The Post-Post-JCPOA World
Is a nuclear Iran something Republicans must now simply accept?
Statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his minions make it clear that the Biden administration is close to a new nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. Terms are not yet known, and the administration may not be straightforward about revealing them. And understandings with the clerical regime have a way of dissipating or being unilaterally reinterpreted by the mullahs. The administration may not yet release billions of dollars in hard currency and allow Iran to sell oil and repatriate funds unfettered. But the White House, which has been signaling its unwillingness to use armed force against the Islamic Republic yet wants to do something about the clerical regime’s increasing stockpile of highly enriched uranium, has agreed to something that left the supreme leader and senior Iranian officials somewhat gleeful. Khamenei has blessed these proceedings, as he did in 2013, but with far less back and forth that allowed him to endorse and disown proceedings that put American and Iranian officials distastefully close to one another. It certainly appears that he views these talks as less compromising, which isn’t a good sign.
Such optimistic good cheer undoubtedly means one thing: The White House hasn’t demanded that Iran halt, or perhaps even slow, the development of advanced centrifuges. The more advanced these machines are, the faster that smaller cascades can produce highly enriched uranium. Smaller cascades are also easier to hide or bury deep underground or within burrowed mountains. Exporting surplus enriched uranium to Russia, which may be part of a new agreement, doesn’t mean much when ever-more efficient centrifuges can produce bomb-grade fuel quickly.
Since Donald Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, Iran has produced advanced centrifuges more rapidly than the MIT-educated Ali Salehi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, once envisioned. For Salehi, who remains a close adviser to Khamenei, the original accord’s sunsetting restrictions on centrifuge development dovetailed with the expected time required to produce more efficient machines. He argued billions of dollars in sanctions relief and trade in exchange for short-term, limited nuclear restrictions was a win-win for Iran. Khamenei agreed. Donald Trump did, too. (It remains unclear whether Trump primarily opposed the JCPOA because of its defects or because Barack Obama birthed it.)
The Biden White House will likely now content itself with massive sanctions relief in exchange for a halt to 60 percent uranium enrichment—bomb-grade is 90 percent. Biden may well allow Iran to stockpile 20 percent enriched uranium, which is an ideal feeding stock to produce Uranium-235 quickly. Twenty percent was prohibited under the JCPOA.
The new deal may be no more than this: The Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear threshold state, which means it can produce a nuclear weapon when it chooses to, and the administration crosses its fingers that Khamenei doesn’t need, for personal, religious, or strategic reasons, to split the atom. Where the JCPOA allowed Khamenei to extort the United States out of tens of billions of dollars for, perhaps, a decade-long hiatus to our nuclear anxiety, the Biden administration’s new arrangement will likely be pay-as-you-go therapy, exchanging billions for very short-term relief. Surveillance systems will stay as they are: Only the sites currently monitored will have International Atomic Energy Agency cameras. No spot inspections. (In practice there weren’t any under the JCPOA.) Possible-military-dimension questions will remain forgotten. Nothing else—not ballistic-missile development, rogue behavior in the Middle East or elsewhere, terrorism, cyber naughtiness, the crushing of dissent at home—will interfere in any meaningful way with Iran’s access to oil markets, hard currency, and trade.
Biden’s inner circle appears to believe that Tehran could have already gone nuclear if it had really wanted to; Iran being a threshold state might not, for them, be that alarming. Better to buy the mullahs off, gain time, and hope that something changes to our advantage. Although the clerical regime is unlikely to cooperate, the White House will try to spin any new deal as a continuing diplomatic process that allows the United States and Iran more time to talk. If Washington releases tens of billions of dollars, and through a new deal further reduces the possibility of an Israeli military strike (the deal will be backed by the U.S., the European Union, China, and Russia), the Iranian foreign minister might agree to chat in the future. The White House is certainly hoping that Israeli intelligence suggesting Tehran is still 18 to 24 months away from completing an atomic trigger is right. More time before it becomes impossible not to say publicly what senior officials are now willing to say privately: Iran might already be a threshold state.
It would be fascinating to know how the Israelis estimated the needed trigger time; analytically, it’s murky. Archival material stolen by Mossad shows the Iranian weapons team led by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, assassinated by Jerusalem in 2020, working on the trigger. That archive stops in 2003, when Iran shifted its approach to the nuclear program owing to the revelations in 2002 from an Iranian opposition group about the theocracy’s hitherto hidden nuclear ambitions and George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein. As Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator and president, once remarked, Bush seemed “insane.” The Islamic Republic has sometimes had a steep atomic learning curve, but it has continuously advanced. Building the trigger can’t be camouflaged as part of a civilian program; its development needs to have airtight security. Hence greater caution and fear would surround this final step.
