March 24, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 470

Curbing Iran's Ambitions Is Vital For Impeding The New China-Russia-Iran Axis

March 24, 2023 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran, Russia, China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 470

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley recently told Congress: "Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon."

Despite the economic sanctions against it, Iran continues its efforts towards enrichment of weapons-grade uranium.[1] This demands immediate action on the part of the West, and such action was about to be taken at the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Directors meeting on March 6-9, 2023. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley recently told Congress: "Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon."[2]

Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei

Ahead of the meeting, Iran found itself in a difficult situation. On top of the pending IAEA resolution against it, Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia and his support for the UAE with regard to the disputed islands in the Persian Gulf hurt Iran's status in the region. On the domestic scene, it has been dealing with an intense national, social, and ethnic anti-regime revolt for several months. In addition, its economic situation deteriorated significantly, primarily as a result of the Western sanctions.

In order to extricate Iran from its predicament, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took a series of strategic steps. With regard to the pending IAEA decision, all it took to deter the IAEA and the West from confronting Iran for its violations of Code 3.1 of the NPT Safeguards and of the JCPOA was a public threat[3] to "cut off the hands" of the West[4] and to make ambiguous promises to cooperate with the IAEA.[5] As a result, a concrete resolution against Iran was postponed by four months until the next Board meeting. In doing so, the IAEA practically accepted Iran's enrichment of uranium to 60%, which constitutes a blatant violation of the JCPOA.

Much more significant was the historic, far-reaching political move initiated by Iran: the agreement to renew diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. This had the triple effect of increasing the status of China – which brokered the deal – in the region, of dealing a powerful blow to America's status in the region, and of enabling Iran to present itself as a regional peacemaker.

Iran's Islamic regime had to show that it was compromising on one of three issues at the core of its tensions with the West – namely, its 20-year-long national project to develop a nuclear weapon, its ballistic missile program, or its expansionist ambitions in the Middle East and the world.

Iran made the lowest-cost, highest-benefit choice it could: In the context of the Saudi rapprochement, it agreed to halt its support for the Houthis in Yemen. This way, the compromise on its regional ambitions would be limited only to Yemen, without giving up on its ambitions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Latin America (just yesterday U.S. Central Command Gen. Michael Kurilla informed Congress that since January 2021, Iran has been behind at least 78 attacks on U.S. positions in Syria).[6] In exchange for halting this support, Iran was able to maneuver itself into a situation that would greatly benefit it diplomatically, as well as ease the tremendous economic pressure it has been facing for many years. Furthermore, the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia could nip at the bud any legitimacy – if there was any – for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

Grossi and Raisi (Source:, March 4, 2023)

The party most responsible for the success of Iran's cunning move is Saudi Arabia, which has forsaken the interests of its allies – the United States and the Gulf States – for the sake of its own interests. However, its agreement to mend relations with Iran can be understood, since over recent years it has been abandoned politically by the United States, leaving it vulnerable to Houthi strikes. In addition, since the greatest source of its political power is the strength of its economy, Saudi Arabia took the step it felt was necessary to protect itself from the Houthis and to keep its economy – and therefore its political status – strong.

Importantly, the Iranian move, as well as Iran's nuclear project in general, should be understood in the broader context of a new historical development: the crystallization of an active anti-Western axis consisting of Iran, Russia, and China.[7] This axis is being led by China, which is striving to expand globally, while Russia and Iran are gradually becoming dependent on it. This is the context in which the curbing of Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions should be understood.

Iran's move should be viewed as part of the crystallization of an active anti-Western axis consisting of Iran, Russia, and China.

America and Europe are in an unenviable position. It is understandable that they want to avoid any military confrontation with Iran, particularly while war is raging in Ukraine, as the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is looming and the Middle East remains prone to an outbreak of violence.

In this situation, what steps that can be taken to curb Iran's nuclear weapons program, its ballistic missile project, and its regional ambitions? Since a rash action by the West like bombing Iran's nuclear infrastructure is off the table, how can Iran be pushed back into the tight corner in which it was just one month ago?

This document will provide a brief historical background to the rise to legitimacy of the Islamic regime in Iran, and it will outline a suggested plan of action, consisting of moderate steps, that would have the desired impact in preventing Iran from continuing down the current dangerous path. Indeed, one cannot expect any individual measure to derail Iran's ambitions, nor that the desired effect would take place immediately. However, adopting these steps as part of a consistent long-term strategy could weaken Iran's ability and resolve in pursuing its nuclear and expansionist ambitions.

Historical Background

For decades after its inception, the Islamic republic was regarded internationally as a pariah, as a rogue state, and as a terrorist regime. By 2009, the UN Security Council had issued six resolutions against Iran.

To extricate itself from this situation, Iran's Islamic regime launched a broad campaign to attain legitimacy. At the forefront of the campaign was the smiling face of then-President Mohammad Khatami, who led the "Dialogue Among Civilizations" initiative with the goal of changing the perception that the Islamic republic is illegitimate and terroristic. Khatami's efforts would later be continued by Hassan Rouhani, who was perceived as a moderate, and by his smooth, Western-educated foreign minister Mohammad Javad-Zarif.

