All this is designed to push the Biden-Harris administration to reverse Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program for 10 to 15 years in exchange for removal of most sanctions first imposed because of that program in 2006. Nobody has to love the autocratic theocrats in charge of Iran to realize that the tough talk and provocative actions from all sides didn’t have to be our current lot. President Barack Obama and others warned Trump that pulling out of the agreement and reimposing sanctions could lead to war. But he, of course, bragged he could make a much better deal than Obama had. And so here we are, on the precipice.
Last December, in the immediate wake of Israel’s assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, the Islamic republic’s parliament passed a law to suspend IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities unless U.S.-imposed sanctions are removed by Feb. 21. Those inspections are a crucial element of the 2015 agreement. IAEA inspectors had repeatedly found that Iran was in full compliance with its obligations under the agreement since the signing.
That, as in so many other things, made no never-mind to Trump. He commanded his aides to find a rationale for leaving the agreement that he had sneered at during his campaign as “the worst deal ever.” They couldn’t. So, in June 2018, partly out of animus toward anything accomplished by President Obama, partly because of strong opposition to the agreement among Republicans, and partly out of rank stupidity, Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite Tehran’s full compliance. He then reimposed the old sanctions and added some new ones that are, as previously, wreaking havoc on Iran’s economy.
President Joe Biden has said talks on restoring or reworking the old agreement depend on Iran making the first move by complying with provisions it has gradually stopped carrying out. Khamenei has said, “If they want Iran to return to its commitments … America must completely lift sanctions, and not just in words or on paper.” This is not a diplomatic chicken-and-egg situation. It’s more like playing chicken at 100 mph.
One good sign: Biden has appointed the highly regarded Rob Malley as special envoy for Iran. He served on the negotiating team for the nuclear agreement in the Obama administration.
Iran’s leaders could have taken the same path as Trump and totally abandoned the agreement the instant he did. Instead, they put the onus on the other nations that negotiated the agreement, especially France, Britain, and Germany, to keep it alive by challenging Washington and finding a way around the sanctions. As that was unsuccessful, they gradually cranked up the pressure, giving the IAEA advance notice as they intentionally and systematically exceeded one after another of the agreement’s provisions.
This has included building a larger than allowed stockpile of low-enriched uranium; enriching uranium beyond the permitted 3.67% level required to fuel its electricity-generating reactor with some as high as 20%; using more than the allowed number of centrifuges to concentrate uranium; and using more advanced centrifuges than allowed. Most recently, Iran has produced uranium metal that it says is for its Tehran research reactor. Experts note that this material is also useful in the core of nuclear weapons, which is why the agreement prohibits researching or making the stuff for 15 years.
France cautioned Iran in the matter. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said, “To preserve the political space to find a negotiated solution, we call on Iran not to take any new measures that would further worsen the nuclear situation, already extremely worrying due to the accumulation of violations of the Vienna Accord, including the latest just reported by the IAEA.”
For three decades, nuclear experts, intelligence agencies, and self-interested politicians have given assessments on how far or close Iran is from being able to build a nuclear bomb. As a member of the Israeli parliament in 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran could have a bomb in three to five years. As prime minister he said in 2012 that Iran could be ready to build one in six to seven months. Although expert observers today say for public consumption that they believe Iran is close to having enough uranium, if it is highly enriched, to make a bomb or two, there is no consensus on how long it might take to manufacture the parts and gain the technical skills needed to assemble them. The latest publicly announced assessment by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, puts it at two years.
No way will the Biden-Harris administration immediately lift all the sanctions as Iran has demanded. That would face obstacles from all the Republicans in the Senate and from some Democrats. Opposed to the agreement in 2015 were Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, and, most notably, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
There’s opposition from the usual sources outside of the Senate, too. A letter was sent to Biden and published as a full page ad in The New York Times last Friday. Written by United Against Nuclear Iran, a lobbying group funded in part by the late Republican Party megadonor Sheldon Adelson, the letter was signed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Head of Saudi Intelligence Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, former General Director of the Mossad Tamir Pardo, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and 44 others. The letter advises against returning to the 2015 agreement and says sanctions should remain until Iran ends its regional military operations, releases all American prisoners, and agrees to quit enriching uranium:
Iran policy must be conducted in consultation with US regional allies and partners most threatened by Iran’s malign behavior. America’s allies and partners in the Middle East, who are most threatened byIran’s behavior, felt betrayed by the JCPOA. These countries are still under routine attack by Iran and its proxies. No one can ignore their security concerns if collective security is to remain a foundation of the international community. Moreover, the Middle East is home to thousands of Americans and commercial interests involving billions of dollars of American assets.
There is no mention in the letter of assassinations of leading Iranians by the United States and by Israel.
In Israel there is the usual strong talk in some quarters about how to deal with the situation.
Minister of Settlement Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi warned yesterday that Israel will have to decide whether to strike the Iranian nuclear program or come to terms with a nuclearized Iran. “The United States will never attack the nuclear facilities in Iran. Israel must decide whether it will accept a nuclear Iran. Israel will be forced to act independently to remove this danger,” said Hanegbi in an interview with the public broadcaster Kan.
“It’s possible that in the future there will be no choice [but to attack Iran militarily]. I hope that when our leadership is met with this dilemma, it won’t accept [a nuclearized Iran],” Hanegbi said.
Hanegbi has in the past held numerous other high government posts, including overseeing Israel’s Atomic Energy Agency. For the past half century, Israel has maintained official ambiguity by neither confirming nor denying that it has a nuclear arsenal. Analysts believe that arsenal contains from 75 to 200 nuclear warheads.
Unnamed sources told Reuters this week that the Biden-Harris administration is reviewing its options. One being considered is a step-by-small-step approach. Such a confidence-building process, as diplomats call it, could restore some level-headedness to the situation:
This option could entail Washington allowing Tehran to get economic benefits less valuable than the sanctions relief it received under the 2015 deal in return for Iran stopping, or perhaps reversing, its own breaches of the agreement.
The sources stressed U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to decide his policy. His stated position remains that Iran resume full compliance with the pact before the United States will.
“(They) are having a real think,” said one source familiar with the U.S. review, saying ideas under consideration include a straight return to the 2015 nuclear deal and what he called “less for less” as an interim step.
To reiterate: Things didn’t have to be this way. Instead of trashing the agreement and creating this mess, Donald Trump could have built on the 2015 agreement with new talks dealing with Iran’s regional actions and its advanced missile development, the latter being one of the critics’ main bones of contention. Had he stuck with it, the new administration could have immediately begun negotiations on those issues instead of first being forced to grab a mop.