The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We still need a nuclear deal with Tehran. Protests don’t change that.

Technicians work at the Arak heavy-water reactor's secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, Iran, in December 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP) (AP)
5 min

Ellie Geranmayeh is a senior policy fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Last month, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran said that nuclear talks with Tehran were unlikely to continue anytime soon. “If these negotiations are not happening, it’s because of Iran’s position and everything that has happened since [September],” said Robert Malley, citing Iran’s crackdown on protests, its transfer of drones to Russia and its continuing imprisonment of American citizens.

His comments, which echoed a widespread unease with Iran in the West, are understandable. And yet none of the issues he cited changes the grim reality that Iran is now just days away from having enough weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb — and that the international community is doing nothing to stop it. Unless that changes, the world is headed inexorably for a new nuclear crisis. A revised diplomatic track still represents the most effective pathway forward.

Iran’s relations with the West have hit rock-bottom after almost two years of failed negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. That impasse has been compounded by Tehran’s repressive response to the wave of protests that began in September, which has reportedly left more than 400 dead and thousands imprisoned.

The International Atomic Energy Agency recently passed yet another in a series of resolutions reprimanding Iran for its lack of cooperation with the agency. This censure is the right move, but it doesn’t fix the larger problem. Iran responded to the IAEA’s rebuke by restarting high-level enrichment of uranium at its underground Fordow nuclear site — something that it is expressly prohibited from doing under the original nuclear deal. Iranian officials have also claimed that they plan to install more advanced centrifuges, which would significantly enhance Iran’s capabilities to produce nuclear weapons. The current trajectory is certain to leave the agency, the United States and Europe in a near-total blackout as Iran marches toward becoming a nuclear threshold state.

It is essential that international bodies officially sound the alarm when any nation’s nuclear program goes unchecked. But this needs to be coupled with an active diplomatic track to reverse Iran’s nuclear conduct before it is too late. In August, the European Union brokered a new deal that offered a chance for progress — but the Iranians stonewalled. A few weeks later, Iran launched its brutal response to the protests, plunging the whole process into a deep freeze.

Since then, Europe and the United States have focused on raising the pressure on Iran through new sanctions, intensified political isolation and loud support for Iranian opposition figures. Proponents of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy are vocally supporting a more hard-line approach. They are calling on the West to double down on a renewed sanctions campaign aimed at forcing significant compromises out of Tehran, or even securing regime change. But there is little evidence that this will work.

The fact remains that Trump’s approach failed to produce either significant concessions on the nuclear program or Iran’s regional behavior. Iran ultimately escalated its behavior on both counts. Even if some Western governments entertain the notion that Iran’s political leadership is entering its final days, a proper strategy is still urgently needed to tackle the nuclear problem.

It is irresponsible to risk everything on the hope that a peaceful transition of power will place Iran’s nuclear program under democratic and safe control anytime soon. This means that the Europeans and the Biden administration need to find a diplomatic path out of the nuclear crisis. They should remain wary of taking any steps that would tie their hands and foreclose the possibility of a political deal.

The restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal currently seems beyond reach. For now, the United States and Europe should hammer out step-by-step measures that at least freeze Iran’s nuclear program and prevent further escalation. Chief among such measures should be Iran granting international inspectors improved access to monitor its nuclear activities. In return, the West could offer humanitarian economic relief to Iran and ease sanctions enforcement against third parties trading with Iran, such as those in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and China. The Biden administration has shown a similar pragmatic approach toward sanctions relief with Venezuela to ease energy prices. Such gesture-for-gesture measures won’t solve the broader impasse with Iran, but they allow both sides to climb down from the brink.

The United States and its European allies are understandably skeptical about the domestic political cost associated with engaging Iran’s leaders. But if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taught observers one thing, it’s the unpredictability of our adversaries and the prospect for cold, simmering conflicts to turn hot if left unaddressed. The West needs to find a way to contain Iran’s nuclear threat before it becomes a broader crisis that draws energy and resources away from other global crises and entrenches the current Russian-Iranian axis even more deeply.

President Biden has said that it’s critical to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” The West is right to condemn Iran’s domestic repression and should look at measures to protect Iranian protesters. But it needs to also make a new diplomatic push to ensure Iran doesn’t get the bomb. Guaranteeing that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and safe is in the interest not only of the West, but also of Iran’s neighbors and the Iranian people.