Foreign Affairs: America must prepare for a military strike on Iran

As a candidate in the US presidential race, Joe Biden has developed a two-part strategy designed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. First, a return to “mutual compliance” with the 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in 2018 and subsequently violated by Iran. Second, start new negotiations with Tehran on a “stronger and longer” agreement to replace the original agreement.

When Biden announced this policy, it was assumed that the first step would be the easy part. The “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign launched by former US President “Donald Trump” deteriorated the Iranian economy and it seemed that Tehran’s violations of the agreement, no matter how egregious, aimed to leave room for it to return to the nuclear agreement.

But subsequent events have proven that such an analysis is overly optimistic; Iran has made impossible demands in negotiations to revive the nuclear deal, as it is said to be seeking sanctions relief beyond those stipulated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while reluctant to roll back nuclear activities it had embarked on in violation of that agreement.

In any negotiation, each party compares the deal offered to it with the available alternatives. Iran’s stubbornness in the talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that took place in Vienna indicates a change in its calculations in 2015 that the nuclear deal was better than continued economic pressure.

The lack of interest in the 2015 agreement demonstrated by the hard-line government of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reflects its view of better alternatives to Iran. It is possible that Iran has concluded from the past 4 years that easing sanctions was not quite the solution, because foreign companies were reluctant to do business with Iran even when the JCPOA was in effect, because it was too easy for the United States to cancel by One agreement in 2018.

Raisi may also be suspicious of the Biden administration’s willingness to impose new sanctions in the event of a failure to reach an agreement, and may place a great deal of hope on Iran’s growing relationship with China as a counterweight to US economic pressure.

In other words, Iranian officials may believe that a return to JCPOA compliance is less beneficial than the alternatives. By developing a Plan B that raises the cost to Iran if it continues to reject diplomatic initiatives and expand its nuclear activities, while presenting a diplomatic proposal to Iran that has a better chance of surviving beyond the current US administration, Biden may be able to change the calculus of Iranian leaders.

Learning from past experiences

As the Biden administration weighs its options, it should build on a long history of US policy failures. The main lesson of past diplomatic engagements is that the United States has been less successful when it relied heavily on a single approach or policy instrument, and has gained the most benefits when it has used many policy instruments with each other and acted in concert with key partners.

For example, Iran’s suspension of its nuclear campaign in 2003 is generally seen as the result of US military pressure and concerted European diplomatic action. The combination of sanctions and diplomacy also led to nuclear agreements in 2013 and 2015, although those agreements were deemed insufficient by both Trump and Biden.

The Biden administration must learn from these experiences as it seeks alternatives. Above all, the United States must demonstrate that Iran will face dire consequences if it persists in the Vienna talks (insisting on easing sanctions beyond those stipulated in the JCPOA). Meanwhile, the Biden administration must ensure that future administrations will not withdraw from the agreement again.

And if Iranian intransigence continues, the Biden administration should expand existing economic sanctions. Doing so would dispel any notion Iranian officials have that Biden officials’ previous criticisms of Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach mean sanctions will be weakened or dropped regardless of a deal.

In order to achieve this, the Biden administration will need to confirm its commitment to the sanctions imposed by Trump on Iran and to fill in the loopholes that have appeared in the sanctions regime in recent years. Notable among the sanctions are those related to Iranian oil sales to China, which have increased dramatically since 2020, and are said to be facilitated by deceptive maneuvers such as sea transfers.

China’s purchases of Iranian oil reached about one million barrels per day in March 2021, higher than any period during the previous two years, and global Iranian petrochemical exports also rose. To US officials’ credit, they have threatened more severe sanctions, but concerns about Iran’s reaction and the issue of priorities in the fraught US-China relationship have made it difficult to pull the trigger.

Such a decision would be easier to make if the United States acted in concert with partners. In particular, if the so-called “E3”, namely Germany, France and the United Kingdom, join the United States in withdrawing from the JCPOA in light of Iran’s refusal to return to mutual compliance, it could lead to the re-imposition of both Snap sanctions Buck of the European Union and the United Nations on Iran, which is what the Trump administration was seeking.

The past several years have shown that such a move may not have significant economic repercussions for Iran, for the simple reason that unilateral US sanctions have accomplished so much on their own. However, this step would represent a dangerous escalation of diplomatic pressure on Iran, with the Iranian leadership fearing international isolation.