If the Israelis have a source inside Iran’s nuclear team, or a fairly recent defector, that could explain the apparent confidence some Israeli officials have shown about the information. Other Israeli officials, it should be said, question this analysis, suggesting that Mossad doesn’t have human-source information on trigger development. The Central Intelligence Agency has apparently corroborated Mossad’s intelligence, although it doesn’t appear that Langley has a spy inside either.
The Sins of Trump, Obama, and Biden
Trump probably didn’t change the future; he accelerated it. But for officials in this administration who were content during the Obama presidency with Iranian extortion and punting the nuclear football downfield, Trump’s withdrawal has produced a big, unscoopable mess, where any subsequent deal will, perforce, be worse than what Obama obtained.
One can sympathize. Obama didn’t completely miscast the choice before the United States when he was trying to sell his 2015 nuclear deal to the American people. His argument: his deal or war. The actual choices: no deal and the clerical regime gets the nuke but America deploys a containment/regime-change policy against it; or no deal, the mullahs get the nuke, and America essentially gives up (Iran becomes Israel’s problem, not ours); or America goes to war to prevent the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from becoming custodians of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and we see how it all shakes out.
Obama wasn’t wrong if you expand the time frame: Eventually the United States, and Israel, would need to decide whether they could live with the bomb at the disposal of the IRGC, which oversees nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile development. Diplomacy—arms control—was always going to fail with an oil-rich, revolutionary Islamic state. The Republican position from the 2013 Geneva Interim Agreement to the 2015 nuclear accord, which may, even more bizarrely, still be the Republican position today, was that increasing sanctions would somehow drive the clerical regime back to the negotiating table where it would forsake its nuclear and ballistic-missile aspirations—the better nuclear deal that Obama might well have had if he’d only been tougher. Hardcore sanctions enthusiasts even dreamed that economy-crushing measures might even asphyxiate Iran’s regional aggression and bring on economic collapse and regime change driven by popular revolt.
Those Republican dreams and the attendant rhetoric should have died in 2019 when the hoped-for popular revolt—nationwide protests sparked by the drop in fuel subsidies that became in some provinces an insurrection—were brutally put down. There is no regime change unless the security services crack; 2019 showed security forces deploying automatic-weapons fire. Hundreds died. Thousands were arrested. Today some outside observers may see ripples of discontent within Iran’s security and armed forces. But if we compare the commentary of VIP Iranians post-2009, after the regime crushed the pro-democracy Green Movement, to similar types post-2019, we see a striking decline in mournful ruminations about the use of brute force. The Revolutionary Guards and their lower-class militia-cum-police force, the Basij, who have become the frontline forces against rebellion, have actually gotten more merciless. And in 2009 they were harsh, deploying rape against both men and women.
Stop-the-nuke sanctions dreaming in Washington should have ended when it became obvious by the end of the Trump presidency that Tehran had stockpiled—or figured out how to import past sanctions—a lot of maraging steel, which is required for the production of centrifuges, and other high-tech, nuclear-related components. Today the Iranians have installed more than 400 IR6 centrifuges; according to the Institute for Science and International Security, 650 IR6s can produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb in one month. Even if one believes that sanctions can bring down the regime (possible but historically dubious), even if one believes that tougher diplomacy could have brought the theocracy to heel (a profoundly dubious proposition), it is now simply too late. They are within striking distance of a weapon, more than enough time before a Republican administration might change course.
New, tougher sanctions, if they were to be implemented, could now have an unintended, opposite effect: it could convince Tehran to go for the bomb as quickly as possible. What would Khamenei have to lose? Although the nuclear-weapons program’s true father is the former clerical majordomo Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the “pragmatist” so many Western apologists extolled, Khamenei has invested himself completely in the project. The Iranian economy has suffered enormously because of his determination to keep it progressing. Vast sums have been spent. As American, Israeli, French, German, and British intelligence—all who have had access to the classified information that has been shared among allied powers—have long known, Khamenei didn’t persist because he wanted clean energy to back up Iran’s large oil and natural-gas reserves.
