April 1, 2023

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Nuclear Iran and the next war

by Hal Brands

The past year has seen rising tensions in two regions at the heart of American foreign and security policy: Europe and East Asia. The big crisis this year may come in an area Washington would rather forget: the Middle East. With Iran close to the bomb, a slow-moving “nuclear” standoff could accelerate — while the war in Ukraine makes resolving the current Middle East crisis more difficult.

US President Joe Biden initially sought de-escalation with Russia and Iran so that the US could focus on China. In 2021, he sought “stable and predictable” relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. With Iran, he sought a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal that would replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that his predecessor, Barack Obama (with him as vice president) negotiated and whose other predecessor, Donald Trump, had capitulated. However, Moscow did not go along with the Biden plan, and neither did Tehran, it seems.

close to the limit

Iran has enriched uranium to 84% purity, just below the 90% required for a nuclear weapon. Even if most of its stockpile is still at around 60%, the time it would take Tehran to accumulate enough bomb-grade uranium if launched at full speed – could be as little as two weeks.

It will take several more months to build a bomb, and Tehran is currently walking toward the “finish” line. However, Iran has become a nuclear “threshold” state, and Biden has no good diplomatic options to contain it.

Negotiations to revive and strengthen the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are not going anywhere. An increasingly hardline Iran was never likely to return to a deal from which the United States unilaterally walked out, unless that deal was “solved” in some way. However, Biden was never likely to accept a deal that was weaker, from an American perspective, than the original deal. Now, the perception of diplomacy is even worse.

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The Iranian regime kills protesters at home while Putin helps kill civilians in Ukraine, moves that make any easing of tensions with Washington unlikely and any agreement with Tehran would be politically toxic for Biden. Perhaps an interim agreement can be reached that will keep things “fixed”, but the chances don’t look great. Biden said the JCPOA is “dead, but we’re not going to announce it” — because that would raise the question of what happens next.

What follows is an extensive effort to coerce Tehran. The last thing Biden wants is another US war in the Middle East, so he may still consider a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as a last resort. It is more likely that the United States and Israel will apply pressure, other than war, in ways that will slow Iran or stop its nuclear program.

There are many alternatives: cyberattacks or other covert efforts to disrupt the Iranian program, low-level military strikes to remind Tehran of its vulnerability, efforts to tighten U.S. sanctions or reimpose multilateral sanctions that were suspended when they went into effect. Much of this already seems to be happening: Israel has reportedly assassinated prominent Iranian scientists and attacked a missile facility inside Iran.

Both America and Israel have indicated that they will go further if necessary: ​​In January, American and Israeli forces conducted the largest joint exercises in their history, simulating many of the missions necessary to suppress Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli officials say they will not accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. American officials indicate that they will not tie Israel’s hands.

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Given how dangerous a nuclear Iran is, waging an intense campaign to force it not to go “nuclear” seems reasonable. But it comes with significant risks.

When the Trump administration sought to strangle Iran economically in 2018-2019, the result was an escalation spiral that culminated in the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and an Iranian missile attack on a US base in Iraq. Great American losses and an even bigger war narrowly averted.

The lesson here is that Iran will not sit quietly while its enemies apply heavy pressure: it can respond in violent and destabilizing fashion.

Another risk involves spreading the problem. Russia, a signatory to the JCPOA, will not help the United States push Iran intolerably: the military crisis in the Gulf, with all its potential to distract Washington, may be Putin’s best hope for salvation.

Perhaps Russia will enhance Iran’s military capabilities in decisive ways. A delivery of deadly S-400 air defense systems, advanced SU-35 fighter jets, or perhaps even ballistic missile technology could serve as compensation to Moscow for supporting Iran in its war against Ukraine — and could make the use of force against Tehran even more frightening.

It may attack Israel anyway, hoping that its technological superiority will allow it to delay the Iranian program and that its missile defenses and conventional superiority will allow it to counter any retaliation. But one way or another, the matter is reaching a turning point.

Many US presidents have tried to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions while avoiding a deadly war. This may be the year when these two goals become incompatible with each other.

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