A new crisis between America and Iran looms
Talks To Restore A Nuclear Deal Are Going Badly. The Alternatives Are Grim
The former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, probably summed it up best: tough nuclear diplomacy with Iran, he said in 2007, was the best way to avoid the catastrophic choice between “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran”. To escape this dilemma, President Joe Biden has been trying to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran that Barack Obama negotiated in 2015 and Donald Trump tore up three years later.
But Iran is not making it easy. It has refused to speak directly to American officials in the six rounds of talks in Vienna that ended in June (it negotiated instead with European, Russian and Chinese intermediaries). It has dragged its feet since—citing the presidential election in June that brought to power Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner (pictured, during a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant); and the need to appoint new ministers and a negotiating team. Talks could resume in November, Iran says.
As though taunting America, Iran has stepped up its nuclear programme. On October 9th Iran said it had produced more than 120kg of 20% enriched uranium, sharply up from the 84kg reported by UN inspectors last month, and approaching the 170kg required to make a bomb after further enrichment. It is already spinning up a growing stock of 60% enriched fissile material, a hair’s breadth away from bomb-grade stuff. The acceleration has been helped by Iran’s deployment of more, and more sophisticated, centrifuges to purify the fissile material. Other alarming developments include the conversion of enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium metal—for which the most likely use is in bombs—and the hampering of inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
All told, Iran’s “breakout time”—the time it would need to make one bomb’s-worth of highly enriched uranium—has shrunk to about a month, calculates David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think-tank. American officials put it at “a few months”. Either way, it is much shorter than the year or more that the world enjoyed when the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was in force. (Putting a nuclear warhead on a missile would take perhaps another two years.)
Among Iran-watchers in Washington, there is a sense of foreboding about an approaching showdown. “The runway is getting shorter,” says Antony Blinken, the secretary of state. Unless progress is made soon, American officials say, they will have to turn to “other options”—without saying what these might be. Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is blunter: “Iran’s nuclear programme has hit a watershed moment. And so has our tolerance,” he told the UN General Assembly last month. Israel makes little secret of its covert campaign to assassinate Iran’s nuclear scientists and sabotage its facilities. “Operations to destroy Iranian capabilities will continue—in various arenas and at any time,” said Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi; Israel would always have “an effective and timely military response.”
The looming crisis was predictable from the day Donald Trump, Mr Biden’s predecessor, withdrew from the JCPOA, calling it “the worst deal ever”. The deal restricted the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of many, but not all, international economic sanctions. Mr Trump’s barrage of sanctions was intended to exert ”maximum pressure”. But it failed to compel Iran to accept more stringent terms. Nor did it halt its development of ballistic missiles, or its support for client militias around the Middle East.
Mr Biden campaigned on a promise to restore the JCPOA. In office, he retained most of Mr Trump’s sanctions in the hope of preserving America’s bargaining power. But as the nuclear programme accelerates, it is Iran that is now exerting “maximum pressure” on Mr Biden, argues Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank.
In Iran’s view, America has proven itself to be untrustworthy, as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long warned. The economic benefits of the JCPOA were short-lived, and felt only in the cities. And Iran thinks it has withstood the worst economic pressure that America can apply. Sanctions, compounded by low oil prices and the covid-19 pandemic, have exacted a painful cost. Iran’s GDP contracted by 6% in 2018 and 7% in 2019. The rial has lost 85% of its value since 2017. Inflation is high and living standards have plunged.
This did not bring about the collapse of the clerical regime, as some in the Trump administration hoped. If anything it reinforced hardliners as the champions of “resistance”. As private firms floundered, those linked to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) flourished. The Guards have tried to boost their popularity through charitable work such as distributing food to the needy. But the regime has also resorted to the iron fist. Security forces shot dead hundreds of people to put down nationwide protests over the economy in 2019.
Now the economy is improving. The IMF estimated in April that Iran’s GDP would grow by 3% this year, and that was before the latest spike in oil prices. China has become the biggest buyer of Iran’s oil, and is unlikely to bow to America’s wishes. If anything, Iran is being incorporated into China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure projects. Russia is talking of integrating Iran into a Eurasian trade group.
Regionally, too, Iran has become more powerful. To the west, it helped to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, and defended its friends in Baghdad from the jihadists of Islamic State. To the south, its Houthi allies in Sana’a have forced a Saudi-led military coalition to seek a way out of the war. And to the east, in Afghanistan, the Americans have been chased away by the Taliban, who are now on friendly terms with Iran.
President Biden has vowed that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch”. Yet Iran knows that he wants to disentangle America from the “forever wars” in the Muslim world, and will be loth to fight a new one over Iran’s nukes. Gulf kingdoms have started trying to patch up relations with Iran.
Iran claims it seeks to build only a nuclear-power industry. But it seems determined at least to develop the wherewithal to make nuclear bombs at short notice. The JCPOA was hardly a permanent solution to the problem. It sought to postpone the reckoning. It allowed Iran to continue enrichment and experiment with more sophisticated centrifuges, but under tight limits. “Sunset clauses” would remove most of these restrictions after eight, ten and 15 years (a tightened inspection regime would go on indefinitely). These compromises provoked intense opposition by the Republicans and parts of the Democratic Party, whipped up by Mr Bennett’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Biden administration at first sought an agreement that would be “longer and stronger” than the original JCPOA. Iran, arguing that America had to make up for its reneging on the deal, has also demanded better terms, not least that America should move first by lifting all Trump-era sanctions and that it should guarantee that the deal will not be repudiated again.
Such a more-for-more deal seems beyond reach. The likeliest option is what Mr Blinken calls “a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA”. But that is losing its appeal, too. Even if stocks of highly-enriched uranium are shipped out of Iran, and centrifuges are dismantled, Iran has acquired valuable know-how that cannot be unlearnt. Mr Albright thinks the JCPOA can no longer restore the one-year breakout time. Moreover, the sunset clauses mean that Iran would be allowed to expand its enrichment programme starting in 2025. Iran knows that the Democrats could lose control of Congress next year, and of the White House in 2024.
Although the Biden administration does not intend to submit any agreement with Iran for congressional approval (just as the Obama administration skirted Congress with the JCPOA), hawkish congressmen are trying to find ways to oblige it to do so. Mr Biden will be hoping that some opponents, having seen the dangerous consequences of an unconstrained Iran, will support a deal. And if the talks fail after a good-faith effort to revive the accord, it thinks it will be easier to secure European support to tighten sanctions. Under Mr Bennett Israel has acquiesced to the talks for now; some Israeli officials even see merit in the JCPOA. But some are privately expressing dismay about the apparent lack of an American Plan B, including military options. One idea floated by Israel is a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts”—conducting many small military and diplomatic actions, short of overt air strikes on Iran.
Jim Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate foreign-relations committee, warns Mr Biden that a revived JCPOA is bound to be repudiated by a future Republican president. His answer? Tighten the economic noose, and prepare for the worst. “If the Iranians get close to getting nuclear weapons, this administration needs to think: what are they going to do when they get the call from the Israelis?”