Rial gains and Tehran unveils missile as final nuclear deal revival talks begin

Rial gains and Tehran unveils missile as final nuclear deal revival talks begin
Iranian state TV showed footage of an apparent launch of Iran's new "Kheibar Shekan" (Kheibar buster) missile. / Iranian state TV, screengrab.
By bne IntelIiNews February 9, 2022

The Iranian rial has in the past week regained some value against the USD with hopes rising that Iran and the US have entered a final stage of negotiations that will lead to a relaunching of the 2015 nuclear deal struck by Tehran and six major powers.

On February 5, the rial (IRR) strengthened by 3.6% against the dollar to IRR265,000 on Tehran’s free market, and by the end of trading on February 9 it remained at that rate.

In a display of strength staged as the nuclear deal, or JCPOA, talks got under way in Vienna, Iran unveiled on state TV a new domestically-made solid fuel missile said to have a range of 1,450 kilometres. The surface-to-surface missile is named the "Kheibar Shekan" (Kheibar buster), a name that refers to an ancient Jewish oasis called Kheibar in the Arabian Peninsula's Hijaz region that was overrun by Muslim warriors in the 7th century.

If political consent on all sides is found for the sealing of an agreement to revive the JCPOA, the Iranian regime will find it has a tough sell on its hands in terms of hardliners opposed to coming to any such arrangement with the US—thus Tehran always takes care to appear strong, whatever the state of the negotiations. It may have been with this in mind that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 8 made a public statement in which he accused US President Joe Biden and predecessor Donald Trump of damaging the reputation of the US. "These days, the US is being hit in ways it never computed. The two American presidents—the current and former heads of state—have joined hands to tarnish the image of the United States," Khamenei said without elaborating.

'Breakout time'

On February 9, there were reports in US media of US foreign relations committee senators left shocked by a classified briefing from Biden administration officials on the “breakout time” that now stands between Iran and having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon should Tehran decide to pursue one.

"That was a sobering and shocking briefing about where we are right now," Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told CNN, adding: "I think the information we got on breakout time is something we all really have to think about. It is extraordinary how Iran's nuclear programme has advanced since leaving the JCPAO [sic]. ... I see no way to stop Iran's progress other than re-entering this deal."

The Biden administration has let it be known that it believes it has until the end of February to salvage the nuclear agreement—abandoned by Trump in May 2018 in favour of switching to the reimposition of heavy sanctions to pressure Tehran to sign a tighter, wider-ranging agreement on its nuclear programme, ballistic missile programme and backing of various militant groups in Middle East conflict zones—and that, failing a deal with the Iranians, it would have to launch aggressive efforts to stop Iran constructing a nuclear device.

'The critical one'

"This session is the critical one," a senior administration official told CNN, referring to high-level talks that have resumed in Vienna. "We are genuinely in the very final stretch."

After enough highly enriched uranium as fissile material is produced, there is still some way to go in weaponisation to build a viable nuclear weapon. Israeli officials said last November that Iran is five years away from completing such weaponisation.

Prior to Trump unilaterally scrapping US participation in the JCPOA, the pact placed verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear programme with the aim of keeping it entirely civilian. In return, heavy sanctions on Tehran were lifted. Iran has demanded that if it signs up to a revived nuclear deal, the US will lift all sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. A lack of agreement in this respect could still derail the Vienna efforts as there are disputes over which sanctions relate to the JCPOA. Some, for instance, were imposed in response to alleged human rights infringements.

While US officials emphasise that if Iran continues developing its nuclear programme at the same rate that has lately been in evidence, it would have enough weapons-grade enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear weapon some time in the coming weeks, CIA director Bill Burns said late last year that there was no current evidence that Tehran had decided to weaponise its nuclear programme. Iran, meanwhile, has always denied having any ambition to do so, although last year Iran's intelligence minister said that the country would have to pursue nuclear arms if there was no US sanctions relief.