Over the years, these efforts turned out to be very successful. The apex of this success was when U.S. President Barack Obama formally granted Iran the right to enrich uranium, fathered the JCPOA, and dragged the Europeans into the agreement. In this context, President Obama also agreed to Iran's demands that the UN resolutions against it be rescinded and that the JCPOA take the form of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, thus shielding Iran from attacks on the basis of it being a state sponsor of terrorism.

Plan Of Action

To this day, the Islamic republic continues to be extremely sensitive and zealous with regard to its international legitimacy,[8] and herein lies its greatest political vulnerability, on which the plan of action suggested below will focus.

If Iran's Islamic regime's legitimacy were to be undermined to any extent, it is possible that Iran would slow its sprint towards enriching weapons-grade uranium and curb its terrorist regional ambitions, if at least partially and temporarily. As mentioned above, this is necessary not only in the context of curbing the nuclear and regional threat posed by Iran. Rather, it could achieve the larger goal of impeding the rise of the anti-Western axis, in which Iran plays a central role.

Actions On The Political Level

Regional Alliances

Iran is sensitive to regional political or military alliances, even when they are not explicitly against it.[9] This is particularly true for alliances between Sunni countries (and all the more so ones involving Israel).[10] The fact that Saudi Arabia has shown willingness for rapprochement with Iran, having even invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for a state visit, does not distance the Saudis from the Sunni camp to which they naturally belong.

United Nations Condemnation

Any decision against Iran by the UN Security Council could have an impact on the Islamic republic. United Nations white papers listing the terror attacks that were carried out or planned by Iran and its proxies, as well as the internal persecution and execution of anti-regime protestors, would have a significant impact.

Such white papers could demonstrate that Iran is a terrorist state both domestically and internationally. They would expose the fact that several Islamic republic officials have Interpol warrants out against them, and that in 1988 and 2019, the U.S. sanctioned "the Hangman", Iran's now-president Ebrahim Raisi, for his role in the brutal and bloody 1988 execution of thousands of political prisoners, including many academics. They would also expose the fact that the regime continues subversive activities throughout the world – to cite some examples, these include: terrorist activities in America, Europe, and throughout the Middle East; employment of a cyber army dedicated to targeting Western targets; academic activities in the West by regime apologists such Hossein Mousavian at Princeton University and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at Oberlin College; and operating HispanTV, a propaganda outlet in South America.

Economic Sanctions

Sanctions against Iran should be implemented in accordance with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's description of them: crippling. First and foremost, the snapback sanctions should be activated.

America has only been deceiving itself with its halfhearted measures. Even when President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, he left several pro-Iran waivers intact, only to rescind some of them later, and Iran clearly feels confident enough in some situations to blatantly violate the sanctions, as in the example of EITRADE Bank, an Iranian bank in Hamburg that ignores the sanctions.

In addition, during years of sanctions, the U.S. transferred billions of dollars to Iraq from the Federal Reserve. At least a big portion of these transfers found their way to Tehran, through official or unofficial channels. This was only stopped a few weeks ago. There might be other similar exploits in the sanction mechanism that give the Islamic regime a lifeline.[11]

Designation Of The IRGC As A Terrorist Group

In 2019, the U.S. designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which "exports the revolution" to the region and is responsible for terrorist activities in the West, as a terrorist group.[12] However, the European countries have not done so, and they continue to debate the subject, despite IRGC activities on European soil.

By the same token, any institutions in the West known to be funded and directed by Iran should be shut down. One example of such an institution is the Hamburg Islamic Center, which is directly linked to the Islamic republic and has been described by Germany's domestic intelligence agency as "Iran's most important representation in Germany and a significant center of propaganda."[13]

Diplomatic Actions

Diplomatic actions that can be taken include:

  • Open condemnation of Iran's aggression against the West. It is noteworthy that even as Iran openly threatens to assassinate senior American officials, as well as dissidents living abroad, no meaningful condemnation comes from America and the West.

  • While an open call for regime change in Iran would be problematic, at the very least the West should not send messages reassuring the regime that there are no Western intentions of regime change in Iran, as the U.S. has reportedly done.

  • Support for the anti-regime protests. For example, renaming of streets on which Iranian embassies in the West are located after Jina (Mahsa) Amini, the Kurdish-Iranian woman who died at the hands of Iranian authorities.

  • Support for human rights organizations that expose the discrimination and repression against ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and particularly the LGBTQ+ community by the Islamic republic.

  • Western diplomats' refusal to appear at diplomatic events attended by Iranian representatives.

  • Since Iran's Islamic regime has executed soccer players and wrestlers for having expressed support for the anti-regime protests, Iran's national soccer and wrestling teams should be sanctioned.[14]

  • Support for trade strikes and labor unrest in Iran, like had been the case with the Polish trade union Solidarity in 1980.[15]

  • Attention should be drawn to the environmental damages caused by the Islamic republic, like the drying up of water sources in Esfahan.[16]

  • Refutation of blatant lies made the Islamic republic. For instance, Iran must be called out for its lie regarding the supposed fatwa by Khamenei banning nuclear weapons. The West must demand that the "fatwa" be presented, and Iran must be loudly condemned for having lied about this for so long. In addition, the U.S. should confront the Islamic republic's lies that ISIS was created by an American conspiracy, that Iran preserves freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and that Iran does not sell drones to Russia that are being used in Ukraine.


