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Opinion For diplomacy to work, Iran must understand that it cannot overplay its hand

Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, which houses centrifuges for uranium enrichment, lost power on April 11. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
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Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, is the counselor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.”

If there was any doubt that Iran wants and needs sanctions relief, it was removed on April 11. Rather than using what seemed like Israeli sabotage at Natanz, Iran’s largest uranium enrichment site, as pretext to walk away from the talks in Vienna — as many argued they would — the Iranians remain engaged with the British, French, Germans, Russians and Chinese, who are acting as mediators between the Islamic republic and the United States. There was no disruption of the talks, aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Instead, the two working groups tasked with negotiating a road map for the United States to lift its nuclear-related sanctions and for Iran to reverse its steps that violate the JCPOA limits went to work.

Of course, Iran did announce a response to the sabotage: It would begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, one small step away from being able to produce weapons-grade fissile material. This step was in keeping with the Iranian strategy of accelerating its nuclear program and shrinking its breakout time, and, as the British, French and Germans stated, “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

What explains an action that has no legitimate civilian justification? The Iranians are trying to pressure the Biden administration into providing sanctions relief that goes beyond what would be required of the United States to get back into compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA; those obligations require the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions. The Iranians are pressing for the lifting of all the sanctions imposed since 2015, including the sanctions and designations that the Trump administration imposed for Iranian involvement in terrorism. In effect, the Iranians are essentially saying that if you apply any sanctions on us for human rights or terrorism, we will engage in nuclear blackmail.

But even that is not enough for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,, as he is also insisting on how the JCPOA must be resumed, declaring that Iran will reverse its steps that breach the JCPOA only after the United States verifiably lifts all the sanctions in a way that actually has Iran selling its oil, gaining access to frozen accounts and doing business. In other words, the United States must go beyond what is required of it to come back into compliance with the JCPOA first, and only then will the Iranians act — but in a way that will fall short of completely reversing its acts of noncompliance. After all, the know-how and experience the Iranians have acquired with regard to advanced centrifuges cannot be reversed.

At a minimum, two points should guide the Biden administration as it considers how to react to what the Iranians are doing. First, it is essential to make clear enrichment to 60 percent is wholly illegitimate. Working with the Europeans and others, we must point out the contradiction between the Iranians claiming their program is for peaceful, civilian purposes when their level of enrichment makes sense only if they want the option of being a nuclear weapon or threshold nuclear weapon state.

Second, the Iranians appear to believe that the Biden administration fears that if it cannot get Iran back into the JCPOA and its nuclear program advances, war will be the only way to stop the program, with either the Israelis acting militarily or the United States having to do so to prevent the advance to a weapon. That is an understandable fear, but the Iranians apparently perceive it and are using the threat of their unconstrained nuclear program to force the United States to concede. If nothing else, the Biden administration needs to show that while it strongly favors diplomacy, the Iranians must also do their part, and if they make diplomacy impossible, the United States will exercise other options to ensure, as President Biden has said, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.

From this standpoint, what the Israelis have reportedly done in sabotaging Natanz is not necessarily bad. For one thing, it buys time so the Biden administration need not feel rushed into reaching an understanding with the Iranians. For another, if the Iranians believe that the United States knew about it and did nothing to block it, the signal to them is that the United States will raise the costs to the Iranians of what they are doing and will directly or indirectly disrupt it.

That public posture of not distancing from Israel can help reestablish deterrence of the Iranians. U.S. diplomacy has little chance of succeeding if the Iranians have lost their fear of the United States and believe it is so anxious to avoid conflict that increasing the pressure on it on the nuclear issue (and in their regional behavior) will pay off.

Khamenei’s ideology will always require treating the United States as an enemy, but it does not blind him to seeing risks. He needs to understand that if Iran overplays its hand now or later, it will put its entire nuclear program at risk.

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