Advanced centrifuges are, among other things, sanctions killers for those who are implementing measures to stop the clerical regime’s nuclear ambitions. The United States might try to punish a nuclear Iran with severe sanctions, but as a preventative diplomatic tool they have become counterproductive. And the odds are excellent that once the Islamic Republic gets the nuke, Western unity, already strained, won’t hold. The French, the leading non-proliferation nation among the Europeans, are also ardent realpoliticians. They aren’t as commercially minded as the Germans, Italians, and the British, but the Iranian market, fairly large and underdeveloped, does beckon. Almost all EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic are nuclear. Why have nuclear sanctions after Tehran has the bomb? Sanctions certainly won’t make Khamenei give up the nuke once he’s got it. The EU likely isn’t into long-term punishment of the most culturally alluring Muslim land (never underestimate the historic pull of Persia in European attitudes toward the Islamic Republic), which also has a lot of oil, natural gas, and potential consumers. And Europeans just don’t see the Islamic Republic as a threat. Even if the Iranians go nuclear, their capacity to intimidate Europe on issues the Europeans care about is small. France and Great Britain will always have more and better nukes. However, Middle Eastern strife, which has produced millions of refugees eyeing the Western heartland, is a serious menace to Europe’s political health.
And it’s easy to imagine Democrats, too, deciding a nuclear-armed Iran is something we have to live with. They have, more or less, already accepted a nuclear-threshold state. This modus vivendi perforce will include renewed trade. Many Democrats, especially among progressives, are deeply uncomfortable with sanctions as a weapon. The ruling elite never suffers; the people do. The mullahs’ villainy just isn’t sufficient: Islamist Iran isn’t, for them, apartheid South Africa.
All of this leaves Republicans in a pickle. Unlike the Democrats, they haven’t had a coherent Iran policy. (The left’s approach may be feckless, but it is simple and logical: Exchange money for temporary restraints on Tehran’s atomic aspirations.) Republicans may whine that their approach might have worked if given more time; we judge, however, policy success in this world, not an imagined one. Under Trump no new, better deal arrived. Iranian imperialism didn’t retreat. Massive, violent protests rocked Iran; Khamenei efficiently crushed them. Some sanctions proponents may now try to recalibrate the rhetoric for sanctions, aiming them more toward regime change (probably without ever saying the radioactive phrase “regime change”), but the damage has been done. Sanctions as a diplomatic tool are finished.
Many Republicans just refuse to take the logic of their own approach to its ineluctable end. This was true in 2015, which is why the Republican anti-JCPOA argument and the use of sanctions was framed around building a pressure campaign for enhancing diplomacy—leverage to bring about a “good” nuclear deal. When Obama and his primary polemicist, Ben Rhodes, went after Republicans as “warmongers,” tough-minded Republicans ran for diplomatic cover. It’s now irrelevant whether Biden’s aura of weakness whetted Iranian nuclear appetites in ways that Trump’s unpredictable belligerence (the January 2020 assassination of Iran’s dark lord, Qassem Suleimani, shocked the clerical regime) likely slowed Iran’s atomic progress after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. And to be fair to Biden, it took a bit of time for Tehran to start enriching to menacing levels.
Republicans now have three choices.
1) They can try to build a consensus among themselves for military action. That seems highly unlikely. Has anyone seen the two most hawkish Republican senators—Lindsey Graham, who hasn’t completely given up his former ardent embrace of American hegemony, and Tom Cotton—recommend military action now against Iran’s nuclear sites? Cotton has made such recommendations in the past; he was the only important Republican to do so. Today, even he seems quiescent on the subject. As in 2015, there appears to be little Republican appetite, not in Congress and probably not in the hinterland, for another military adventure in the Middle East.
2) Republicans can recast a failed effort to stop Iran’s nuclearization into a containment campaign, however feebly effected. If this is to be serious, however, which means it lasts for years and costs more than what’s in the CIA’s discretionary fund, it will require bipartisan support. If the Biden administration fails to seduce the clerical regime into a new nuclear deal, then it’s possible to imagine Republicans and Democrats agreeing to maintain sanctions. For how long? And after Iran tests a nuclear device? Unclear.
