What a difference a few days can make in the Middle East. On August 28 National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby addressed the diplomatic maneuvering that unfolded after the European Union submitted a proposal to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) covering Iran’s nuclear activities, stating that, “We are certainly closer [to a deal] today than we were about two weeks ago.” The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borell, echoed Kirby’s assessment, saying that he was “optimistic” and that negotiations had reached “the last millimeters.” However, on September 1, the United States’ tone soured. A State Department spokesperson stated that the Iranian response to the EU proposal was “not constructive,” while an unnamed US official said, “We appear to be moving backwards.” Reiterating this point, on September 9 Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “We are not about to agree to a deal that doesn’t meet our bottom-line requirements.” As of this writing, the fate of the Vienna talks hangs in the balance.
For its part, Israel has long rejected a deal that would allow Iran to retain any uranium enrichment capacity or would secure an end to nuclear-related sanctions. Three days before US officials expressed their initial optimism, the head of Mossad underscored the Israeli position, arguing that the US was “rushing” toward an accord that was a “lie” and a “strategic disaster.” As for Iran, the hardliners who dominate its government appear to believe that the country can defend its security, economic, and diplomatic interests without the sanctions relief that a revived JCPOA might offer, even while they insist that the talks can still be saved. An expanded “resistance” strategy is Iran’s Plan B. Meanwhile, the Arab Gulf states, which are facing the efforts of Iran and its regional allies to project Tehran’s clout in the region and are worried by what they see as a wobbly US position, are reenergizing engagement with Tehran, while at the same time the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia expand their economic, technological, and military cooperation with Israel. Although Iran is hardly thrilled, it may tolerate this hedging strategy, despite the fact that it also regularly denounces Gulf states for working with Israel.
The White House is unlikely to shift to a retooled version of the previous administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, both because such an approach has repeatedly failed to compel Iran to capitulate and because a strategy shorn of diplomacy could very well drag the US into a war with Iran
The Biden administration, however, has no viable Plan B if the talks fail. And despite pressure from Israel, Congress, pro-Israel lobbyists, and some Washington hardline think tanks in support of a purely coercive strategy—their own Plan B—the White House is unlikely to shift to a retooled version of the previous administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, both because such an approach has repeatedly failed to compel Iran to capitulate and because a strategy shorn of diplomacy could very well drag the US into a war with Iran. Indeed, a failure to revive the JCPOA could open the door for Iran to expand its nuclear program in ways that may make a regional conflagration inevitable. All the key actors involved want to avoid this outcome. But geostrategic realities in the Middle East have dramatically shifted over the past year, thus eroding the very logic of diplomatic solution in ways that even Iran’s hardliners may come to regret.
The Rise and Partial Fall of the JCPOA
The original push for the JCPOA in 2015 reflected a convergence of views in the Obama White House and in one wing of Iran’s government. Apart from creating room for Iran’s Reformists to return to the political arena, then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hoped that the partial removal of sanctions would facilitate an economic opening with the West that would help rescue Iran’s economy. The White House certainly shared these hopes at the time. Indeed, while Tehran’s expanding enrichment program was the key factor prompting the administration to push for a deal, the White House viewed the JCPOA as a first step on a longer road that it hoped would yield a wider process of Iranian diplomatic and political engagement both regionally and globally. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s suggestion that the JCPOA should be followed up by further negotiations spoke to such aspirations.
The original push for the JCPOA in 2015 reflected a convergence of views in the Obama White House and in one wing of Iran’s government.
But from the start Iranian hardliners were resolved to prevent any further opening with the West—and especially with Washington. So was Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who warned that the US could not be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain. Beyond confirming these predictions, Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA undercut whatever limited leverage Rouhani and his Reformist allies had, thus helping set the stage for the August 2021 election of President Ebrahim Raisi’s hardline government. But Iran’s hardliners read Trump like a book. On his watch, Iran called his bluff by demonstrating that his policy of “maximum pressure” was a paper tiger that would have zero effect on Iran’s nuclear program or its projection of power in the region. Moreover, by also calling for the removal of US troops from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, Trump seemed to telegraph Washington’s declining commitment to the Middle East.
The Biden Administration: From a Qualified “Yes” to a Stalemate?
