President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that his preferred method for dealing with Iran is to find a way back to the nuclear deal the Obama administration concluded in 2015, while bargaining for an extension to some of its key provisions.
“If Iran returns to strict compliance,” Biden wrote in a September op-ed for CNN, “the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
The Iranian regime, for its part, has made it clear that, in reaction to last month’s assassination of its nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, it intends to ramp up its production of enriched uranium while threatening to expel international inspectors by early February if the United States doesn’t immediately lift sanctions.
The regime has also ruled out any extensions to the nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew in 2018. “It will never be renegotiated,” says Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. “Period.”
There’s a way out of this impasse. The Biden administration should — and, more important, can — bide its time.
Tehran is desperate to have sanctions lifted. In 2016, after the nuclear deal had taken effect, it exported roughly 2.1 million barrels of crude oil a day. In 2020, after the Trump administration imposed sanctions, it exported less than a quarter of that. The inflation rate is running somewhere between 42 and 99 percent. Protests a year ago, triggered by a rise in fuel protests, led to massive street demonstrations calling for an end to the regime.
The regime’s response to its economic and political crises has been to up the stakes. It wagers that it can provoke a nuclear crisis and then stampede the new administration into giving up its immense economic leverage even before meaningful negotiations begin. Once the main sanctions are lifted, Tehran can concede things it never had a right to withdraw, such as U.N. access to its nuclear facilities under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, while haggling for things it shouldn’t be allowed to get, such as the lifting of sanctions on an Iranian airline that supports the regime’s proxies.
But Tehran’s escalation is also a bluff. There’s a limit to how far it can go in provoking a nuclear crisis with the United States without risking a confrontation with an enemy that is much closer to home.
In the last six months, explosions in Iran have destroyed large parts of a centrifuge manufacturing facility in Natanz, a secretive military installation at Parchin, a power plant in Isfahan, a missile facility in Khojir and an underground military installation in Tehran, among other places. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, Al Qaeda’s second-highest leader, was gunned down in August in the streets of Tehran. As for Fakhrizadeh, he was not the first Iranian nuclear scientist to meet a violent end, and probably won’t be the last.
Nobody has taken responsibility for these attacks, but nobody is in much doubt about their source, either. They reveal an astonishing degree of penetration of the Iranian security complex. If Tehran tries to race toward nuclear breakout, it knows it will encounter a determined and effective challenge. There’s a limit to how far the regime can go with its provocations before those provocations become dangerous to the regime itself.
In short, Tehran’s negotiating position is weak and its options for escalation are limited. (Even its apparent attack last year on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, while technically impressive, did little permanent damage to the Kingdom while accelerating the recent Arab-Israeli rapprochement.) If disputed rumors of the 81-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ill health prove true, the country would experience its first transfer of real authority since 1989, another tumultuous event for an already unpopular regime.
Contrast this with the Biden administration, which will come into office holding four powerful cards — assuming it chooses to play them. First, it can credibly outsource effective deterrence to Israel without having to bear the immediate risks. Second, it can leverage the military, economic, intelligence and diplomatic resources of an increasingly united Israeli-Arab front. Third, it doesn’t have to impose new sanctions to cripple Iran’s economy. It merely has to enforce the ones already in place.
Finally, there is growing evidence that Iran has long been in breach of its past commitments by hiding hundreds of tons of nuclear equipment and material that should have been disclosed under the terms of the nuclear deal. The Biden administration and its European partners have a right and responsibility to insist that Tehran provide a full accounting of that material as the entry price of negotiations.
There is a road toward a credible and durable deal with Iran that can muster the kind of regional support and bipartisan buy-in the last one lacked. It’s a deal that forces the regime to choose between a nuclear program or a functioning economy, rather than getting both. A Biden administration that has the patience to see through Tehran’s bluster can be rewarded with a lasting diplomatic achievement that a future administration, unlike the last one, will not easily erase.
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