It’s possible, though just barely, to envision some bipartisan consensus develop on more small-scale, covert-action projects. Cyber operations would be the least controversial, easiest, and most likely. Democratic remorse over the CIA-supported 1953 coup against the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, and the left’s general questioning of American interventionism, makes future bipartisan support for any large-scale covert effort against Iran, let alone explicit regime-change operations, doubtful. And the most important part of a containment strategy—an unrelenting willingness for the U.S. to checkmate the Islamic Republic militarily throughout the Middle East—seems unimaginable today, either among Democrats or Republicans. The best the Republicans might do is to sell even more advanced weapons to the Gulf Arab states, who already have too much weaponry and too little technical savvy and will to use them.
And last and least, 3) Republicans just give up. They would undoubtedly surrender with different rhetoric than what Biden will likely use after a new deal in Vienna. The American debate on Iran has already devolved into a food fight where Democrats blame everything on Trump and Republicans decry Obama and Biden as weak statesmen incapable of recognizing, let alone arm-twisting, the enemy. The Democrats might well win the pointless Twitter wars, since they aren’t wrong on the most pivotal point: A U.S. air campaign against Iranian nuclear sites and personnel was the logical end of the right’s anti-nuke-but-no-containment policy, and yet most JCPOA critics didn’t connect the dots, or at least refused to in public.
If Biden can’t capitulate his way to a new deal in Vienna, then Option 2 for Republicans seems more likely; if he can, then Option 3 rises—though Republican rhetoric will sound as if they’d chosen Option 2.
As we get ever closer to the denouement of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Islamic Republic, it’s worthwhile to look back and see how the theocracy saw its defining foe. And what former President Rouhani wrote about possible American military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites after George W. Bush’s “insanity” relented, could be applied to just about everything Washington might do against the clerical regime today.
“Buying time should be our policy,” Rouhani advised. “. . . I believe that any type of military aggression against Iran is outside of the consensus of public opinion in the United States. Here I mean consensus among the decisive majority of the American people and political consensus. The Americans cannot easily reach such a consensus.”
Washington was and is stuck. Whatever political consensus we had about the Islamic Republic cracked during Obama’s presidency. We could see it coming with Bill Clinton, when his administration—actually most of the Washington foreign-policy establishment—poorly analyzed what was going to happen in Iran when Mohammad Khatami, a wonkish, Westernized cleric with a big smile, became president in 1997 and his May 23rd movement briefly dominated the Islamic Republic’s intellectual life. Many thought Thermidor had arrived. Alas, it hadn’t. Ardent believers in the Islamic revolution, led by Khamenei, hit back. Civil society—the space that the regime gives Iranians to indulge their enormous capacity for joie-de-vivre—shrank. It’s contracted much further. The regime has hardened, not softened, as the distance between rulers and ruled grows.
Today it’s not clear that Iran analysis really matters much in how the Biden administration has formulated its approach to Khamenei’s nuclear ambitions. With Obama, it didn’t really matter much either. But the president really did believe, at least early on, that his personal charisma could transform the 30-year enmity—progressives tend to call deep ideological and cultural hatred between nations and peoples “misunderstandings” or “miscommunications.” He mirror-imaged his self-perception into Middle Eastern arms control. And lots of folks in D.C. thought Rouhani, a founding father of the Islamic Republic’s police state, would as president somehow create a new, less antagonistic modus vivendi between Washington and Tehran. With Khamenei and his mini-me president, Ebrahim Raisi, at the helm, it’s probably impossible for the Biden administration to conjure up a promising, “moderate” Iranian counterpart. Republicans can be stupid and unnuanced about the Islamic Republic; the crudeness with which some of them can talk about Islam could make a European Islamophobe blush. But the American right has done better in appreciating what the supreme leader and his men have tried to make crystal clear: They zealously hate us.
Really only one question remains now: Will the Israelis strike? Excluding the outside chance that the Iranian people might rise up again and terminally convulse the Islamic Republic, only Israeli air raids, might, just possibly, upset Khamenei’s nuclear plans. The clerical regime has displayed impressive tenacity and ingenuity (the decision to back the construction of a clandestine nuclear site in Syria was an especially bold move, which the Israelis successfully countered by bombing it in 2007). We should always be able to admire our enemies when they play a weak hand well. Even without the nuclear achievement, Khamenei ought to be considered the most accomplished post-WWII dictator in the Middle East. Add on the bomb, and he could rightfully look upon Ruhollah Khomeini’s massive mausoleum, and, like Justinian within the Hagia Sophia remembering Solomon’s Temple, he could proudly say:
“I have surpassed thee.”