President Biden’s efforts to bring strategic coherence to the confusing impulses of the Trump administration have had mixed results. This is partly due to the chaotic nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan one year ago and the alarm bells that it rang. Seeking to put these events behind it, the White House’s Middle East strategy pivoted around strengthening US commitment to the Abraham Accords process that was begun under the Trump administration. If Biden’s July trip to the region did not elicit the response he had hoped for (especially from Saudi Arabia and to some extent Israel), the White House still hopes that expanded cooperation between Israel and key Gulf states—backed by US military support of Israel—will deter Iran from fomenting instability in the region. But despite all the talk of partnership, this strategy still relies on the initiative and converging interests of regional actors, and far less on any notion of US leadership. Geostrategic shifts emanating from the region pose challenges for US policy on many fronts, not least of which is the nuclear talks.
President Biden’s efforts to bring strategic coherence to the confusing impulses of the Trump administration have had mixed results.
Two recent events display these challenges. On September 2 (and for the second time in a week) Iranian naval forces seized and temporarily held two American drones scooped up from international waters in the Red Sea. Two days later, Israeli fighter jets escorted two American B-52 bombers as they traversed Israeli airspace on their way to the Persian Gulf.
The actions of Iran’s naval forces suggest that Tehran is not letting the nuclear talks—or the US-Gulf-Israel entente—deter it from projecting power. This does not mean that Iran is oblivious to the potential threat posed by said cooperation. In fact, Iranian military leaders complained about the September 4 escort operation and also decried Israel’s participation with CENTCOM. Moreover, Israel’s penetration of Iran’s nuclear facilities shocked Iranian officials. But Iran still has the military means, geographic assets, and the will to engage in the “malign” activities that the US and its allies have assailed it for, while also apparently feeling no pressure to make more concessions on its nuclear program. As for Israel, the September 4 display of US-Israel military cooperation followed the visit of a high-level Israeli security delegation to Washington, including the head of Mossad, who had already voiced his opposition to reviving the JCPOA, as had Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who also visited Washington roughly a week earlier. Israeli leaders are now hinting that their campaign of influence may have not only helped sideline Robert Malley, the head of the US negotiating team, but that it has also convinced the Biden administration not to pursue the talks. Like Iran, Israel feels confident that it can shape the agenda.
Like Iran, Israel feels confident that it can shape the agenda, and Iranian leaders are making it easier for Israel to make its case.
Whether or not things have really come to this critical point, Iranian leaders are making it easier for Israel to make its case. The talks have reportedly stalled over Iran’s refusal to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with answers to a list of concerns regarding what it considers Iran’s obstruction of the international monitoring of its enrichment activities. These concerns include the IAEA’s long-standing questions about the discovery of uranium particles in three undeclared Iranian sites. Iran also insists that any deal should include guarantees for compensation if the current or next administration subsequently backs out of the deal or tries to unilaterally reimpose sanctions. But the White House holds that it cannot impose these kinds of conditions on a future administration. And the IAEA, with US support, is not budging on its position because the unexplained activities for which it wants an accounting suggest the kind of secret enrichment program that could wreck the very logic of an inspections regime.
But a stalemate has now emerged, one that displays the point beyond which the White House cannot say “yes” to an agreement that Tehran does not seem eager to secure
If Iran’s obstinance reflects the domestic influence and regional clout of its hardliners, it is also partly a consequence of a process of indirect talks that precludes the kind of direct interaction between high-level US and Iranian officials that was able to foster a compromise back in 2015. Still, over the last six weeks it seemed that the EU’s mediation had facilitated an agreement on a number of critical issues, as US officials themselves noted. But a stalemate has now emerged, one that displays the point beyond which the White House cannot say “yes” to an agreement that Tehran does not seem eager to secure-—even as Iranian officials insist that there is still room for a deal. And so the Vienna negotiating table stands empty.
The “No” Camp Also Lacks a Viable Plan B
Opponents of the renewed JCPOA agreement have highlighted several presumed flaws in the original deal, the most important of which are so-called “sunset clauses” that would allow Iran to begin using advanced centrifuges by 2026 and to enrich uranium at higher levels by 2031. American officials have countered these concerns by making two claims. First, a spokesperson for the administration has argued that “under the current situation, the sun has already set,” suggesting that the far better choice is to return to the original terms of the deal. Second, US officials argue that “some of the JCPOA’s most important provisions have no sunsets—most importantly, the powerful inspection tools of the Additional Protocol with the IAEA and the prohibition on some activities related to nuclear weapons development.”
