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The U.S. Has No Viable Iran Policy

Recent Western moves do nothing but encourage the Islamic Republic to escalate its nuclear program.

Iran-IRGC Marine Parade Commemorating Persian Gulf National Day
Credit: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Six years after President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the JCPOA, and almost four since his successor failed to rejoin it, the United States still has no viable Iran policy. 

If the metric of success is defined by denying Iran nuclear weapons capability, then the policy has been a failure: Iran’s nuclear program is steadily advancing. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s director Rafael Grossi pointed out in his statement to the body’s Board of Governors on June 3, Iran continued to increase its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 60 percent (far above the limit of 3.67 percent agreed in the JCPOA). Iran, according to Grossi, also failed to cooperate fully with the IAEA in ensuring transparency over its centrifuges and in resolving the outstanding safeguard issues concerning past suspicious activities. Grossi seemed to be particularly worried about public statements in Iran hinting at possible changes to Iran’s nuclear doctrine—i.e. prospects of weaponization.

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All of these transgressions have led America’s European allies (and fellow signatories of the JCPOA) —the UK, France and Germany—to move a censure of Iran at the IAEA meeting in Vienna on the week of June 3. The relevant resolution, tabled by the European trio, was adopted by 20 votes in favor (mostly Western nations), two against (China and Russia) and 12 abstentions (mostly Global South nations).

As expected, and consistently with its track record, Iran reacted by escalating its nuclear activities by operating dozens of additional advanced centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment site and announcing that it will install more centrifuges at its Fordow and Natanz sites. Further, according to the U.S. intelligence community global threat assessment, Iran could increase the enriched uranium stockpile to 90 percent (weapons grade). 

These steps by Iran, in turn, prompted further condemnation from the UK, France and Germany in a statement on June 15, which included a warning that Iran is bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to secure full cooperation with the IAEA on the safeguards.

Such an escalation may lead to the Iranian dossier being forwarded to the UN Security Council and the enactment of the sanction snapback—a mechanism enshrined in the JCPOA that enables any signatory to reimpose the UNSC sanctions in case of Iran’s non-compliance. That, in turn, could prompt Iran to abandon the NPT, expel the IAEA inspectors, and make a dash to a nuclear weapon capability, if not a bomb itself. 

Such a step would be popular among both the elite and broader public in Iran. Opinion polls show a noticeable shift: Almost 70 percent now support Iran possessing nuclear weapons. While in the past such positions were mostly defended by the ultra-hardliners such as Saeed Jalili, a former chief negotiator and currently a presidential candidate, today even more moderate figures, such as Kamal Kharrazi, the Supreme Leader’s adviser and minister of foreign affairs in the Mohammad Khatami government (1997–2005), no longer seem to rule out such an option. 

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According to the U.S.-based Arms Control Association’s Kelsey Davenport, if Iran made the decision to produce weapons-grade uranium in retaliation to the Western pressure, it could take up to one week to do so. After that, it would take Iran from six months to one year to build a bomb.

Such a development would put a stark dilemma before the U.S.: tolerate an Iranian bomb, or take military action to prevent one? The former option is politically unpalatable for any U.S. president, but the latter would ultimately require a full-scale invasion of a country four times the size of Iraq, with a military and network of allies and proxies  far stronger than Saddam Hussein’s. The operation would make the war in Iraq 20 years earlier pale by comparison.

Recognizing these risks, U.S. initially opposed a condemnatory resolution at the IAEA. The Biden administration is keen to keep the tensions with Iran in check, more so in the year of the American presidential election. To that end, Washington has engaged Tehran in an indirect dialogue, through Qatar and Oman, on a range of regional issues, and reportedly on the nuclear file too.

In the end, however, Washington succumbed to the pressure of its European allies as politically it could not afford to look “weaker” on Iran than London, Paris, and Berlin. It threw its weight behind the censure.

This was a mistake. As noted, Iran’s reaction to the resolution was one of defiance, and that defeats its very purpose to secure access to Iran’s nuclear program. Further, the resolution pushed Iran even closer to Russia and China—the three nations issued, for the first time, a joint statement rejecting the West-promoted censure, whereas in the past both Moscow and Beijing shared the West’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. 

Moreover, some of Iran’s neighbors, who also happen to be Washington’s key partners in the Middle East, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, abstained in the vote, signaling their preference for seeking diplomatic solutions to Iran’s nuclear program. Significantly, the number of those who voted in favor dropped from 26 to 20 compared with the last time such a censure was adopted (in 2022), while the number of abstentions increased from five to 12. This trajectory shows that the Western efforts at isolating Iran are faltering.

A far better course of action for the U.S. would be to rejoin the JCPOA or negotiate a realistic alternative agreement based on the same premises—curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. That would allow Washington to focus on national security challenges that matter a great deal more than Iran, such as fixing the border with Mexico, pushing for a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine, and focusing on America’s only geopolitical peer competitor—China.