- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2022

The global push to constrain Iran’s nuclear program has entered uncharted territory as the U.S. and its allies signal that negotiations with Tehran are all but dead, and it’s not clear whether the Biden administration has a viable plan B to keep Iran’s theocratic regime from acquiring a nuclear bomb that the agreement was supposed to prevent.

The high-stakes multilateral talks have collapsed as Tehran deepens its diplomatic and military ties with Moscow, stoking fears that the Kremlin will offer covert help with Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for more drones and missiles for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Analysts say it has become clear that Iran, at least for now, has virtually given up on diplomacy with the West and decided that aligning with Russian President Vladimir Putin offers greater benefit than continuing down the path of talks with the U.S. and Europe.

The negotiations were aimed at reviving the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief. The demise of those talks, combined with Tehran’s deepening military partnership with Moscow, has thrust U.S. policy toward Iran into uncertainty.

President Trump repudiated the deal in 2018, and the Biden administration and the other world powers trying to restore it have found repeated frustrations at the negotiating table with Iran.

Administration officials acknowledge that nuclear talks are in a deep freeze, largely because of Iran’s support for Russia — a signatory of the 2015 agreement — and its brutal crackdown on domestic protesters.

They insist that diplomacy remains the best tool for keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The goal could become more important with U.N. reports that Iran is ramping up uranium enrichment and other nuclear processes in the absence of an agreement.

It’s not clear how prepared the administration is at this crucial moment. Reversing Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement has been the bedrock of the Biden administration’s Iran policy for nearly two years. 

Critics say many of the top liberal negotiators inside the Biden administration, including State Department special envoy Robert Malley, are so committed to a resurrection of the nuclear deal that they have given little thought to an alternative. They also say there is no easy way to deal with a government in Tehran that is increasingly impatient to get relief from economic sanctions and is antagonistic toward the West and its own citizens.

“A lack of plan B has been the problem in Iran strategy throughout the JCPOA era,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, a critic of the original deal and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “First Obama’s and then Biden’s failure to enunciate a best alternative to a negotiated agreement convinced the ayatollahs [in Iran] that negotiators … were desperate.

“Biden’s team are like gamblers, already deep in the hole, who believe they can extricate themselves with just one last bet,” he said. “But instead of losing cold, hard cash, they hemorrhage hard-fought, cross-generational American credibility. … Biden has no plan B.”

Mr. Rubin added, “In the short-term, the Iranian regime will win unless there is an immediate restoration of maximum pressure.”

The Trump administration imposed unprecedented sanctions, grinding Iran’s economic growth to a halt and greatly restricting its ability to conduct business or sell its vast oil and natural gas reserves internationally. 

At the same time, the Trump administration directly targeted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military group with direct links to militias that regularly target U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. Mr. Trump authorized the January 2020 U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. His administration took the unprecedented step of officially designating the Iranian military unit as a terrorist organization.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seem to have approached the latest round of diplomacy with skepticism. Having struck a deal with the West only to have another U.S. president tear it up, Iranian leaders sought hard, unrealistic guarantees throughout negotiations that Washington would never pull out again. U.S. officials also said Iranians insisted on an end to United Nations investigations into undeclared nuclear sites as part of a deal and rejected other Biden administration demands.

End of diplomacy?

The administration forged ahead with negotiations while hitting Iran-linked militias in Syria with retaliatory airstrikes.
It wasn’t until Iran’s September crackdown on domestic protesters, and its high-profile sales of “suicide drones” to Russia, that diplomacy collapsed. 

“If [the Iranians] were very interested in the revival of the nuclear deal, they should not have sent those drones to Russia. The fact they gave [the West] reason to second-guess their commitment to diplomacy is Iran’s fault,” said Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Middle East Institute. 

“They made a decision to commit themselves to Putin,” he said. “In the context of nuclear talks with the West, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that Ayatollah Khamenei, first and foremost, cares about pleasing Putin. If that’s going to damage him in the nuclear talks … so be it. That’s a secondary issue for him.”

Iran has issued widely disbelieved denials that it has sent military drones to Moscow since the Ukraine war began. Tehran also insists it remains committed to talks to restore a version of the nuclear agreement and blames Washington for the impasse.

Mr. Vatanka said he thinks nuclear talks could resume at some point in Mr. Biden’s tenure, though the looming 2024 U.S. presidential election may give Tehran even greater pause about the staying power of any deal. Republicans have been critical of the original agreement and the talks to revive it, but their failure to make major gains in Congress in the midterm elections may give Mr. Biden some unexpected room to maneuver.

For now, European officials who have lobbied to restore the agreement are offering a grim prognosis. Bijan Djir-Sarai, whose liberal Free Democratic Party is part of the new German coalition government, told multiple news outlets this month that the Iran nuclear deal “has no future and is not in line with reality.” British and French officials said late last month that Iran’s sale of drones to Russia is a direct violation of the terms of the agreement, meaning Europe could reinstitute its own slate of economic sanctions on Iran. Such a step would make diplomacy even less likely.

Mr. Malley told CNN that the nuclear deal is “not even on the agenda.”

“It’s not a focus because there’s no movement,” Mr. Malley said.

In a speech this month at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event, Mr. Malley defended the administration’s handling of its Iran policy. Supporters of the agreement said it was never intended to roll back all of Iran’s hostile policies in the region but was intended to take the fear of an Iranian bomb — and a likely Middle East nuclear arms race — off the table so other problems could be addressed.

Mr. Malley said the U.S. imposed sanctions and took other punitive steps when Iran’s proxy militias targeted American troops in the region.

“I think people have to understand that they were not tying our hands because of … this hope that someday maybe there will be a deal,” he said. “No, we are taking action. We’re not waiting. We’re taking the action that we think is consistent and necessary to promote our values and our national security interests.”

Questions are growing about closer Iranian-Russian ties and how they could reshape the global security landscape. Russia is relying heavily on Iranian-made Shahed drones for attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, and it’s all but certain that Tehran wants something in return. Mr. Raisi, Iran’s hard-line president, said as much while meeting with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Tehran on Wednesday to discuss bilateral economic and strategic cooperation.

“Cooperation among independent countries is the most decisive answer to the sanctions and destabilization policy of the United States and its allies,” Mr. Raisi told his Russian guest, according to Iranian press accounts.

Most analysts agree that it’s not in Moscow’s interest to help Iran develop a nuclear weapon. Russia was a signatory to the original agreement, along with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and China, and Kremlin leaders publicly stand by the policy of preventing Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb.

Still, national security specialists are worried.

“As for selling drones to Russia, this is something the Iranians have discussed for years prior to the Ukraine war. We just laughed them off. Sometimes enemies tell us exactly what they will do. We need to take them at their word,” said Mr. Rubin, the AEI analyst. 

“Maybe George W. Bush wasn’t so wrong about the Axis of Evil. He was just mistaken about not including Russia in it,” he said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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