As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA

As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA
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Tensions between Iran and the West continue to escalate. Last week, a British warship thwarted an attempt by Iranian vessels to block the passage of a U.K.-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. A week earlier, British forces seized an Iranian oil tanker near the Mediterranean peninsula of Gibraltar carrying oil, in defiance of European sanctions, to Syria. Meanwhile, Iran continued to violate the 2015 nuclear deal by incrementally exceeding its limits on uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels. The regime has threatened further breaches if Europe does not find a way to provide relief from U.S. sanctions.

Until recently, Tehran, with encouragement from Europe, Russia, and China, likely hoped that it could outlast President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE, anticipating that he would lose the 2020 election. But as Iran’s economic plight grows increasingly dire, the regime may have concluded that it cannot risk waiting another year and a half. Consequently, the regime adopted a new strategy of nuclear and military brinksmanship aimed not at starting a war, but at testing U.S. resolve, strengthening Iranian deterrence, and blackmailing the United States and Europe to gain sanctions relief.

America must not be intimidated. Instead, it should intensify its maximum pressure campaign. The Trump administration should increase sanctions on Iran even further, targeting key nodes in the business empire of Iran’s supreme leader. In so doing, Washington can present Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with a choice: Either renegotiate the nuclear deal, on our terms, or risk the collapse of Iran’s economy and possibly your regime. The United States should also highlight Iran’s repeated violations of the 2015 nuclear accord, thereby discrediting Tehran’s attempts to portray Washington as the instigator of the crisis.


The weakness of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lies at the root of ongoing hostilities. In exchange for temporary, limited restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program, the agreement provided Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, which the regime used to finance its military adventurism throughout the Middle East. In particular, the regime deployed thousands of troops to Syria, fueling the atrocities of dictator Bashar Assad and posing a direct threat to Israel. Tehran has also armed Lebanon’s Hezbollah with game changing precision-guided munitions, which enable the terrorist organization to strike Israeli targets with pinpoint accuracy.

At the same time, Tehran has exploited the JCPOA’s vague language to flout the accord’s intent. For example, the deal allows for the reimposition of sanctions on Iran only in the event of “significant non-performance,” but the JCPOA fails to define the term “significant.” The regime has exploited this ambiguity to commit incremental violations without consequence. In part for this reason, Washington, despite clear evidence of Iranian misconduct, has had a hard time convincing Europe, Russia, and China that Tehran has defied the JCPOA. In fact, on Monday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, herself said she does not regard Iran’s latest violations as “significant” enough to constitute a breach of the deal.

This is why America should urge the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, to strengthen its inspections of suspicious sites where Iran previously engaged in illicit nuclear activity, and to publish clearly its findings. Even without the JCPOA, Tehran still bears a legal obligation to provide access to any site in Iran. In the 1970s, Iran signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA, pursuant to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, requiring Tehran to declare all nuclear material in the country. The Additional Protocol, a voluntary amendment to the CSA that Tehran signed in 2003, provides further mechanisms for the IAEA to investigate undeclared sites. 

Israel’s recent discovery of two clandestine facilities in Iran heightens the urgency of these mandates. In 2018, Israel announced that the Mossad conducted a raid of a warehouse in Tehran, removing more than 100,000 files documenting Iran’s past efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The archive identifies additional nuclear facilities, equipment, and activities previously unknown to the IAEA — a violation of Tehran’s CSA commitment to declare all nuclear material. Accordingly, the archive exposes shortcomings in the IAEA’s efforts, suggesting that covert nuclear activity, especially in the weaponization arena, may continue today.

Later in 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE disclosed that Israel found another warehouse in Tehran, this time containing actual nuclear equipment and material that Iran had not declared — another violation of Iran’s CSA. According to recent media reports, an IAEA visit to the second warehouse months later uncovered traces of radioactive material. However, satellite imagery shows that Iran had begun to empty the site prior to Israel’s disclosure, leaving possible gaps in the IAEA’s knowledge.


Washington must press the IAEA to respond more quickly to new information. Any infraction of Iran’s nuclear commitments, however minor, should prompt the IAEA to declare the regime in noncompliance. The IAEA can and must do what the JCPOA has failed to ensure: identifying and declaring clear Iranian violations. Europe must cease ignoring or minimizing Iran’s violations and obfuscation for the sake of preserving the JCPOA.

Ultimately, Washington must make Tehran understand that it can receive sanctions relief only by negotiating a new agreement that addresses the JCPOA’s flaws. A new deal, as Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: Biden foreign policy in focus as Dem tensions boil up back home Sunday shows preview: Infrastructure expected to dominate as talks continue to drag The triumph and tragedy of 1989: Why Tiananmen still matters MORE articulated in a landmark speech last year, should include tougher provisions that unambiguously prevent Iran from engaging in all three stages of nuclear weapons development — fissile materials, weaponization, and means of delivery. Likewise, the deal must require Iran to halt its campaign of aggression throughout the Middle East.

To be sure, Washington and Jerusalem must still prepare for the possibility that Tehran will further escalate its military and nuclear operations rather than return to the negotiating table. In that case, all options should remain on the table. Ultimately, if a confrontation proves necessary, the United States and Israel will be far better off facing an isolated, economically crippled Iran today than waiting as Iran consolidates its regional influence and continues its dash toward a nuclear weapon.

Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a former head of Israel’s National Security Council and a former national security advisor (acting) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is currently a visiting professor at the Technion and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at FDD.