Plan B for Iran critical as nuclear talks face collapse

Think tank says the West needs to consider new sanctions and diplomacy amid fears Tehran could build a bomb within a month

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi risks a military crisis if he does not reach an agreement with the powers negotiating a nuclear deal. AFP
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The major powers negotiating for a new nuclear deal with Iran need to start preparing a Plan B as the talks approach collapse, a leading commentator said.

With the meetings for resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action stalled it was critical for western powers, with China and Russia, to come up with a new approach involving new sanctions and intense diplomatic pressure, Kelsey Davenport said.

The urgency for a Plan B was growing with Iran’s “breakout time” for creating a nuclear weapon now reduced to potentially just a month to develop, Ms Davenport said, writing for Rusi, a London think thank.

“Given the proliferation risks posed by a collapse of the [nuclear deal], it is critical for the US and China, Russia, France, the UK and Germany to have a plan B if talks to restore the nuclear deal fail.”

It now appears the prospects for reviving the agreement are low, with Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, rejecting the progress made by his predecessor. The US has also said that the window for diplomacy to revive the deal will not remain open indefinitely.

No new deal could lead to a crisis, with fears Iran could resort to creating a nuclear weapon to increase its bargaining power. When the 2015 agreement was in place, it was thought that process would take about 12 months. It has since shrunk to between one and two months after Iran increased its stockpile of enriched uranium. Ironically, this was largely done in retaliation to former President Donald Trump brazenly pulling the US out of the deal in 2018.

Without the nuclear deal in place there is much less transparency on how far advanced Tehran's weapons programme is, leading to a potential miscalculation.

Both America and Israel have vowed to use air strikes if they believe Iran is close to creating a nuclear weapon.

“A larger-scale attack could push Tehran to consider abandoning its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments and pursuing nuclear weapons in order to deter further attacks,” wrote Ms Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

She said that the US and Europe will now have to consider the “playbook that led to negotiations" on the nuclear deal that meant greater sanctions pressure and isolation, along with diplomacy.

But this would be difficult to achieve. “This strategy will be challenging and time-consuming to reconstitute even partially. The US is rightly criticised for sanctions overreach,” she wrote. “US credibility to lift sanctions was severely diminished by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw ... while Iran was complying the deal.”

But there were also few areas left to “ratchet up economic pressure”.

Furthermore, Mr Raisi appears disinterested in good relations with the West. China and Russia might be supportive of greater international pressure but if it is perceived that the US causes the talks to collapse then “their [China and Russia] support for a sanctions-centric strategy is less likely”, Ms Davenport concluded in her paper, titled Preparing for Plan B with Iran.

Updated: October 08, 2021, 2:34 PM