Diplomats from Iran, the United States and five other powers gathered in Vienna last week to try to renew President Obama’s 2015 deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear activities.
It didn’t go very well.
Iran’s tough new government has issued maximalist demands, insisting that the United States lift all its economic sanctions before Tehran takes any steps to limit uranium enrichment.
And the Iranians went even further: they said they wanted to resume consideration of the draft agreements, which their predecessors agreed on just six months ago.
Meanwhile, the UN nuclear safety oversight agency announced that Iran has increased uranium enrichment at the underground plant in violation of the 2015 agreement.
Tehran’s actions provoked a sharp reaction not only from the United States, but also from its European allies.
“Iran does not seem serious right now,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Friday.
“Iran was rapidly advancing its nuclear program … [and] stepped back from diplomatic progress, ”diplomats from Britain, France and Germany said in a statement.
In non-diplomatic terms, Iran shot itself in the foot: it shifted the blame for any impasse from the United States onto itself.
This raised a more serious and ominous question: does Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, want an agreement at all?
“The Iranians know that a compromise will be needed to close the deal,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But it is unclear if this new group of hardliners is willing and able to achieve this.”
A bit of history.
Obama and the leaders of China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany agreed on a 2015 deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, but it has enriched uranium to a level that is mostly useful as a step towards a bomb.
Under the deal, the United States and other countries have pledged to lift economic sanctions in exchange for tough restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities.
Initially, Iran complied, shutting down nuclear facilities and limiting uranium enrichment. But the economic benefits fell short of expectations: Western banks and businesses did not flood Tehran with investments.
Then, in 2018, President Trump denounced the deal as “the worst deal ever,” scrapped it and imposed heavy economic sanctions.
For more than a year, Iran continued to comply with the pact’s nuclear restrictions, hoping other countries would lift Trump’s sanctions. But the sanctions never worked, and in 2019 Iran began over-limit uranium enrichment.
The deal extended Iran’s “breakthrough time” – the time it would take to develop nuclear weapons – to about a year, and US military officials said the delay would give them time to respond.
After Trump pulled out of the deal, Iran cut the gap to about a month.
Last week, even some Israeli officials who hailed Trump’s hard line admitted that it backfired.
“The main mistake was withdrawing from the agreement,” said former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. “It gave [Iran] a reason to go further. “
Where to go from here?
One sensible approach for the United States and its allies would be a phased process, with the gradual lifting of sanctions as Iran returns to meeting its 2015 commitments. But Iran rejected this.
If Iran continues to ramp up its uranium enrichment, the Biden administration and its allies could opt for what some diplomats call “Plan B” – new economic sanctions and tougher existing ones.
At first glance, this may seem like a return to a strategy that failed under Trump, but it will be done in coordination with US allies, more like the sanctions policy that Obama pursued ten years ago. The new sanctions will be aimed at pushing Iran towards practical concessions, rather than the total surrender Trump envisioned.
Iran has a strong point of view on one point: it says it cannot be sure that the next US president will fulfill any of the commitments made by Biden. (Trump taught this lesson.) So it will be difficult to reach a full agreement before the 2024 elections.
But the delay in the deadline may suit Biden as well. Republicans are likely to call any deal a sellout; the president probably doesn’t want a debate right now over concessions to Iran. And by being tough, the Iranians respond by giving Biden the ability to look tough.
Seizing the deal will be incredibly difficult – as difficult as it was for Obama in 2015.
Despite the obstacles, it is worth striving for this, as it is an alternative.
Without an agreement that keeps Iran from moving closer to possessing nuclear weapons, Biden or his successor may face an uncomfortable choice: accept a nuclear-capable Iran or go to war.
It is clearly worth spending more time, offering more flexibility, and sustaining more rounds of unproductive negotiations to prevent that moment from arriving.