase, could take several months to over a year, with the exact timeframe clouded in uncertainty due to Iran’s restrictions on the IAEA’s most seasoned inspectors. This obfuscation of its nuclear activities continues to pose a significant challenge to global non-proliferation efforts.
As Western nations employ various strategies to impede Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Tehran finds solidarity with a cohort of non-Western allies, many of whom are themselves established or emerging nuclear powers. China, particularly, has bolstered the Iranian economy by significantly increasing its purchase of crude oil, with imports averaging around 1.2 million barrels per day. This surge has cemented China as Iran’s primary commercial partner, with bilateral trade surpassing $30 billion.
Trade relations with India, Russia, and South Africa are also substantial, collectively amounting to several billion dollars. Tehran’s integration into the global geopolitical fabric was further solidified by its accession to full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July 2023.
The BRICS nations have showcased a robust backing of Iran. During the BRICS Summit in August, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood united in their call for bilateral cooperation and a joint stance against what they termed “American unilateralism.” Similarly, Russia has voiced its opposition to Western-led sanctions, advocating for a loosening of these restrictions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s commitment to constrain its nuclear program.
The BRICS alliance is increasingly seen as a counterbalance to Western hegemony, with its members lending mutual support to reshape power dynamics in the Middle East and beyond. A testament to this is the burgeoning strategic military partnership between Iran and Russia, exemplified by Iran’s development of a new attack drone for Moscow, alongside alleged provisions of surface-to-surface missiles.
China’s role in the Middle East is also noteworthy, advocating for the Palestinian cause, a stance reiterated during the inaugural session of the China-Saudi Arabia-Iran trilateral joint committee in December. South Africa has taken a definitive stance, asserting global support for Palestinians, illustrated by its legal action against Israel on charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The BRICS bloc stands unified on certain principles: Iran’s sovereign right to nuclear energy and the defense of Palestinian interests. This unity is also a clear signal of their refusal to acquiesce to Western dictates regarding their geopolitical conduct.
In the context of current global events and an intensifying American presidential race, the usual domestic focus of U.S. elections might give way to significant international considerations, with Iran and its alliances becoming a focal point of discourse. Should Iran achieve the capability to develop nuclear weapons, it would be the culmination of a long, intricate history of nuclear development spanning several decades.