A nuclear Iran or regional escalation: the perils of no deal

Several scenarios are possible, ranging from an imperfect agreement to no agreement at all

A nuclear Iran or regional escalation: the perils of no deal

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi shows reporters a camera like the ones Iran removed from nuclear sites during a news conference at the agency's headquarters in Vienna on June 9, 2022. (Credit: Joe Klamar/AFP)

What is worse than a cheap deal is no deal at all. Certainly, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 has been held partly responsible for Iran’s rise in power in the region.

Undoubtedly, Tehran’s detractors even welcomed former US President Donald Trump’s move to unilaterally withdraw in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which drastically restricted the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities in exchange for alleviating the sanctions imposed on it.

But perhaps making a flawed deal is sometimes better than no deal at all.

This is what seems to be in the offing, as the prospect of an agreement between Washington and Tehran grows more distant by the day, while the latter is fast approaching the quantity of enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb and the former is considering the military option at a time when it swears only by disengagement, according to Biden administration officials in Dec. 2021.

Should a nuclear Iran be preferred to an imperfect agreement? For the United States, the situation seems inextricable.

The roots of this vicious circle go back to four years ago. After the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the nuclear deal with Iran, and the imposition of maximum pressure on Iran, Tehran continued to observe the provisions of the agreement until July 2019 before resuming, in May 2020, enrichment beyond what the deal allowed.

When he took office in January 2021, US President Joe Biden promised to resume negotiations with the aim of reactivating JCPOA and then strengthening it, so as to take into account the Islamic Republic’s ballistic program and regional network of militias.

These are two sources of concern for Washington’s allies in the Middle East, starting with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

However, the talks — at a standstill since March — have proved even more difficult than expected, not for technical reasons since the document to be signed has been ready for several months, but also because of the stakeholders’ respective attitudes throughout the talks.

This is shown through the vote of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors on June 8 on a resolution criticizing Tehran for its lack of cooperation and for switching off several surveillance cameras installed in its nuclear sites, calling on it to comply with its “legal obligations.”

Generally, Iran has continued to use the expansion of its nuclear program as leverage during the talks. According to IAEA Director Rafael Grossi, the Islamic Republic now has 43.1 kilograms of 60-percent-enriched uranium, although Iran claims it will use this for energy purposes.

“It is only a matter of time,” he said, before it accumulates enough for a bomb.

The US, for its part, refused to play the de-escalation card, maintaining extremely harsh sanctions on the Iranian economy, giving Israel the green light to intensify its maneuvers in the shadow war with Iran, including a series of assassinations of nuclear scientists and high-ranking officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a very short period of time.

The most emblematic of these assassinations, since the assassination of physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi in November 2020, was that of Hassan Sayyed Khodayari, a member of the al-Quds Brigade, on May 22.

This climate of one-upmanship raises questions: What will be the next step? What would happen if Tehran were able to build a bomb?

At this point, there are three main possibilities.

Scenario one

In the most optimistic setting, the agreement, which is ready, is accepted by both Washington and Tehran.

Until now, it had stumbled on one point: Iran requested the White House to remove the IRGC from the American blacklist of terrorist organizations — a designation made by Trump during his term in office in order to hinder any desire of a successor to return to the 2015 deal.

In fact, this sanction is a real thorn in the side of the Biden administration.

Of course, the American measure, like the Iranian request, is above all a symbolic one.

Even if Washington were to grant this to Tehran, IRGC would still be targeted through other sanctions.

Such a move would not benefit the Islamic Republic economically, but it could be leveraged at home as a victory in Iran’s struggle with the “Great Satan.”

On the other hand, the political cost of such a decision seems too heavy for Biden in the lead-up to the midterm elections in November.

He would incur the wrath of American hawks and those who — without being warmongers — fear that the move could be misinterpreted, given the central role played by IRGC in increasing Iranian control in the region, notably in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In early April, the Biden administration decided, after a period of hesitation, not to remove the organization from the list, arguing that this measure was not directly linked to the nuclear issue.

The Europeans — France, the United Kingdom and Germany — suggested a compromise based on Tehran’s commitment to defuse regional tensions and to stop attacking American interests around the world in exchange for delisting it as a terrorist group. To no avail.