A coercive approach does not provide a credible option since rather than “avoid” force it would probably require a US military assault that could set the entire region ablaze.
Whatever one’s assessment of these positions, sunset clauses are not the fundamental issue. Israeli leaders object to any agreement that removes sanctions, thereby rejecting any negotiated deal. What they want instead—as a letter sent to Biden by more than 5,000 former Israeli defense officials makes clear—is a “credible military threat” and “crippling economic sanctions.” One analyst arguing for a hawkish approach posits that this kind of coercive policy provides the only basis for an effective Plan B. He thus calls on the administration to use “the entire spectrum of coercive tools” in ways, he argues, that could even “avoid the use of force.” But he offers not an iota of detail about how this plan might work. This approach, which has been proposed many times before, does not provide a credible option since rather than “avoid” force it would probably require a US military assault that could set the entire region ablaze.
Geostrategic Shifts Outpace Diplomacy
Israeli officials have hinted that they might take matters into their own hands if a deal is reached. But given the kinds of advanced munitions needed to do lasting damage to Iran’s nuclear program and the huge risk that Israel would pose to its own security by attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, it is unlikely that Iranian officials fear that Israel’s opposition—which could escalate as the country moves closer to elections—is a prelude to an Israeli attack in the near or mid-range term.
Still, the prospect of a wider military conflict has encouraged the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to engage with Iran. While each of these efforts has its own dynamics, they all speak to dangers that could surface for the Gulf states with a US-Iran military confrontation. Moreover, there is no Gulf Arab consensus regarding Iran; Qatar and Oman, for example, have helped mediate nuclear negotiations and might rev up these efforts with the support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And these mediation efforts will likely continue in concert with expanding cooperation between the UAE, Israel, and the US.
But what should truly concern Arab Gulf states, Israel, and the US is the possibility that Iranian hardliners will keep pushing for a policy of “resistance” that could preclude the kinds of economic and diplomatic engagement with western states that have been backed by Rouhani and even Raisi. Despite social protests and inflation rates as high as 54 percent, Iran seems to be weathering its current economic crisis, in part because oil exports in June reportedly reached 950,000 bpd, the highest monthly level in three years. Iran has also stored an estimated 100 million barrels of crude oil and condensate that it could quickly put on the market if a deal were reached. It could also provide substantial gas sales, as Iranian officials have reminded their European counterparts. But while China’s purchase of Russian oil has cut into Iran’s profits, the Iranian government has circumvented western sanctions in ways that give it room for domestic maneuver.
These realities are fueling Iran’s opposition to any final concessions in the nuclear talks, while also strengthening Iranian leaders who believe that Tehran should stake its future on an alliance with Russia and China.
These realities are fueling Iran’s opposition to any final concessions in the nuclear talks, while also strengthening Iranian leaders who believe that Tehran should stake its future on an alliance with Russia and China. And although the State Department’s insistence that drones Iran has recently sold to Russia continue to perform poorly as Russia tries to use them in Ukraine, the fact that Iran has provided these weapons to Moscow, Hezbollah, and Houthi forces is nevertheless significant—especially given the growing role of drones in military conflicts across the globe. Iran’s willingness to engage in drone-based conflict suggests that even a last-minute rescue of the JCPOA is unlikely to impede shifts in the regional geostrategic order that are bypassing the logic of nuclear diplomacy.
Fears of wider military conflict may still induce Iran—and the US—to seek to rescue the negotiations. But this is a thin thread upon which to hang one’s hopes for diplomacy.
This is bad news for the White House, which is trying to buy time as it attempts to connect the disparate dots of its Middle East policy. Iranian hardliners may welcome this situation. However, they are not looking for a direct fight with the US, and could very well pay a high price if hostilities do break out. Fears of such a scenario may still induce Iran—and the US—to seek to rescue the negotiations. But this is a thin thread upon which to hang one’s hopes for diplomacy.