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Like it or not, Biden must engage Iran to avoid a nuclear crisis

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting with the country’s top officials in Tehran on April 12, 2022.

The Iranian regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests in recent months has prompted fresh calls for the Biden administration to disengage with Tehran diplomatically. Not only should Washington scrap the now-stalled negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, critics argue, it should also cease all ongoing talks around nuclear proliferation.

But this perfectly misreads the threat landscape: If Iran and the West remain locked in a cycle of escalation, Iran will be more dangerous, both to peaceful protestors at home and to the United States and its allies abroad. Instead, the Biden administration, our European partners and Iran should take immediate action to stabilize the current crisis and de-escalate tensions. 

Iran’s response to the protests, military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and intransigence toward the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s investigation have led it to a position of greater isolation than at any point since before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015. Just last week, reports indicated that the IAEA detected in Iran uranium enriched to 84 percent — the highest level on record to date. 

Meanwhile, the recent statement by the U.S. ambassador to Israel that the administration would support any action Israel takes against Iran was — to put it diplomatically — unfortunate. Giving a green light to Israel to take more overt military action against Iran would not have the desired result; such action would inevitably involve U.S. forces in a new Middle East conflict and would incentivize rather than deter Iran’s weapons ambitions.  

Taken together, the risk of serious miscalculation leading to armed conflict is higher than ever, as Ebrahim Raisi’s government may consider a race for the bomb the only safe route to self-preservation.

We’ve seen firsthand what happens when authoritarian states concerned about regime stability rely on nuclear bluster to maintain control at home. North Korea has followed that playbook for years, using nuclear blackmail as a shield for domestic repression. A North Korea-style regime in the Middle East is nobody’s idea of a desirable outcome to the present standoff.

Unfortunately, Tehran’s behavior in recent months all but ensures that the impasse in JCPOA negotiations won’t be broken any time soon. The JCPOA, or an amended version, remains the only feasible way to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, and Washington should still pursue a comprehensive agreement over the long term. But the immediate priority must be implementing meaningful safeguards to head off the risk of a disastrous military confrontation. It is feasible that, absent any such action, Iran could view the rapid development of nuclear weapons as the only means of preserving its regime and territory.  

The volatility of this situation demands that the Biden administration redouble its efforts to engage with Tehran to prevent such a scenario. Distasteful as this may appear, given Iran’s ongoing abuses at home and its backing of Russia’s horrific campaign in Ukraine, it is imperative for a president who promised to use diplomacy as a “tool of first resort.” Thankfully, plenty of tools remain at the Biden administration’s disposal to avert a crisis.

First and foremost, Washington must address the fact that Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium is increasing by the day while international inspectors have limited access. The Biden administration should focus on reciprocal, de-escalatory measures to ensure more timely detection of any attempt to “break out,” or produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb. And it should pursue monitoring mechanisms that provide greater assurance that Iran is not diverting materials from nuclear facilities not currently being inspected.

Allowing the IAEA to inspect these facilities would allow the agency to begin re-establishing a record of Iran’s nuclear activities and an inventory of certain materials. It would also buy the necessary time for the diplomatic process to play out, alleviating pressure from hard-liners in Tehran intent on sending a message and from regional adversaries — most notably the new hardline Netanyahu government in Israel — who have sounded a hawkish tone on breaking the stalemate.

In return, Washington should offer minimal, limited sanctions relief conditional on continued compliance going forward. Such a move, ideally focused on the humanitarian sector, would not provide a blanket removal of all sanctions, nor would it reward Tehran’s behavior in recent months. But it would serve as a low-cost down payment on nuclear stability in the near term. And it would show that the United States is serious about working toward meaningful, good faith measures aimed at bringing down the temperature.

During its short lifespan, the JCPOA proved to be an effective, verifiable agreement. Restoring it would have significant nonproliferation benefits. But such a path is, for now, out of reach. Iran’s malign activities regionally and in Ukraine, its response to peaceful protests, and its lack of transparency all point to a regime that views itself as having run out of good options. If the Raisi government perceives further provocation with no exit strategy on the table, what — absent a new, sustained diplomatic push — is to stop it from racing for the bomb as a tool of last resort?

Direct or indirect engagement with Iran is not a matter of trusting the regime; it is about having the political courage to use diplomacy to prevent the twin horrors of an Iranian nuclear arsenal and a new Middle East war. It is possible to stand in solidarity with the Iranian protest movement while insisting on a renewed diplomatic offensive to engage Tehran anew. 

President Biden has said that it’s critical for his administration to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time” on matters of policy. Indeed, this should be his first order of business: balancing the mutually compatible imperatives of supporting the pro-democracy movement while forestalling the prospect of Iran’s nuclear program spiraling into a broader regional conflict that nobody wants.

Thomas M. Countryman is chairman of the Arms Control Association and was assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Ebrahim Raisi Foreign relations of Iran Iran nuclear program Iran protests Iran–United States relations Joe Biden Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Politics of the United States

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