For months indirect talks with Iran to restore the disastrous 2015 nuclear agreement have been postponed. With disasters on every front and tanking poll numbers, President Joe Biden is desperate for a “win” and is looking to restart the negotiations.
Iran has preferred to negotiate through European, Russian, and Chinese intermediaries and delayed the talks in June after their presidential election brought hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to power. Iran claims it needs to appoint new ministers and negotiators.
Meanwhile, Iran moved up the path to a nuclear weapon, producing more than 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium, approaching the 170 kg required to make a bomb. They are also increasing the stock of 60% enriched uranium, using centrifuges to purify it. Some experts believe Iran’s “breakout time” — the time needed to make one bomb’s-worth of highly enriched uranium — has shrunk to about one month, or at most “a few months” – far shorter than the year or more contemplated by the JCPOA, making a “reset” to the situation under the prior deal now technically impossible and simply nonsensical.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to address the upcoming showdown stating that “the runway is getting shorter.” Other officials say they will have to turn to “other options”— without saying what these might be.
Speaking before U.N. General Assembly, Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, was far more direct, stating, “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment – and so has our tolerance.”
Mr. Biden vowed, “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” President Barack Obama achieved that goal by kicking the can at the end of his administration with a deal with Iran badly needed for his legacy. Mr. Biden reentering that deal is no solution.
U.S. credibility after the withdrawal from Afghanistan is low, where Mr. Biden falsely claimed he would never abandon Americans in Afghanistan. Iran knows Mr. Biden wants to disentangle America from the “forever wars” in the Muslim world and will be reluctant to start a new war over its nukes.
Israel makes little secret of its covert campaign to assassinate Iran’s nuclear scientists and sabotage their facilities. Israel’s Chief-of-Staff, Aviv Kochavi, has stated that “operations to destroy Iranian capabilities will continue in various arenas and at any time” and that Israel would always have “an effective and timely military response.” However, it is unclear what such a response might be.
When Mr. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, which he called “the worst deal ever,” he thought imposing sanctions would exert “maximum pressure” on Iran. However, these sanctions failed to make Iran stop developing ballistic missiles, end support for terrorists, and give up its nuclear ambitions. In Iran’s view, the U.S. is seen as untrustworthy.
The economic benefits of the JCPOA were short-lived, and the sanctions did not bring about the collapse of the clerical regime, as some had hoped. Firms linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) flourished. At the same time, the regime has shown that brutality can keep it in power as their security forces shot dead hundreds of people to put down nationwide protests over the economy.
China has become the biggest buyer of Iran’s oil, and Iran is being incorporated into China’s worldwide Belt and Road initiative. Not to be outdone, Russia is talking of integrating Iran into a Eurasian trade group. Regionally Iran has become more powerful, helping to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and defending friends in Iraq from the jihadists of the Islamic State. Most recently, in Afghanistan, with the U.S. out, the Taliban are now on friendly terms with Iran.
Mr. Biden first wanted an agreement that would be “longer and stronger” than the JCPOA, while Iran argued that the U.S. needed to make up for its reneging on the deal. They also demanded lifting all Trump-era sanctions and guaranteeing that a new agreement would not be repudiated again. At the same time, Mr. Biden’s team claimed that any new deal would also cover Iran’s ballistic missiles and support to terrorists — two key concepts that have now disappeared in the talks, as Iran said they were unacceptable.
Mr. Blinken’s call for “a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA” is technically nonsense as Iran has moved well past what the situation was in 2017. Even if stocks of highly-enriched uranium are shipped out of Iran and centrifuges dismantled, a new JCPOA can no longer restore the one-year breakout time. The sunset clauses mean Iran can expand nuclear enrichment starting in 2025.
Mr. Biden would never submit any new agreement with Iran for Congressional approval, though many in Congress are trying to find ways to oblige his administration to do so. Mr. Biden seems to be hoping that some Congressional opponents — seeing the dangerous consequences of an unconstrained Iran — will support a deal.
Israel has been forced to acquiesce to the talks, while some Israelis are expressing dismay about the lack of a “Plan B” with serious military options. One idea floated by Israel is a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy — conducting many small military and diplomatic actions, short of overt air strikes on Iran.
A revived JCPOA is bound to be repudiated by a future Republican president. One answer some of Mr. Biden’s opponents suggest is to tighten the economic noose on Iran and prepare for the worst. If the Iranians do get close to getting nuclear weapons, the Biden White House needs to seriously consider what they will do when they get the call from the Israelis.
Mr. Biden has no real intention of applying pressure on Iran. Recent contacts between the U.S. and Israel reveal that as the Iranian government moves closer to gaining a nuclear weapon, there is no Plan B other than restoring JPCOA. Mr. Biden is desperate for a win and may be tempted to simply reenter the old agreement - knowing it’s outdated and won’t prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon in the future.
Such a “win” might help to boost Mr. Biden’s disastrous poll numbers, but it would be a massive step in the wrong direction for dealing with Iran.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author of the recent book Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.