While Iran nuclear talks continue in Vienna, and reportedly there has been “modest progress,” , there is growing talk in the U.S. foreign policy community of the need for coercive alternatives and a Plan B to halt Iran’s nuclear expansion. As confirmed by the White House, President Biden has already instructed his administration to prepare for additional punitive measures against Iran if the impasse in Vienna continues.
Meanwhile, in his recent visit to Israel, national security adviser Jake Sullivan reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to deterring Iran from reaching weapons-grade nuclear enrichment — suggesting that restoring the credibility of the military option and the threat of reimposing UN sanctions on Iran both remain on the table.
Despite the clamors in Washington for a more aggressive response to Iran in terms of a “Plan B,” a negotiated diplomatic settlement in Vienna remains the only viable path to achieve a sustainable solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. Within this diplomatic framework, the Biden administration needs to either restore the 2015 agreement or replace it with a “less for less” or interim deal using the JCPOA as a blueprint to defuse tensions.
Proponents of the Plan B approach suggest that if the negotiations fail to deliver quick results, then the Biden administration must take action to pressure Iran into halting its nuclear expansion. These punitive measures could include one or a combination of the following: tightening of economic sanctions, exerting diplomatic pressure, conducting sabotage operations, or carrying out military strikes.
The United States and its European allies have a variety of economic and diplomatic tools, Plan B advocates argue, that could be used to force Tehran to comply with Western demands. The EU and other U.S. allies could impose sanctions of their own on Iran and help Washington better enforce its secondary sanctions. Moreover, the remaining European parties in the JCPOA (UK, Germany, and France) could trigger the snapback mechanism in the agreement to reimpose all pre-2015 United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran.
While more sanctions might seem an attractive, low-cost alternative for the Biden administration in dealing with any impasse in the talks, the reality is that increasing economic pressure against Iran, even if backed by China and Russia, is unlikely to force the country back to the negotiating table fast enough to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.
Considering the history of tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, between 2006 and 2010 the UNSC adopted 6 resolutions against Iran imposing international sanctions to compel the Islamic Republic to suspend its uranium enrichment and agree to the concessions demanded by the IAEA. While the conventional wisdom holds that those stringent measures convinced Iran to greenlight talks, in reality, reaching an interim agreement took another three years of negotiations as well as recognizing Iran’s right to enrichment (a major demand of Tehran). This original compromise was reflected in the November 2013 interim agreement which paved the way to reaching the JCPOA in 2015.
In 2015, Iran’s breakout time was believed to be around one year. Six years, two administrations, and one “maximum pressure campaign” later, and Iran’s breakout time is currently estimated around a month. Tehran can add centrifuges and increase its stockpile of enriched uranium faster than the time needed for sanctions to inflict enough pain to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. If the United States chooses crippling sanctions this time around, it will essentially guarantee that next time the two delegations meet, the United States will have to cope with an emboldened Iran boasting a threshold nuclear capability.
Taking into account the fact that Washington pretty much exhausted its leverage with the maximum pressure campaign, the more likely scenario is that additional economic and diplomatic sanctions will fail to force Iran to cease its nuclear activities. As such, the Biden administration could face tremendous pressure in Washington to authorize sabotage operations or military strikes against the country’s nuclear facilities. But both tacks are highly undesirable, being both high-risk and unlikely to halt Tehran’s nuclear advances.
Iran has proven itself capable of recovering and enhancing its nuclear program after every cyber attack, explosion, or assassination. The recent sabotage attacks, allegedly conducted by Israel, have also provoked Iran to retaliate by increasing its enrichment level and limiting the IAEA’s monitoring of the targeted facilities, further moving the country’s program in a clandestine direction.
Witnessing President Biden’s lower appetite for conflict, Israeli officials have threatened that they will go beyond covert operations and take unilateral military action against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, there are serious doubts about the feasibility and seriousness of these threats. Israeli analysts and former officials, including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, believe that neither Israel nor the United States have any viable plan to successfully conduct a military strike against Iranian facilities.
In comparison, Iran has been preparing for tactical strikes on its nuclear program for nearly two decades. Its facilities are scattered around the country, protected by layers of air defence systems, and fortified underground. In a best-case scenario, an airstrike might only temporarily delay the Iranian program or reduce their capacity for enrichment, but it is impossible for such an operation to eliminate the country’s capability and nuclear know-how altogether.
What is even more worrisome from the perspective of a Biden administration preoccupied by a challenging 2022 midterm election season is that Iran would likely retaliate against any military strike, which would not only destabilize the Middle East but have serious global ramifications in terms of disrupting energy supplies and rising oil and gas prices. While the Trump administration was able to avoid an escalatory spiral after Iran’s retaliation against the Al Asad airbase in Iraq, as U.S. Central Command’s General McKenzie later revealed, the U.S. military had orders to attack targets inside Iran had the Iranian missiles killed American service members. Therefore, in considering military strikes against Iran, the Biden administration must carefully weigh the limited benefits of potentially delaying the Iranian program temporarily against the probability that military action against Iran could trigger an all-out regional conflict, with devastating consequences for the Middle East.
CIA director William Burns recently stated that the U.S. intelligence community has found no evidence that would indicate Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made the decision to weaponize Iran’s nuclear technology. Indeed, despite their recent nuclear advances, Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that nuclear weapons do not have a place in their defense strategy. However, the asssasination of General Qasem Soleimani and repeated Israeli sabotage operations inside Iran have incited a feeling among Iran’s ruling establishment that the country’s current capabilities have failed to deter foreign attacks. A military strike against Iran by the United States or Israel will further galvanize hardline elements in the Islamic Republic and consequently force the regime to make the ultimate decision to develop a nuclear arsenal in hopes of deterring any future attacks and ensuring regime survival.
Three years after America’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, there is a growing consensus in Washington and Tel Aviv that the decision to leave the deal, pushed by Iran hawks in the Trump administration, was a profound mistake with disastrous consequences. U.S. withdrawal not only failed to achieve any of its stated objectives but also led to Iran expanding its nuclear program to an unprecedented level. President Biden had the opportunity to correct this mistake and return to compliance with the JCPOA in his early months in the White House. But he decided to wait and leverage Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions to reach a “longer and stronger” deal. Instead of a better deal, his delays led Iran to increase its enrichment level and use of advanced centrifuges.
It is time for the Biden administration to come to terms with the reality that there is only one path to ensuring nonproliferation in Iran, and it lies in reaching a diplomatic compromise in Vienna: a resolution that sets clear limitations on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for effective sanctions relief for Iran. The carrot, not the stick, seems to be the only bargaining chip U.S. negotiators have to ensure a sustainable modus vivendi with Iran.
There are no viable coercive means, no Plan Bs, that could compel Iran to halt its nuclear program fast enough. Given the prevailing climate of distrust between the two countries, reaffirming the Obama nuclear deal appears the only win-win solution in the short-term. Renewed commitment to the framework of the JCPOA remains both a prudent step toward conflict prevention and a confidence-building measure toward future dialogue and engagement on other issues of contention between Tehran and Washington.