Despite Concessions, Gaps Remain: US Strategy in a World without the Iran Deal

Despite Concessions, Gaps Remain: US Strategy in a World without the Iran Deal

. 8 min read

In his first visit to the region as president, US President Joe Biden made a four-day trip to the Middle East in July, meeting the leaders of Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. From fist bumps to two-state solutions, the trip was expectedly full of diverse controversies, but one through line was consistent: Iran’s nuclear weapons program. White House officials have made it clear that Iran’s nuclearization is a major concern, and the president’s conversations with regional leaders centered around Tehran—all while, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei were holding their own high-level meetings.

Since inauguration, the Biden administration’s core aim has been reviving a version of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that would exchange sanction relief for oversight and regulation over Iran’s nuclear program. However, negotiations have been difficult, and Washington’s leverage is waning as Tehran continues to resist US diplomatic outreach. If a deal is unable to be resurrected, Washington must prepare to shift strategic preconceptions in the region to adapt to a different reality—one where Iran is “a screwdriver’s turn away” from a nuclear weapon.

A Valiant Effort

Pioneered under the Obama administration and passed in 2015, the JCPOA was decisively terminated in 2018 as the Trump administration adopted a more hardline approach favored by many Obama-era critics. Accusing the JCPOA of allowing Iran to grow its nuclear infrastructure under the guise of peaceful production while giving Tehran the financial freedom to fund terrorist proxies, the Trump White House withdrew the United States from the deal, fracturing the UN sanctions relief pact and reimposing over 1,500 US sanctions.

Iran is now closer to a bomb than ever before.

When Trump was elected, Iran’s breakout time—how long it would take to develop the fissile material required for a bomb—was roughly one year. It is now a few weeks. This shrunken time frame only makes the Biden administration’s anti-nuclearization goals more urgent, which in turn has made negotiations more difficult by giving Tehran the enhanced leverage while domestic partisan disagreements tie the White House’s hands.

Iran’s election of hardline president Ebrahim Raisi may alone prove fatal to the deal's revival. While Hassan Rouhani, the previous president, was seen as a Western-aligned reformist, Rasi is an inward-facing conservative who seeks little reconciliation with the West. Popularized for his nationalistic rhetoric, Rasi capitalized on the distrust of the United States and US allies generated by the Trump administration’s termination of the deal despite Iran violating no provisions, internally casting doubt on Rouhani. For conservatives in Iran, the Trump presidency was four years of vindication, aiding their electoral bids and soundly demonstrating that cooperation with the West only results in betrayal.

However, even if Rasi agreed to meet with Biden (he has repeatedly pledged not to), it is unclear how the Biden administration would secure a deal that is not considerably weaker than the original agreement. Among numerous sticking points, one of the most potent is Tehran’s demand that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of recognized terrorist groups, a categorization assigned under the Trump administration. Biden’s finalized position is that the IRGC will remain on the list, even if it risks killing the deal, as the White House understands that a show of weakness jeopardizes Democrats in the midterms and Biden for reelection. Iran has also dug in its heels, with a Tehran-based security official asserting that the IRGC’s reclassification “is [Tehran’s] redline and we will not cave on that.”

With Biden unwilling to take action on the IRGC and Iran’s enrichment capabilities rapidly approaching weapons-grade capacity, Tehran became increasingly inflexible in negotiations. Despite harsh Trump-era sanctions remaining in place, Tehran has developed a “clandestine financial system” underpinned by cooperation with Russia and China. Confident in its institutionalized sanction evasion and lessons learned from the 1980s, Tehran believes it “can live with or without the deal,” making Washington’s chances at success slimmer by the day.

In a self-reinforcing cycle, these stalled negotiations have exposed cracks within the Biden administration. The president has grown impatient, insisting to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid that “we’re not going to wait forever,” and the team publicly admitted that a deal might not happen. While the frustration is understandable, the administration’s repeated remarks hint to a lack of political will that emboldens Tehran’s hardline stance.

However, despite this mountain of challenges, a deal was somehow drafted. After the most recent round of negotiations between the US, Iran, and European representatives in early August, the EU began circulating a “final text,” and as foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell declared, “what can be negotiated has been negotiated.” The bloc claims that this deal is now a political decision for Washington and Tehran to figure out, implying that the deal’s revival is closer than ever before. What remains to be seen, however, is what exactly this “final text” entails.

Even though the text could be a series of reasonable compromises between Washington and Tehran, it is also possible—if not more likely—that the deal is Western-centric and fails to address Iran’s points of concern. Either way, this show of diplomatic initiative has pushed Tehran to drop some of its strongest demands—the IRGC reclassification and termination of the IAEA’s investigation—but it remains insistent on “economic guarantees and sanctions relief” that could withstand another Trump or like-minded administration. While these unexpected concessions may be a sign of hope for pro-deal pundits,  there is still a significant divide between the two parties.

With Washington ready to move forward with the deal as presented, Tehran will make the final call. Unless three days of talks was enough to garner wide concessions from both sides, it seems unlikely that Rasi will sign the dotted line—at least, not without more talks.

And Israel?

Calming an Israel uneasy about Iran’s nuclear developments was a core goal of Biden’s trip to the Middle East—making Jerusalem his first stop—and will continue to be a top priority as Iran pushes for nuclear latency.