Although this document does not recommend any military actions, it should nonetheless be remembered that there was only one time when Iran completely stopped pursuing its nuclear weapons project. This was in 2003, when American forces were deployed in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. This should be encouraging, because it demonstrates that actual military action is not necessary – the very existence of a credible, and even indirect, military threat in Iran's proximity could be sufficient.

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI; Ayelet Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iran Studies Project.


[1] According to 2023 IAEA report, uranium particles enriched by up to 83.7% – close to the 90% required to produce an atomic bomb – were detected at Iran's underground Fordow facility. Tehran said it had not attempted to enrich uranium beyond 60%. The IAEA report stated: "Iran informed the Agency that 'unintended fluctuations in enrichment levels may have occurred during transition period at the time of commissioning the process of [60%] product (November 2022) or while replacing the feed cylinder.'", February 28, 2023. It is notably that Iran is declaring openly that it has enriched uranium to 60%, which is a violation of both the NPT safeguards and the 2015 JCPOA. There was a similar violation nearly two decades earlier, in 2004, when IAEA inspectors found traces of extremely highly enriched uranium in Iran, of an enrichment level reserved for use in a nuclear bomb. Tehran said at that time that all the highly enriched uranium in its nuclear facilities was due to contamination that occurred before imported equipment arrived in the country – hinting that the contamination might have originated in Pakistan., March 11, 2004.

[2], March 23, 2023.

[3] It is interesting to note that on March 5, 2023, just before the IAEA Board of Directors meeting, the Iranian state-run Ofogh TV channel aired an interview with Iranian foreign affairs expert Mohammad Ghaderi in which he said that IAEA Director Rafael Grossi is a Jew and had only been elected to his position because he had the support of the "Zionist lobby." See MEMRI TV Clip No. 10163, Iranian Foreign Affairs Expert Mohammad Ghaderi: IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi Is A Jew, Elected Due To Zionist Lobby Support, March 5, 2023. .

[4] "Messrs. [Antony] Blinken, [U.S. Special Envoy for Iran] Robert Malley, [EU Chairman] Joseph Borrell, and [EU official] Enrique More must pay heed to the boundaries with their empty hands in these fields, and they must not make excessive demands, to which the Islamic Republic will respond with precision and by cutting off any hand that crosses the boundary.", March 4, 2023.

[5] Article 3 of the joint statement issued by the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on March 4, 2023 reads: "Iran, on a voluntary basis (italics added), will allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities. Modalities will be agreed between the two sides in the course of a technical meeting which will take place soon in Tehran." (, March 4, 2023.) It should be noted that Iran has not fulfilled any requests by the IAEA or the Board of Governors since November 2022.

[6] The same day an Iranian-affiliated drone killed a U.S. contractor in Syria., March 24, 2023;, March 23, 2023.

[7] This has been demonstrated in the cooperation of Chinese, Iranian, and Russian companies in producing drones for the war in Ukraine., March 9, 2023.

[8] In an illustrative example, former Iranian diplomat Amir Mousavi recently bragged that Iran is a “superpower”, as evidenced by the fact that it has been negotiating with six nuclear countries and that its foreign minister decides at what point the U.S. representatives can enter the negotiations hall. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 10188.

[9] This process is being hindered most intensely by Qatar, even though CENTCOM's headquarters is on Qatari soil and is the only reason that the lilliputian emirate has survived so long as an independent country.

[10] Examples that illustrate this point include: the Abraham Accords, despite the UAE's claims that the accords are not aimed against any specific country; the Arab League's opposition to Iran's regional ambitions; Israel's involvement with Azerbaijan, which was publicly praised by Azerbaijani President Aliyev as he stood next to an Israeli-made drone; and the alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan (notably, Iran's tensions with Turkey have bubbled over into armed conflicts over control of territories in Syria). Another factor worthy of American attention and support is Iraq. After having been a de facto Iranian proxy for years, Iraq has recently transformed into a source of concern for Iran. Iraq's newly-elected prime minister, Muhammad Shia Al-Sudani, who came from the pro-Iranian camp, has surprisingly turned out to be a proponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

[11] In another example, reports have asserted that the Biden administration's weak enforcement of the sanctions has allowed $23 billion to flow to Iran., March 15, 2023. In addition, the secretary-general of the Iran-Iraq Joint Chamber of Commerce, Hamid Hosseini, has recently claimed that the Biden administration has granted a sanction waiver that has allowed Iraq to transfer $500 million to Iran., March 10, 2023.


[13], October 25, 2022.

[14], December 21, 2020.

[15], September 1, 2020.

[16] See "Water, Environment and Justice – The Future of Iran," Issue No. 2, Winter 2023, published by

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