“If they want Iran to return to its commitments,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, declared this week about the 2015 global nuclear agreement, “the United States must lift all sanctions in practice.”
Hours later, President Biden told CBS News that he will not lift sanctions until Iran agrees to abide by the agreement’s restrictions on uranium enrichment, enriched stockpiles, and related activities.
To be sure, the dueling statements may overstate the clash between Washington and Tehran over the agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — from which President Trump withdrew in 2018 and which Tehran has begun to violate in increasingly brazen fashion.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif quickly walked back Khamenei’s absolutist demand, and U.S. officials are mulling whether to propose small concessions from each side to set the stage for new talks over Iran’s nuclear program.
Nevertheless, Iran’s nuclear progress of recent weeks — combined with the emerging political dynamics in and between Washington, Tehran, Jerusalem, and Europe — could leave the issue where it has lingered for years: with Tehran working both out front and clandestinely to build the architecture of a nuclear weapons program, and Washington and its allies desperate to find a peaceful way to stop it.
The coming weeks could well determine whether these parties resume their dispute of nearly two decades over Iran’s nuclear program or find some way — with or without the assent of all parties — to resolve it.
As U.S. officials know all too well, Tehran has made important progress of late on the nuclear front. “The time that it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is down to, we think, a few months,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC, adding that the time could shrink to “a matter of weeks” if Iran further ignores the restrictions on its nuclear work.
Tehran is now enriching uranium at 20 percent purity, which far exceeds the allowable 3.5 percent and which is a modest step away from 90 percent, weapons-grade purity. The regime has announced that it will begin to restrict short-notice international inspections of suspected nuclear sites, install 1,000 new enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz facility, and start producing uranium metal (which also can be used to make nuclear weapons). Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that international inspectors found radioactive material at two Iranian nuclear sites last fall that, they suspect, might indicate that Iran performed work on nuclear weapons.
U.S. and Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear program have long extended beyond the fissile material of a bomb to the related infrastructure, such as ballistic missiles on which Iran might mount a bomb. Here, too, Tehran’s progress of late has raised concerns in Washington and Europe.
Iran and North Korea resumed cooperation over the last year on long-range missile projects, an independent panel told the United Nations in a secret report. That Pyongyang displayed an ICBM in October that, Bloomberg reported, “appeared to be the world’s largest road-mobile missile and capable of carrying multiple warheads” was only more troubling.
Beyond its nuclear progress, Tehran may have other reasons not to rush back to comply with the JCPOA. With Iran holding presidential elections in June, some Iran watchers expect Khamenei to resist Biden’s call to revive the JCPOA and then negotiate a 2.0 version in hopes that a more conservative Iranian president will replace the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani, who is not seeking re-election.
Biden, too, will be driven by his political calculations and constraints. In seeking to revive and then extend the JCPOA, he’ll have strong backing in Europe, which clashed mightily with Trump over the latter’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions to force Tehran to the negotiating table.
But, while Trump worked in lockstep with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran and other issues, Biden and Netanyahu are already clashing over the JCPOA, which the latter believes is far too weak to constrain Iran’s nuclear aspirations. That Biden has not called Netanyahu since taking office does not bode well for hopes that they will find common ground on this challenge.
Nor, in Jerusalem, is Netanyahu alone in his fears. In a highly unusual move, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi denounced Biden’s plan to rejoin the JCPOA in anything like its current form and announced that he has directed the IDF to devise new plans to strike Iran’s nuclear sites if necessary.
Biden will be battling critics at home, too. By appointing Robert Malley, a lightning rod for conservatives, to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program, Biden raised fears on the right that his team will prove too accommodating to a regime that seems unalterably hostile to the West.
In the end, the question is whether the parties involved can sidestep their political constraints and make progress on a thorny issue that has plagued the region and wider world for all too many years.
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire, new from Potomac Books.