Israeli officials have long declared that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, and new analysis indicates that “the greatest disaster from Israel’s perspective would be an international consensus that Iran has the right to nuclear weapons.” Benjamin Netanyahu, the Trump-friendly former prime minister and current opposition leader of Israel, adopted a hardline approach to the issue: if the world will not stop Iran, Israel will start bombing nuclear facilities.

Though current Prime Minister Lapid has opted for a softer approach in an effort to rebuild US-Israeli ties, Jerusalem’s underlying interests remain largely the same, and Lapid remains willing to incur high costs to prevent a nuclear Iran. Even as Washington and Jerusalem attempted to put forward a united front, publishing a joint condemnation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, rifts between the two leaders emerged in a publicized conference. While Biden reiterated his belief in the power of diplomacy, Lapid endorsed the use of force, arguing that “the only way to stop [Iran] is to put a credible military threat on the table.” Israel has begun to do so, conducting various covert military operations targeting agents and proxies related to the nuclear program. However, Lapid, not wanting to openly clash with the United States, clarified that while there are minor disagreements over the best course of action, the two nations agree on the fundamentals.

This alignment is too close for comfort. While the White House can brush Israeli calls for force aside for now and rely on its official statement that diplomacy is the best path forward, the administration must be careful in how closely it aligns with Israel. Lapid’s hawkish language, if Washington is seen by Tehran to be in agreement, only further deteriorates Iran’s limited motivation to move forward on a deal with the United States and fuels beliefs that Tehran must guarantee its own security.

Even in the likely case that the deal goes unsigned, perceptions that the Biden administration supports military intervention risk destabilization. Despite Lapid’s optimism about Israeli military capabilities, Israel lacks the intelligence and operational capacity to carry out a debilitating attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, making Jerusalem likely to request US help in conducting a comprehensive strike or involvement in ongoing military action. Then, Washington would find itself stuck between a rock and a hard place, forced to renege its perceived commitments to a critical regional ally or be coerced into an immensely risky military operation.

Neither seem like particularly good options.

The New Strategic Reality

The chief concerns about a nuclear Iran are not that Tehran will instigate some sort of regional nuclear conflict, but rather that Iran will be emboldened to pursue a more adventurous regional strategy while pushing its adversaries in the Middle East to develop their own nuclear capabilities. Both risks are serious, but the United States and its partners have tools for recourse.

First, the Biden administration needs to build up regional partners, including—but certainly not limited to—Israel. The United States should dedicate resources and commit arms to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), rather than individual Arab states (i.e., Saudi Arabia), to enhance a conventional counterbalance to a nuclear Iran. Washington would reduce ongoing barriers to a strong GCC by incentivizing Arab nations to engage in coalition-building that would provide a lasting deterrent to Iran. With Israel, the United States must develop a coordinated policy approach that allows flexibility in the region and makes clear to Jerusalem that the United States will not be bullied into intervention via threat of unilateral Israeli military action.

Second, Washington should seek to normalize relations with Iran: a nuclear-equipped state demands active engagement and dialogue. While Washington should continue efforts to contain Iranian expansion and punish Tehran’s support of terror, it must also open and maintain lines of communication with officials in Iran. Diplomatic efforts—as opposed to aggressive military posturing—could also persuade Tehran to not immediately pursue weaponization and instead remain a latent state, reducing tensions for the time being. As long as it does not fear immediate encirclement demanding a nuclear capability, Tehran may find the threat of nuclearization to be a more powerful coercive tool than nuclear weapons themselves. Therefore, Washington may not need an extraordinary diplomatic feat to keep Tehran from crossing the threshold, even without the deal. It just needs to proceed cautiously.

The worst-case fear is that if Iran is accepted as a capable nuclear power, runaway proliferation will occur across the region as states work to guarantee their own protection—and that this series of proliferation events drastically increases the risk of regional nuclear conflict. However, even assuming states like Saudi Arabia or the UAE are able to overcome the enormous political, economic, and military obstacles associated with developing nuclear capability, a nuclear Middle East may actually pacify the region’s preeminent powers. The cost of escalation exponentially increases in a multipolar nuclear region, and Tehran might be dissuaded from attempts to expand its reach if it faces a credible threat of nuclear retaliation.

Of course, there would be a volatile transitional period—the time in between Iranian weaponization and regional proliferation—as the fundamental strategic balance of the Middle East begins shifting. At least in the short term, though, the United States and Israel could credibly discourage aggressive Iranian actions designed to capitalize on its limited window of perceived nuclear monopoly.

This analysis is not advocacy for nuclear proliferation. It is a reminder that the West’s quest for a non-nuclear Iran is not all or nothing. In a world faced with accepting Iran as a latent or weaponized nuclear power, a pragmatic approach focused on enhancing regional counterbalancing will reign supreme.

Next Steps

Washington—and the world—will now wait in anticipation for Tehran’s response to the EU text. If a legitimate attempt at compromise that encourages Tehran to make sweeping concessions, then the Biden administration has done its best to revive a deal many thought to be unrevivable. If put forward out of impatience and the looming prospect of abject diplomatic failure, then the White House has sowed its fate.

National security advisor Jake Sullivan and President Biden may be right. Perhaps, a deal is possible, even likely, and the world can expect Iran’s acquiescence in the coming weeks. However, in the probable case that negotiations have failed and Tehran does not sign on, the United States must prepare itself and its allies for a nuclear Middle East. An unfounded optimism only ensures worse outcomes.