President Joe Biden’s administration has said for months that there would come a time when the benefits of reviving the Iran nuclear deal no longer outweighed the costs. That cutoff point, whether US officials admit it or not, may now be weeks away. While diplomacy shouldn’t be abandoned, the US should be using this time to show Iran and its backers what the alternative will look like.
Iran has provoked this crisis. Its stonewalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been investigating nuclear material found at several undeclared sites, prompted a dramatic rebuke last week: Thirty countries voted to censure Iran for its intransigence, with only Russia and China dissenting. Iran has retaliated by removing nearly half of the cameras monitoring its nuclear facilities while announcing plans to install more advanced centrifuges. The IAEA says if the cameras aren’t reconnected within a month, inspectors will no longer be able to verify key details about Iran’s production of nuclear material and equipment.
That would be, as the agency’s head put it, a “fatal blow” to the 2015 nuclear deal. Without knowing exactly how many centrifuges and how much enriched uranium Iran has, the outside world can’t ensure that Tehran isn’t secretly stockpiling material for a bomb. Moreover, Iran’s lack of cooperation raises questions about the value of any revived deal. Given that its scientists now have the know-how to reconstitute its stockpiles relatively quickly, it’s even more critical that inspectors be able to alert the world to any signs of renewed weapons research.
Even now, the US should remain open to compromise. If Iran can propose a face-saving way to give up on what appears to be the last sticking point — its demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be taken off the State Department’s terrorist organization list — the US should listen. Even an interim deal that freezes Iran’s enrichment and restores IAEA access in exchange for limited sanctions relief may be worth considering.
At the same time, the Biden administration should set aside fears that a tougher approach might derail negotiations. US officials have suggested they’re prepared to shift to a “plan B” if talks fail; they should spell out what that means.
The administration should start by enforcing existing sanctions far more robustly. Iran’s oil exports rose 30% in the first three months of the year; it claims to be selling more oil than at any time since the US reimposed sanctions in 2018, almost all of it to China. The Biden administration needs to track and interdict illegal shipments, and follow through on previous threats to sanction Chinese companies involved in the trade.
Next, the White House needs to assemble a regional coalition to counter Iran. It should work with Arab allies and Israel on integrating air defenses. It should support these partners with intelligence and technologies to counter Iranian missiles and drones, and encourage closer collaboration between Israel and other signatories to the Abraham Accords on weapons research. It should also respond forcefully to any attacks on its forces or interests in the region.
Finally, Biden should reiterate his vow never to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Without setting any red lines publicly, he should make clear to the Iranians that any attempt to enrich uranium to weapons grade or to kick out IAEA inspectors could be a trigger for military action. The US should work closely with Israel on its own capabilities and plans, while continuing high-profile joint military exercises.
Showing that it’s prepared to defend its interests in the absence of a deal may be the best way for the US to convince Iran to sign one.
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The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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