Shadow Government

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The Biden Team Knows Its Iran Policy Is Failing

Tehran’s march toward the bomb has been enabled by the administration’s refusal to impose consequences.

By , a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves nuclear talks in Vienna on Dec. 3.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves nuclear talks in Vienna on Dec. 3. JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration now admits a nuclear deal with Iran may not happen despite its continued outreach to Tehran. There are signs the administration wants to pin the blame on former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose withdrawal from the original nuclear deal supposedly provided Iran with the pretext to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities. But the uncomfortable truth is Iran’s most aggressive moves came after U.S. President Joe Biden was elected. What’s driving Tehran forward is not Trump’s maximum pressure campaign but Biden’s decision to ease that pressure. Simply put: Iran is doing what it can get away with.

In early December, the administration acknowledged it is discussing alternatives “if the path to diplomacy towards a mutual return to compliance [with the 2015 nuclear deal] isn’t viable in the near term.” A U.S. State Department spokesperson made that comment while Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was visiting Washington to propose joint military exercises to prepare for potential strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The need for such consultations indicates a deal is slipping out of reach.

Earlier this month, an unnamed senior U.S. official also warned that “in the first quarter of [2022],” Tehran could “configure things and rapidly get one bomb’s worth of [highly enriched uranium].” In other words, Iran has taken advantage of lengthy negotiations in Vienna to move toward nuclear breakout, which is when a state achieves nuclear weapons capability.

The Biden administration now admits a nuclear deal with Iran may not happen despite its continued outreach to Tehran. There are signs the administration wants to pin the blame on former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose withdrawal from the original nuclear deal supposedly provided Iran with the pretext to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities. But the uncomfortable truth is Iran’s most aggressive moves came after U.S. President Joe Biden was elected. What’s driving Tehran forward is not Trump’s maximum pressure campaign but Biden’s decision to ease that pressure. Simply put: Iran is doing what it can get away with.

In early December, the administration acknowledged it is discussing alternatives “if the path to diplomacy towards a mutual return to compliance [with the 2015 nuclear deal] isn’t viable in the near term.” A U.S. State Department spokesperson made that comment while Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was visiting Washington to propose joint military exercises to prepare for potential strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The need for such consultations indicates a deal is slipping out of reach.

Earlier this month, an unnamed senior U.S. official also warned that “in the first quarter of [2022],” Tehran could “configure things and rapidly get one bomb’s worth of [highly enriched uranium].” In other words, Iran has taken advantage of lengthy negotiations in Vienna to move toward nuclear breakout, which is when a state achieves nuclear weapons capability.

Washington’s European allies also know the talks are headed for failure. British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said this is Iran’s “last chance” for a deal.

Yet acknowledging failure and taking responsibility for it are two very different things. Earlier this month, when an interviewer told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “the path for diplomacy seems to be failing,” Blinken pivoted to blaming Trump. He said Trump’s “decision to pull out of the [original] agreement was a disastrous mistake because what’s happened since is that Iran has used that as an excuse, despite the maximum pressure applied against Iran, to also renege on its commitments under the agreement and to inexorably rebuild the nuclear program that the agreement had put in a box.”

Biden will have to recognize that his decisions, not Trump’s, have brought the United States to this point.

As my colleagues have pointed out, the problem with that argument is Tehran’s most egregious nuclear advances occurred after Biden was elected, not after Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018. Does Blinken believe Tehran is ignoring Washington’s outstretched hand because it is still angry about Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal more than three and a half years ago?

Unlikely. Rather, Biden has incentivized Tehran’s march toward the bomb by refusing to impose any consequences on the clerical regime for its provocations. There were five key instances when Biden stuck to his “engagement only” strategy despite Tehran’s nuclear advances.

First, Iran began producing uranium metal, a crucial element in nuclear weapons, in February. Tehran also started enriching uranium to 60 percent purity in April—its highest level ever and a short distance to the 90 percent purity needed for nuclear weapons. The knowledge Tehran’s scientists have acquired is irreversible.

The United States and its European allies condemned Iran’s actions and emphasized there is no civilian need for such advances. But Tehran faced no consequences.

Second, Tehran has obstructed the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) investigation into Iran’s undeclared nuclear activities at several suspect nuclear sites. Last month, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi warned that Iran’s stonewalling “seriously affects the Agency’s ability to provide assurance of the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” Again, no consequences.

Third, Iran reduced its cooperation with the IAEA at declared nuclear sites as of February. Since then, the agency cannot review data from surveillance equipment and other techniques used to monitor Iran’s nuclear program’s status. Grossi said Iran’s actions “seriously undermined” the agency’s verification and monitoring activities. Consequences? None.

Fourth, Tehran has increased production of advanced centrifuge parts since August but has not allowed the agency to inventory or verify the location of this equipment. Grossi brokered a deal with Iran in mid-December that will allow the agency to install new surveillance cameras. But he also warned that even if monitoring and verification is restored, “there might be gaps. And these gaps are not a good thing to have.”

Fifth, the Biden administration has allowed each IAEA Board of Governors meeting this year to conclude without a censure resolution against Iran. One could argue the Biden administration was still getting its Iran policy and personnel in place during its first months in office, so the March board meeting was an inopportune time. No such excuse exists for the June, September, and November meetings. At the last meeting, the U.S. representative suggested the board should be recalled by the end of the year for a special session if Tehran does not cooperate.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration declined to convene a special session, losing a high-profile opportunity to show Iran’s impunity has come to an end. Even if a censure resolution is discussed at the next regular IAEA meeting in March, the outcome would not be a foregone conclusion. The administration would have to expend the diplomatic capital needed to secure the board’s agreement.

Next, Biden should pursue a bipartisan Iran policy so Iran cannot exploit divisions in Washington. This can be achieved by tasking a senior Democrat and senior Republican to conduct a quick policy review. Biden prides himself on being a deal-maker; only a bipartisan nuclear deal would be ratified by U.S. Congress and withstand a future administration’s whims.

Tehran’s amassing of knowledge about the development of nuclear weapons will irreparably harm the global nonproliferation regime and lead to a more dangerous world. If Biden hopes to stop it, he will have to recognize that his decisions and no one else’s have brought the United States to this point.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony

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