The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The right Plan B for the moribund Iran nuclear deal

The logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is seen at its headquarters in Vienna. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

For a Biden administration that has hit an impasse in trying to contain Iran’s surging nuclear program, this week offered a lesson in what can actually make Tehran back down — the threat of global condemnation by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran dithered for months about reinstalling IAEA surveillance cameras that it removed from a centrifuge plant in Karaj in June. Then the United States signaled it might call a special meeting of the IAEA board of governors to discuss Iranian noncompliance and — poof! — Tehran announced this week that the IAEA can replace its cameras. (The IAEA should demand control of the cameras’ recordings, too!)

The Karaj cameras are a tiny step, but this case suggests a diplomatic “Plan B” for the United States in the dangerous deadlock in the Vienna talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the JCPOA, may be dead — strangled by Donald Trump and the Iranians. A new forum for nuclear pressure may be the IAEA, whose board includes Russia and China and which could refer some Iranian nuclear issues to the U.N. Security Council.

Here’s a starting suggestion: The Biden administration should ask the IAEA board to rule in four cases of “Possible Military Dimensions,” or PMD, in Iran’s nuclear activities. Three involve uranium particles discovered at sites Iran never declared as nuclear facilities — Turkuzabad, Varamin and Marivan, sources tell me. A fourth PMD investigation involves undeclared fissile material and other activity at a site the sources didn’t identify.

Follow David Ignatius's opinionsFollow

Adding a new IAEA initiative to the stalled JCPOA-revival talks would put the emphasis back where it belongs — on Iran’s secretive nuclear program. Right now, Iran is using the talks as a propaganda forum to demand compensation for Trump’s 2018 decision to abandon the JCPOA. Trump’s move was idiotic, even in the view of many senior Israeli officials, but that shouldn’t allow Iran to race toward the nuclear-weapons threshold.

The agonizing reality is that without JCPOA limits, Iran is nearing breakout capability. It resumed 20 percent enrichment in January, breaking the JCPOA cap; it began enriching at 60 percent in April, and Iranian officials have said they’re considering enrichment at 90 percent bomb-grade level. Iran is using advanced centrifuges and the deep bunker at Fordow, both of which were excluded by the JCPOA.

Another ominous step came in February, when Iran began producing uranium metal plates, which can be used in the core of a nuclear bomb, again in violation of JCPOA limits. British, French and German officials warned: “Iran has no credible civilian use for uranium metal. The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications.”

The bottom line: By Israeli estimates, Iran has enough material for three bombs and is less than a month from completing the enrichment of that fuel, sources tell me. Building a weapon would take another 18 months to two years, the Israelis reckon — but that’s still a very short fuse.

President Biden wants to rebuild the guardrails Trump destroyed, but so far he’s stuck in neutral. He told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August: “We’re putting diplomacy first and seeing where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.” The problem is that Iran clearly isn’t deterred by Biden’s gently phrased threat.

The United States’ inability to deter Iran is worrying beyond enrichment levels or uranium plates. Deterrence is about credibility — and that unfortunately is sagging with the Biden administration. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was harmful. So is the perception the United States is retreating in the Middle East. Sensing American weakness, Russia is pushing at the Ukraine border and China is threatening Taiwan — even as Iran is accelerating its nuclear program. It’s all part of the same story.

The United States is lucky to have good allies that can help in moments of peril. Israel, often described an “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States in the Middle East, has become the backstop for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other gulf countries against Iran. In Asia, countries worried about a rising China can look to the growing military power of the United States’ Quad partners, Australia, India and Japan. But that doesn’t make up for Uncle Sam.

The IAEA can’t limit enrichment or other activities covered by the JCPOA. But it may be the right backstop now on Iran. It’s a global organization, chartered by the United Nations to deal with nonproliferation issues. It’s backed by Russia and China as well as the United States and its allies. Referring Iranian noncompliance to the Security Council could jumpstart a new effort to constrain Iranian nuclear-weapons development. That effort began (with Russian and Chinese support) in the now-enfeebled JCPOA. Maybe it’s time for a rebranding.

The United States needs to redraw the line on Iran’s nuclear program. The best way to begin may be an aggressive campaign through the international watchdog, the IAEA.