According to sources interviewed by the Middle East Eye media, the Islamic Republic has agreed to back down on its demands, but in exchange for a lifting of punitive measures against the Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, an IRGC-controlled engineering firm, as well as other facilities.

Washington has yet to respond to this offer but appears reluctant at this time.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated on June 15 that Tehran must decide to drop foreign issues from the nuclear deal negotiations unless it can make compromises in exchange, which are not nuclear related either.

If, in the end, Tehran and Washington manage to come to an agreement, the signed deal will in any case not live up to the demands that the White House set for itself at the beginning of Biden’s administration.

It will certainly not be a “longer and stronger” deal, probably a less demanding deal than in 2015, and nothing that will hinder Israeli activity in Iran, but rather a deal that would prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the medium term.

Scenario two

If the talks falter completely, the European powers could join the US in intensifying sanctions against Tehran.

At the UN Security Council, Washington, Paris and London may face the refusal of Moscow and Beijing but would still be able to impose strong multilateral pressure on the Islamic Republic.

As a last resort, France or the UK may rely on a “snapback,” the reimposition of comprehensive sanctions following a report of a significant violation of the JCPOA, as provided for in the UN Security Council Resolution No. 2231. Neither Moscow nor Beijing could veto this.

But before reaching that point — especially since the US is on the verge of exhausting its entire repertoire of sanctions — the Biden administration could consider proposing an interim agreement to Tehran this summer that would freeze Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for some economic aid.

This possibility has been mentioned in the past and has already been brushed aside by the Iranian regime. The stifling economic situation, however, might prompt Tehran to have a change of heart.

Scenario three

If the negotiations collapse, with neither classical nor coercive diplomacy that works, Tehran will continue to enrich its uranium.

Enriched to 60 percent today, but once the proliferation reaches 90 percent, uranium could be ready to be weaponized.

Tehran could react to the barrage of Western sanctions by announcing its withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty.

In this case, Iran would no longer be bound by the commitment not to manufacture weapons and could play on the same ambiguity as its Israeli enemy, but without benefiting from Western support for this.

Yet, according to the US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, Iranian capabilities have reached the level where Tehran “could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we could know it, let alone stop it.”

Under these circumstances and given Washington’s long and transparent insistence that it will not let Iran go that far, the military option could be considered — one that involves real strikes, unlike Israel’s proactive acts aimed at preventing Iran from achieving its objectives.

But given the lack of information provided by Iran, the ban on IAEA inspectors entering the country and the absence of cameras, the intervention would be difficult to organize at the right time.

Since the US withdrawal from the 2015 deal, the time needed for Iran to produce sufficient fissile material for a weapon has been reduced to a few weeks, or even days.

These conditions mean that any decision will have serious consequences. By attacking Iran directly on its soil, Washington would run the risk of a full-blow war in the region, with Iranian reprisals through its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen.

At the same time, doing nothing would also galvanize Iran’s activities.

The Islamic Republic could thus play on the nuclear ambiguity to deepen its hold in very fragile “satellite” countries, like Iraq, and in areas where an armed conflict is on the verge of breaking out.

These activities, reinforced by the nuclear threat posed by Tehran, could also lead to a regional arms race.

A nuclear Iran would force Washington to reconsider its policy of disengagement from the Middle East and, instead, to re-engage through a complicated and costly military operation.

More than ever, the current context leads the US to redouble its efforts to consolidate the anti-Iranian front by promoting, for example, rapprochement between Israel and several Arab states, notably through security partnerships.

A deal or no deal, a military intervention or not, the current escalation underlines the extent to which the world’s leading power is struggling to impose its tempo on a country with far fewer economic and political resources.

This is not to mention the diplomatic repercussions in the background, since not only Tehran is looking at a relatively weakened America, but also Moscow and Beijing, two other rivals in the international arena.

This article was originally published in French on L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

What is worse than a cheap deal is no deal at all. Certainly, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 has been held partly responsible for Iran’s rise in power in the region.Undoubtedly, Tehran’s detractors even welcomed former US President Donald Trump’s move to unilaterally withdraw in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which drastically restricted the Islamic Republic’s nuclear...