This fall, experts reviewing International Atomic Energy Agency data reported a disturbing development: Iran is roughly a month away from having enough enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon. In other words, it’s crunch time for President Joe Biden to restrain Tehran from crossing that threshold and posing an imminent threat.
The stakes are incredibly high: Iran obtaining a nuclear arsenal could result in a costly and chaotic war in the Middle East. Nobody wants that, period, but especially so soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. So far, though, the administration’s attempts to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord are fizzling, and it may already be too late. Talks resumed in Vienna in November, but Iran is making new demands, and experts fear that it will be virtually impossible to return to the same terms that were agreed on six years ago.
Biden wants a new deal, but former President Donald Trump’s foolish withdrawal from the landmark pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018 has allowed Tehran to get closer than ever to becoming a nuclear power. Meanwhile, Israel, the accord’s harshest critic, sees the developments as an existential threat and has begun a sabotage campaign to thwart any future deal with Iran, with operatives reportedly touching off explosions at four Iranian nuclear and missile facilities. So Biden also has to worry about staving off an Israeli attack on Tehran—which would grievously complicate his objective to resolve the issue diplomatically.
To fix this mess, Biden has an array of tools to restrain Iran, and he will need to use them all as part of a holistic process to stop Iran’s march to the bomb and bring the Islamic Republic back to more serious negotiations and concessions.
In essence, he will need to use both carrots and sticks. As the former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross told me, Biden should deploy a combination of increased economic sanctions and political pressure on Tehran, which brought them to the negotiations initially, while also offering humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian efforts could include COVID-19 vaccine donations as the Omicron variant looms, and help for Iran’s critical water crisis, which has been exacerbated by climate change and population growth and has already led to a crackdown on farmers protesting in Isfahan. Biden could also offer waivers for Iran to sell oil or access frozen assets if the country stopped its enrichment above the 3.67 percent limit in the accord, gave up materials enriched beyond that, and allowed inspectors and monitoring equipment back into all its sites
Of course, Biden should pursue diplomacy above all else. But in order for diplomacy to work, he will need to convince the Iranians that he is serious about using military force, if nothing else works, for the United States cannot allow the Iranian regime to become a nuclear power.
Hawkish critics of former President Barack Obama believe that he lost leverage against Iran by leading them to believe that he would never authorize a military strike. Biden will also face the same complication, especially after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan left the Taliban back in control there and extremist forces in the region emboldened.
Irrationally, Iran is demanding that the U.S. lift all sanctions before it will make any moves to cut back on its nuclear ambitions. That should be a nonstarter for the U.S., but any solution, needless to say, will inevitably involve compromise.
Still, while the threat of military force is necessary, its use would be disastrous. One of the biggest examples often cited to defend military action as an effective means to blunt a country’s nuclear ambitions proves the opposite. Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor is widely thought to have delayed Saddam Hussein’s efforts to acquire the bomb. In fact, it did the opposite. Ten years after the strike, following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, international inspectors found that Hussein had responded by taking Iraq’s nuclear program completely underground. As Dan Reiter, an Emory University political scientist, noted in a 2005 study, “After the attack, the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.” In other words, military confrontation doesn’t scare an extremist regime away from developing nuclear weapons—it makes them want nuclear weapons even more to prevent such an assault from ever happening again.
That’s why Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications for J Street, a liberal pro-Israel lobbying group, told me diplomacy is the only way out. “There is not a military option that will solve this. What did work before was diplomacy, and it produced concessions from both sides,” he said. What’s more, Trump’s maximum pressure campaign left the moderates weaker in Iran and the world closer to war. “Doubling down on failed policies is not going to work,” he emphasized. “We need tough diplomacy.”
Ross, for his part, stressed that “tough diplomacy” would only work if the U.S. sent a signal that America is prepared to use force. It may not want to use force, but it must be prepared to as a last resort. That could include, he said, more military exercises with Israel and moderate Arab states in the region, cyberattacks to disable Iran’s weapons systems, and, more controversially, even use of a mountain-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator—a 30,000-pound bomb to burrow into Iran’s Fordow nuclear site and try to stop the country from producing a nuclear weapon. “All Iran’s nuclear sites are hardened,” noted Ross, who served in national security roles in four U.S. administrations, both Democrat and Republican. “This bomb doesn’t explode until it is embedded. It’s nonnuclear. It’s such a big bomb, Israel doesn’t have the planes to carry it. We would have to lease B-2 bombers to Israel.”
It’s an especially important signal because, if Iran miscalculates and doesn’t fear that America will act militarily, they might also suspect we will stop Jerusalem as well. But once Iran goes nuclear, Ross added, “we won’t be able to stop the Israelis.” That would be a regional fiasco, and deeply destabilizing to the Middle East and the world.
Therefore, the U.S. needs to dig in at the negotiating table in Vienna and find new compromises. After nearly three weeks, with the U.S. negotiating team on the sidelines, the talks appear to be stalled, and European negotiators warned this week that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “will very soon become an empty shell.” Beyond that, the Iranians refuse to grant UN inspectors full access to their sites and camera images, so the world’s window on their activities is narrowing. For now, the Biden administration has been pushing diplomatic solutions first with close ally Israel, hoping to avoid further attacks on the Iranian nuclear and missile facilities.
Israelis, meanwhile, are watching the talks nervously from the sidelines and worried that Biden might concede too much. Elie Rekhess, an expert on contemporary Middle East history and the Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University, told me Israelis want to see “an obvious commitment on the side of Iran that they will stop the enrichment of uranium for the easing of sanctions.” There is concern in Israel, though, that the Biden administration would give in to Iranian demands on easing the sanctions “and get nothing, or very little, in return,” Rekhess noted.
“The problem is the fear here that this is going to be a bad deal for Israel and that the Iranians will continue to fool the world in its entirety,” he added. “If Iran goes on with its nuclear program, Israel will act on its own with or without the American umbrella.”
If the Biden administration wants to stop that from happening, it will need to act aggressively, and quickly, to save diplomacy. The alternative could well be catastrophic.