That is why the Biden administration’s push to revive the JCPOA may be beneficial, even if its immediate goal is not achieved. This is a sign of diplomatic goodwill and makes it politically acceptable for US partners in Europe and Asia to once again work in coordination with Washington.

Convincing the E3 to withdraw from the nuclear deal will not be an easy task. Despite the fact that the agreement is no longer respected by the United States or Iran, these countries may fear that the withdrawal will lead to more destabilizing reactions from Iran and may fear sacrificing provisions in the agreement that remain in force despite the conflict between the United States and Iran. Those countries may also be reluctant to act without consensus in the European Union, which is also a party to the agreement. While the last problem may be the more difficult, the first two are easy to address.

Iran’s actions already increase the risk of serious instability, and Tehran’s recent moves to limit its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on inspections and monitoring of its nuclear activities mean that other elements of the nuclear deal will not be preserved in the long term.

While an E3 withdrawal would make Iran increasingly isolated and realize the need for a new agreement, the Biden administration must prepare for the possibility that insufficient diplomatic and economic pressure will deter Iran’s leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons. And officials in Tehran have already shown that they are willing to allow their country to endure severe economic hardship in order to advance its nuclear program.

As a result, the United States will need to send a clear message that it is prepared to bypass sanctions and launch a military strike as a last resort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The Biden administration’s reluctance to do so is understandable. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want another military conflict in the Middle East, and the White House fears such threats could cause the hard-line Iranian administration to refuse diplomatic engagement out of anger. But a credible military deterrence has 3 advantages worth considering.

First, it would send a message to Iran that possessing a nuclear weapon would be not only costly, but impossible. Second, it might provide assurance to US partners in the region, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, who might feel compelled to act against Iran themselves or pursue their own nuclear capabilities.

Third, the fact that any US president will consider military action if he receives urgent and credible intelligence that Iran has decided to rush toward a nuclear weapon will emerge, given the threat such a development would pose to the national security of the United States.

It is better for Iran to understand from now on the consequences of such a decision, rather than misunderstanding the risks and rushing into conflict with the United States as a result of miscalculation.

The real challenge remains how to ensure the credibility of the threat of military action as the United States implements a long-overdue strategic shift away from the Middle East and toward Asia. The threat posed by Iran to US national security is real, but it cannot be compared to the challenges posed by increasingly aggressive nuclear states such as China and Russia.

Maintaining the credibility of US threats will require continued action when Iran and its proxies target US interests. However, rather than increase the heavy assets that come from other regions, such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, the United States should work steadily to enhance the capabilities of its allies to counter potential Iranian responses.

The credibility of the United States will also be enhanced if Washington affirms its commitment to the security of the region while clarifying what the American strategy in the Middle East will look like amid the greater focus on Asia.

Building a better nuclear deal

Developing an alternative plan for Iran does not mean abandoning diplomacy, but rather logical and credible alternatives should be put before Iran. The Biden administration should focus on replacing the JCPOA rather than reviving it, because restoring the 2015 agreement will not satisfy Washington or Tehran in the long run.

For its part, Tehran has already called for discussion of an entirely new agreement by requesting significant changes to the JCPOA that would prevent the United States from withdrawing again. Biden also indicated that negotiating a stronger and longer agreement is his ultimate goal. In the event that the old agreement is restored, it seems certain that the United States will withdraw from it again if the Republicans regain the White House.

While adopting a new diplomatic model would have the significant disadvantage of getting rid of an agreement that already enjoys broad international support, it would also allow the United States and Iran to remove the burden that has accompanied discussion of the JCPOA in recent years.

In the end, a diplomatic agreement with Iran may not be absolutely necessary. It is possible that Iran will be deterred without a deal if the consequences of expanding its nuclear program are strong and clear enough. Nevertheless, a diplomatic agreement should remain the preferred goal of US policy, as a strong agreement can reduce the instability and potential miscalculation that reliance on containment and deterrence ensues.

Undoubtedly, moving directly to negotiating a new agreement will be risky in the short term, but if the Biden administration pays attention to building domestic and international support for its efforts, it can achieve a more successful and sustainable outcome in the long term.

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