All the focus on whether the United States and Iran will resume talks over resurrecting the 2015 global nuclear deal obscures an issue of equal importance: escalating skirmishes between Washington and Jerusalem on the one hand and Tehran on the other that raise the risk of miscalculation and, in turn, war.
In recent days, the United States flew a B-1B bomber over such key regional waterways as the Strait of Hormuz — a vital waterway for global oil shipping — the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal in a show of force that, at points along the way, was joined by aircraft from Israel as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.
That came after Iran reportedly directed a drone attack on a U.S. military outpost in Syria, causing much damage (but no casualties) and marking what the Washington Post called “the first major attack on U.S. troops in Syria by Iran.” Iranian-backed militias have repeatedly used drones to attack U.S. forces in Iraq.
Washington now considers Iran’s expanding arsenal of drones a bigger short-term threat to regional peace and stability than its nuclear and ballistic missile program. Within days of the drone strike in Syria, U.S. officials imposed sanctions on companies and individuals that it said had ties to Iran’s drone program.
Israel, meanwhile, continues to conduct airstrikes in Syria to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence there and from sending sophisticated weapons to its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. Now, Iran plans to send advanced anti-aircraft missile batteries to the region, which will complicate Israeli airstrikes.
While all of those developments raise the risk of miscalculation and war, so too does Iran’s continuing progress on its nuclear program.
Specifically, Iran is enriching uranium at near weapons-grade levels and maintaining stockpiles that far exceed what the 2015 deal allowed, restricting the access of international inspectors to its facilities, and seeking sanctions relief and other concessions before returning to the negotiating table.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told NBC News that its monitoring program in Iran is no longer “intact” because Iran has not repaired a camera at a key facility outside Tehran. Inspectors are relying on such cameras at key sites because, earlier this year, Iran stopped letting international inspectors conduct the snap inspections that the 2015 deal allowed for.
Further compounding the problem, Grossi said that he has not found a way to establish a direct line of communication with top Iranian officials under the new hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi.
Whether negotiations, which U.S. and Iranian officials suggested could resume in coming weeks, will succeed is highly questionable to begin with. While Tehran wants the U.S. and other parties to the 2015 deal to lift sanctions immediately, President Biden and European leaders made clear at the G-20 meeting in Rome that they won’t do so until Iran scales back its nuclear activities.
Iran’s nuclear progress, along with (at best) lukewarm prospects for negotiations, has top U.S. and Israeli officials hinting more openly that, at some point, they may have to shift from the hope of negotiations to the reality of military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weaponry.
“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the United Nations General Assembly in September. “Words do not stop [uranium enrichment] centrifuges from spinning… We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
In fact, the Times of Israel reported, Israel’s Air Force in recent months has stepped up preparations for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites and, early next year, it will “begin practicing” for such a mission.
Ideally, the United States and its allies would tie all of these issues together in tough talks with Iranian officials.
That is, U.S. and European officials would find a way to force Tehran back to the table with an effective combination of economic, diplomatic, and military pressure, and it would broaden the talks to include Iran’s other strategic programs, its terror sponsorship, and its activities that destabilize the region.
Washington and its allies, of course, seem very disinclined to try such an approach. Fine, but they may need to try something beyond pleading with Iranian leaders to return to nuclear-focused negotiations. Because, for the moment at least, Tehran clearly isn’t feeling the pressure to change course.
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, from Potomac Books.