Seven years ago this week, the Iran nuclear deal was agreed to by the United States, its allies, and Iran as a peaceful way to prevent Tehran from producing a nuclear weapon and to provide much needed sanctions relief for the Iranian people. The deal worked well until former President Trump, for purely domestic political reasons, recklessly abandoned it. Now Iran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear state.
President Biden said this week during his first trip to the Middle East as president that he would use military force “as a last resort” to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, prospects for a non-military, diplomatic solution are fading.
President Biden came into office promising to get back into the Iran deal. But after more than a year of talks, the United States and Iran are still at loggerheads. The most recent effort, in Doha, Qatar, ended in late June with no progress. Both sides point to the other as the problem. In fact, both are the problem. Washington and Tehran lack the political will to offer a viable compromise. And so, the talks drift.
But President Biden seems not to appreciate that drift hurts the United States more than Iran. As talks have dragged on, Tehran, which claims to have no interest in nuclear weapons, has continued to advance its nuclear program to the point where it is just weeks away from having enough nuclear material for a bomb (making that material into a warhead for a missile would take longer). If the deal is revived, much of Iran’s progress could be reversed and we could put months back on the nuclear clock and reinstate much needed insight into Iran’s nuclear activities. Getting back into the deal is by far the best option to defuse the crisis.
But the longer we wait the harder it gets to revive the deal. As the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said July 5, “If we want to conclude an agreement, decisions are needed now.”
In May, the head of the UN’s atomic watchdog warned that Iran had dealt a potentially “fatal blow” to the deal by removing cameras set up by the UN to monitor Iran’s activities. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said Iran’s action could, after a few weeks, make it harder for the agency to give precise information about Tehran’s nuclear activities. This gap in information could undermine confidence in any deal that is not concluded soon.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration appears to have little interest in making a deal with Iran until after the fall elections, out of concern that compromising on key issues will hurt Democrats at the polls. But by then, it may be too late. Depending on how the elections go, President Biden and his allies in congress may have a harder time in winning support for the deal.
Moreover, if Democrats lose control of congress, Iran may further lose confidence in the Biden administration’s ability to deliver on a revived deal, and Tehran may see it as yet another indication that a Republican will win the White House in two years and abandon the deal yet again. The Iranians have their own presidential election in 2025 and might have to wait for that outcome to move forward, causing more delays. ”As such, the options are not between a deal now or six months from now, but rather it is between a deal now or six years from now,” says our colleague Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group.
President Biden may believe that by letting the deal drift he can avoid a political minefield. The Iranians may believe that their leverage will increase over time as the demand for oil rises this winter. But by doing so both sides are inviting an even greater political and national security disaster later.
As time passes and Iran gets closer to a bomb President Biden’s opponents will attack him for letting Iran become a de facto nuclear state, and they may call for military action. Israel has already conducted a simulated strike to demonstrate its next steps if Iran chooses to move any closer to a nuclear weapon.
Military action only invites the prospect of another major war in the Middle East, all while the war in Ukraine rages on. If the Biden administration thinks it has a problem with inflation and high gas prices now, just imagine if there is a new Middle East war and Iran closes the Persian Gulf to oil shipments. As Special Envoy Rob Malley said at a Senate Foreign Relations Hearing in May, “the only real solution here is a diplomatic one.”
States in the Middle East may also begin to seek their own nuclear weapons. “We are now in a situation where Iran’s neighbors could start to fear the worst and plan accordingly,” said IAEA head Grossi recently. ”There are countries in the region today looking very carefully at what is happening with Iran, and tensions in the region are rising.” Israel already has the bomb, and Saudi Arabia has said it would go nuclear if Iran does.
The Iran deal is the only viable solution to this crisis, as its track record proves. But time is running out. Letting the talks drift into the fall is not in our interests. For President Biden, it is both good politics and good policy to save the Iran deal before it’s too late.
Emma Belcher is President of Ploughshares Fund, a global peace and security Foundation. Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund.