The future of Iran’s decades-old nuclear program is one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges which President Joe Biden’s administration must address. No one should envy White House officials tasked with dealing with this difficult file. With a renewal of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) effectively off the table, team Biden has no good options for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear activities.
The Impossible Choice
Since May 2019, one year after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from the nuclear deal, Tehran has been steadily advancing its nuclear program in incremental steps. Essentially, this strategy constitutes a form of “nuclear blackmail” intended to pressure the U.S. and other Western powers into abandoning the sanctions imposed on Iran post-May 2018.
Recently, Iran’s enrichment of uranium briefly reached 84 percent, only six percent below the required level for building an atomic weapon. Although Tehran’s drastic increase in enrichment was later undone, it signaled Iran’s proximity to the creation of a nuclear weapon, demonstrating that declining to do so was a question of political decision-making rather than material capability.
Although then-presidential candidate Joe Biden repeatedly promised to return the United States to the 2015 accord during his campaign in 2019 and 2020, there has been no restoration of the JCPOA since he entered the Oval Office in January 2021. Biden and his advisers must now determine how to proceed vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear file. The nationwide upheaval and the Iranian regime’s harsh crackdown following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody last year create dynamics that make it politically costly for Washington to engage Tehran diplomatically in hopes of reviving progress on the JCPOA front.
The domestic scene in Iran factors into team Biden’s calculus. Put simply, if the Biden White House attempted to strike a limited diplomatic accord with Iran—namely providing for limited sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran agreeing to freeze its nuclear activities and/or make them more transparent—it would lead to significant anger from certain constituencies at home, as well as from certain U.S. allies and partners abroad. Anti-Islamic Republic rallies organized by Iranian diaspora communities in the West, many of whom have voiced support for Biden for his current “tough” position on the clerical government, make negotiations with Tehran even more politically costly. There is also a concern that any sanctions relief would give the Islamic Republic more “legitimacy” and put more money into the Iranian government’s hands, which could be used to intensify the oppression.
“In coming weeks and months, the US will have to make an extremely difficult decision,” said Dr. Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, in an interview with Gulf International Forum. “If—as seems to be the case, for now at least—the most likely scenario in the short to mid-term is for the Islamic Republic to survive, then should Washington re-engage diplomatically on the nuclear file? Doing so would expose the US to the criticism that it is throwing a vacillating regime a lifeline, but not doing so would risk Iran making additional progress with its nuclear program. Both prospects are highly unappealing.”
Iran’s Partnership with Putin’s Government
The conflict in Ukraine and Iran’s deepening relationship with Russia are also major factors in play. As Washington and other Western capitals see it, Moscow and Tehran’s blooming entente is highly problematic. Footage of Iranian drones killing Ukrainian civilians and destroying vital Ukrainian infrastructure has dramatically reshaped European perceptions of the Islamic Republic. Cynics have observed that these Iranian weapons were used to terrible effect in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East many years before arriving in Europe. But Iran’s role as the major supplier of weapons to Russia in a war against a European country clearly crosses a line in the perceptions of many European capitals.
Russia’s use of Iranian drones amid the Ukraine War “complicates everything the White House is trying to do. It’s hardening the Americans and Europeans’ stance on Iran significantly,” Dr. Dina Esfandiary, a senior advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and Iran expert, told Gulf International Forum. “It removes a great deal of political will to engage and deal with Iran. Keep in mind this is in the context of the protests as well, so that doesn’t help. It’s hardened attitudes in the West because the Ukraine conflict is so close to home and because it’s such a big deal for the Western world. It’s significantly complicated the White House’s ability to deal with Iran on other issues like the JCPOA…It makes the West see Iran in a different light because the Ukraine conflict is so close to home,” added Dr. Esfandiary.
The acceleration of East-West bifurcation since Russia invaded Ukraine 13 months ago further shrinks the Biden administration’s maneuverability when it comes to diplomatically addressing the Iranian nuclear file. In the pre-February 2022 period, there were ways for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate vis-à-vis Tehran’s nuclear program, evidenced by the UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, as well as the JCPOA’s 2015 signing. But U.S.-Russia cooperation on this front is unrealistic in the new environment. With the Ukraine conflict having transformed Iran into one of Russia’s most important partners on the international stage, Moscow will stand by Iran rather than support any Western push to pressure the Islamic Republic—although this does not mean that there are indications of Moscow welcoming the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“There is no UN path now for a resumption of sanctions, not only because of the Europeans but because Russia, now a wartime ally of Iran, would veto anything that comes across the Security Council,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company Rane, told Gulf International Forum. “So, it’s back to containment, which is fraught with the potential for escalation without the prospect of a UN angle.”
The Wild Cards
It is foolish to attempt to analyze the Biden administration’s calculus toward the Iranian nuclear program without considering Israel. If the White House assesses that various factors make diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities too politically costly, team Biden may consider becoming more supportive of covert Israeli actions that are intended to pressure Tehran into revising its nuclear assessments regardless of whether, in practice, that would be possible. U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides appeared to defend that stance in recent remarks, saying “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with and we’ve got their back.”
“In all likelihood, this White House may be more willing to greenlight more Israeli covert action against Iran, including inside Iran, in a bid to pressure Tehran to avoid developing a nuclear weapon and to signal the potential consequences if they begin a clear breakout process,” explained Bohl. “If there is an increase in Israeli covert action, it’s likely to take place in tandem with the United States.”
Yet experts maintain that Biden’s administration would have serious concerns about how Israeli belligerence might create a backlash that spirals out of control. “Within bounds, Israel’s actions against Iran’s nuclear program (and, more broadly, against its missile and drone programs, in Iran and also elsewhere, notably Syria) suit the US, as long as the risk of escalation remains manageable,” Dr. Juneau told Gulf International Forum. “I would therefore expect the US to signal to Israel that it needs to make sure that violence does not escalate—an outcome that the US (and Iran) want to avoid.”
As Israel wages covert strikes in Iran, such actions can backfire against the interests of countries that do not want to see Iran’s nuclear program advance. In the past, Tehran has used these episodes of Israeli sabotage against its nuclear facilities as an excuse to reduce the IAEA’s supervision or develop facilities further underground below the mountains. These measures only make Iran’s nuclear activities less predictable in the long run, further escalating the already tense situation.
Additionally, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Chinese-brokered diplomatic agreement to renormalize diplomatic relations at the bilateral level is another factor that could impact Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West. A potential scenario to consider is that Beijing will more confidently test Washington in relation to sanctions on Iran. If China shows more willingness to help the Iranians circumvent such sanctions, it would be fair to conclude that Tehran will have even less of an incentive to make concessions to the West in exchange for sanctions relief.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.