Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Wednesday in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Afterward, Lapid repeated an earlier warning that “Iran is becoming a nuclear threshold country.” Lapid said Iran is stalling negotiations over a return to the 2016 nuclear deal while racing ahead to advance its nuclear and missile programs, adding that Israel might respond with force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Lapid is reportedly briefing senior Biden administration officials on Israel’s idea for “an alternative plan,” given that the current U.S. efforts to restart talks with Tehran are leading nowhere. After his meeting with Lapid on Tuesday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan put out a statement reaffirming the Biden administration’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But Sullivan declined to say what, if any, strategy the Biden administration has beyond the current approach.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said Wednesday that the Biden team is working on a Plan B. Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Malley acknowledged that the new Iranian leadership has shown no interest in returning to the talks in Vienna that have been dormant since Iranian hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi was elected president in June.
“Every day they are not coming back to the table … is telling us that this is a team that may not in fact be prepared to come back into [the nuclear deal],” Malley said. “We have to prepare for a world … where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program and we have to consider options for dealing with that, even as we hope that we can get back to the deal.”
Like Sullivan and Blinken, Malley offered no specifics on the options under consideration and did not concede that the talks in Vienna are dead. The Biden team is keeping the door open, he said, while now ramping up planning for the increasingly likely failure of the current diplomatic process.
“We will be prepared to adjust to a different reality in which we have to deal with all options to address Iran’s nuclear program if it’s not prepared to come back into the constraints of 2016,” Malley said. He will travel to the region for consultations with Middle East partners next week.
The Biden administration’s Iran gambit was always a long shot. Since President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal in 2018, Iran has increased its enrichment levels, built more advanced centrifuges, done work on uranium metal and put up new obstacles to access for international inspectors. All of these moves violate the deal. Getting Tehran to roll them back in exchange for limited sanctions relief might never have been a realistic goal.
Even the previous Iranian government would talk to the United States only through intermediaries, and it never publicly bought into the Biden administration’s framework. There are reports that the Biden team is now trying to persuade China to cut imports of Iranian oil in order to pressure Iran to talk, but Beijing shows no signs of going along.
With no clear diplomatic option or any real prospect of returning to a pressure-based strategy, the Biden administration doesn’t appear to have any realistic alternatives ready. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear and missile programs advance apace.
“Biden’s caught between a commitment not to let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon and the reality that Iran is already a nuclear threshold state,” Carnegie Senior Fellow Aaron David Miller, who interviewed Malley, told me.
The Biden team now belatedly seems to realize that Iran is in no hurry to return to the deal. Politically, that saves President Biden the cost of selling the outcome to a skeptical Congress. But security-wise, the outlook is grim. Telling the world that you are working on “options” and having meetings with allies are not sufficient.
The Biden team must quickly decide — and then announce — what it actually intends to do to prevent Iran from ramping up its nuclear program. The United States needs to act before Iran reaches the point where Israel responds and draws the United States into a conflict. This new strategy will surely have diplomatic components, require European buy-in, necessitate security adjustments and include measures to enhance regional deterrence. All these things take time and can’t wait any longer.
One hopes the Iranian regime will suddenly realize that abandoning its nuclear ambitions and its regional mischief is in its own interest — and come back to the negotiating table. But hope is not a strategy.