What will Biden and Raisi do if the Iran nuclear talks fail?

If a deal to restore the JCPOA falls through, the US will need to think of alternatives before it's too late

With Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sworn in on Thursday, the impact on efforts to revive the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement will quickly become clear. Time is running short to reach an understanding and avoid further, and possibly greatly escalated or even devastating, confrontation.

Under his lame-duck predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, talks made little progress. Mr Rouhani has reportedly said that he was "not allowed" to make an agreement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his close allies. That's either because Iran's leaders don't want to make a deal or didn't want Mr Rouhani get any credit for the sanctions relief that Iran desperately needs. It will soon become obvious which attitude was driving whatever obstruction he faced.

In theory, an agreement ought to be attainable. Both sides say they want one. They even agree that it should be on the basis of compliance-for-compliance with the JCPOA text signed years ago. So, what Washington and Tehran are really negotiating is what constitutes compliance on both sides, and how and when measures to restore that compliance on both sides would be taken.

Timing is a key issue, as ever with the JCPOA. Iran's responsibilities are fairly clear, though an agreement about how quickly they would roll back prohibited activities and what monitoring would be required is necessary. US sanctions are more complex, but the Biden administration appears willing to ensure Iran gets all the economic benefits it received from the 2015 agreement.

All that may not sound like a particularly heavy diplomatic lift, but politics ensure it very much is.

There is, and always was, strong opposition on both sides to any such accommodation. Many of Mr Raisi’s allies were harsh critics of the agreement. But he has repeatedly stressed he wants to restore it.

Making matters worse from the American point of view, the 2015 agreement was a chronological gamble, providing Iran with significant sanctions relief and securing nuclear limitations that expire between 10-15 years from “implementation day” on January 16, 2016. The countdown towards the expiration of Iran's nuclear restrictions under the deal has been moving forward ever since.

So, this same agreement is going to be a lot less attractive in 2022 than it was in 2015, because it is all based on deadlines that have been expiring the entire time. However, the costs of failure are also becoming increasingly evident.

A year after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and began a "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign, Iran launched a low-intensity warfare response of "maximum resistance" against US and US-related targets in the region.

The grey-zone conflict between the US and Iran eased somewhat when the indirect talks began after Joe Biden assumed the US presidency. But Iran continues to flex its muscles, particularly in an intensifying series of reciprocal attacks with Israel.

Israel is alleged to have been responsible for a wide range of explosions, fires and other sabotage in key Iranian facilities in recent months, including its main nuclear facility at Natanz. Iran's responses have recently included a deadly drone attack against an Israeli-operated merchant tanker travelling from Tanzania to Fujairah which killed two crew members.

Iranian tensions with the US reached a boiling point in January 2020 when pro-Iranian militias in Iraq unleashed numerous attacks against US targets and the US killed one of Iran's most powerful commanders, and important leaders, Gen Qassem Suleimani, as well as the deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Unit, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

That didn't lead to a US-Iranian war, but it certainly got too close for comfort. And, even while tensions are somewhat eased, that recent history and the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel amply illustrate the alarming scenarios that could well develop out of a diplomatic collapse in Vienna.

Given the impasse under Mr Rouhani, and questions about Mr Raisi’s sincerity and authority, serious consideration is being given in Washington to how to manage a post-JCPOA future, especially if Iran makes a dash for nuclear weapons capability.

The West has always understood it might have to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, as it does with North Korea, but has also recognised that doing so would require a tougher, more disciplined and thoroughgoing regime of containment. That won't be easy, and could be very risky. And because it is such an unattractive proposition, some are suggesting radical alternatives.

Israel has launched repeated attacks against pro-Iranian militia groups in Syria and Iraq, and has made it clear that Hezbollah in Lebanon, too, faces serious redlines. Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said his country might be willing to strike Iran directly if Tehran and its proxies continue to attack Israeli targets.

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For all its limitations, the JCPOA is still the best short-term solution by far

A former senior US official, Dennis Ross, suggested that if the talks fail, Washington should supply Israel with the fearsome GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (also known as "the mother of all bombs”), a massive 14,000-kilogram bunker-buster weapon.

They “could be used to destroy [Iran's underground nuclear facility at] Fordow” and other deeply hardened sites, he writes. He claims Iranians might doubt the US's willingness to carry out such an attack, but not Israel's. He also suggests such a weapons transfer could be a negotiating tactic, inducing Tehran to come to terms. But it takes very little imagination to realise that any such attack would probably unleash a maelstrom of regional violence, if not all-out war. And if Tehran is absolutely determined to develop nuclear weapons, eventually it will – such attacks and any other pressure notwithstanding.

For all its limitations, the JCPOA is still the best short-term solution by far.

One major stumbling block is that both sides plainly think they are operating from stronger positions than they actually are. And both are hoping to secure at least a little advantage over the other to fend off political criticism.

Now that Iran has a new president, progress will be required sooner rather than later. The US has said the Vienna talks cannot go on indefinitely. That is putting it mildly. The clock has been ticking since 2015, and the hands aren't moving any slower.

Published: August 9th 2021, 2:00 PM
Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National