More than a year after the United States and Iran agreed to resume nuclear negotiations, diplomacy between these two historical adversaries is on borrowed time. U.S. and Iranian negotiators haven’t held serious negotiating sessions since March. Patience is wearing thin on both sides, and accusations about who is responsible for the months-long impasse are getting more pointed.
Zoom out and focus on the bigger picture, however, and a successful conclusion of the nuclear talks remains the best option for U.S. security interests, not to mention for overall stability of the Middle East. Every other alternative, or so-called Plan B, that has been proposed to date is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.
It’s easy to look at the current state of affairs and conclude U.S.-Iran nuclear diplomacy is on its last legs. President Biden, who campaigned in part on rolling back the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy and resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is increasingly agitated about Tehran’s negotiating position. Iran’s unwillingness to sign an agreement until the U.S. delists the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization is holding up progress. Robert Malley, the chief U.S. negotiator, admits that the prospects for a deal with Tehran are “at best, tenuous,” On June 8, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan gave Iran an ultimatum: if Tehran didn’t take the draft agreement available to them, “that’s on them.”
The Iranians aren’t taking this criticism well. With the talks deadlocked, Iran continues to enrich greater amounts of uranium at a higher quality. As of mid-May, Iran’s total stockpile of enriched uranium was over 3,800 kilograms, more than eighteen times what the JCPOA allowed—a sum that includes about 55 kg of uranium enriched to 60-percent purity, a short technical step from weapons grade. Iran is as close as ever to acquiring the nuclear fuel needed to produce a bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections regime is at risk of rupturing, with Iranian engineers disconnecting 27 cameras from several of its nuclear facilities in response to the agency censuring Tehran for a lack of cooperation.
Iran’s lack of cooperation is reinforcing calls to walk away from the talks. But it’s not as simple for President Biden, who needs to be extremely level-headed about what this would entail. As satisfying as it would be to wash its hands of the talks altogether, the U.S. would be placing itself in a difficult position with few good alternatives.
For Washington, any Plan B is likely to center around placing yet more sanctions on Iranian energy exports. The administration may believe that, with vigorous enforcement and assistance from its European and Asian allies, Iran’s economy can be dealt a blow, perhaps even one that might draw Tehran back to the negotiating table. But the U.S. never ceased sanctioning Iran’s energy, banking, manufacturing, and petrochemical industries; just last week, the Treasury Department announced penalties on a network of Iranian front companies based in China and the United Arab Emirates.
While more sanctions would unquestionably hurt Iran’s bottom line, it’s highly unlikely to coerce Tehran into softening its negotiating position. We know this because Washington has spent years the last four years pursuing precisely this strategy. When the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and added 1,500 sanctions designations against the Iranian economy, the expectation was that more pain would eventually produce more Iranian nuclear concessions. Unfortunately, this didn’t occur.
With the U.S. no longer a party to the JCPOA, Iran simply breached its own nuclear commitments, even as its oil exports plunged by nearly 80 percent between 2017 and 2020. Iran didn’t fold in the face of U.S. pressure, but instead got far more aggressive, seizing and sabotaging civilian oil tankers to make a point: if Tehran can’t export its crude, neither can its competitors.
Cyber-operations and other types of espionage are also an option. Israel has become a master at covert operations and has executed a number of them against the Iranian nuclear program. The 2010 joint U.S.-Israel operation—the one that used the Stuxnet computer worm—destroyed a fifth of Iran’s centrifuges. Assassinations against Iranian scientists, the most prevalent being the November 2020 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the godfather of Iran’s defunct military nuclear program, have the Iranian security elite worried about leaks and turncoats. These operations continue to the present day. Just last month, a Iranian scientist involved in the country’s missile program was shot outside his home.
Yet covert operations are at best a delaying tactic. Taking out a centrifuge plant or neutralizing several Iranian scientists may temporarily derail Iran’s nuclear activity, but it won’t solve the problem. In fact, it could even make the problem worse. Tehran has responded to previous attacks by redoubling its efforts. The Karaj centrifuge assembly plant, which was damaged in August, is not only running again but increasing production. The underground Fordow enrichment plant now hosts some of most advanced centrifuges Iran has produced. And Iran is now building a new tunnel network south of its main Natanz enrichment site in what U.S. officials say could be an attempt to produce new, more hardened facilities due to previous attacks.
The costliest Plan B would be an overt military operation, likely via airstrikes, against Iran’s program. U.S. officials across successive administrations have kept military action on the shelf, arguing that no option should be taken off the table. But while the U.S. military would certainly be able to conduct an operation, the question is whether it should. Any air strikes wouldn’t be as simple as flying a few B-1 bombers into Iranian airspace and bombing a few isolated buildings. Iran’s air defense system would also have to be destroyed, command-and-control structures would need to be targeted, and the chances of Iranian civilians dying would be high. Talk about a propaganda win for the mullahs.
Iran would also retaliate for U.S. air strikes. Such retaliation could include anything from exploiting its proxies in the Middle East and ordering them to target U.S. troop installations (as was done in the past) to causing disruptions in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important shipment points for crude oil. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in the region, there is no shortage of targets for Iran—and if U.S. troops were killed, President Biden would be sure to retaliate militarily, raising the risk of a full-scale war.
The U.S. is right to be frustrated with Iran’s negotiating tactics. But walking away out of frustration is not a prudent strategy and could lead to scenarios Washington is simply unprepared for.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Spectator.