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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Iran Is Projecting Its Power to Pressure Biden Into a Deal. But Iran Is Actually in Distress, and That Needs to Be Exploited

Filed under: Iran, Nuclear Warfare, U.S. Policy

Iran Is Projecting Its Power to Pressure Biden Into a Deal. But Iran Is Actually in Distress, and That Needs to Be Exploited
Iranian centrifuges for uranium enrichment. (screenshot)

A version of this article originally appeared in WALLA in Hebrew.

  • Tehran violated the nuclear agreement when it announced it had enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent to show that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy had failed.
  • Actually, the situation is entirely different from the image Iran is trying to create. The West is responding weakly, but it has the tools to punish the Ayatollah regime – and they must consider using them.

Iran has begun enriching uranium to a level of 20%, in further flagrant violation of its commitments under the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At the same time, Iran has emphasized that its action is reversible, and it is ready to return to its obligations if the United States returns to the agreement and lifts sanctions.

The Iranian move is aimed at achieving several objectives. The first, shortening the period needed to achieve adequate amounts of enriched uranium to a level higher than 90% for producing a nuclear explosive device. Iran currently has 4.5% enriched material that, if enriched further, will be sufficient for more than two nuclear explosive devices. The time it takes Iran to obtain the amount of uranium required for one device from the moment it decides to do so (“breakout”) is about two months, but if the enrichment to 20% is carried out only by the 1,000 centrifuges operating in the deep underground facility at Fordo, as the Iranians have done so far, it will take longer. The Iranians recently installed cascades (sets) of advanced centrifuges at the underground facility in Natanz, and if 20% enrichment is also conducted there, the time needed to stockpile the material will be shortened.

Another aspect is the illustration of the “maximum pressure” policy on Iran adopted by the Trump administration and its failure to stop Iran from advancing on the bomb.

Enriching uranium to a level of 20% is also an expression of Iranian pluck. This is a move with no immediate risk of a strong reaction from the United States after the bluster of Tehran’s implied threats that did not materialize into a violent Iranian response against the Americans on the anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Suleimani. (Also, the threats after the elimination of senior Iranian scientist General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh were never realized.)

In this respect, the Iranian measure is intended to help divert public attention from the regime’s caution, which reflects recognition of its weakness and recoils from widespread confrontation with the United States, in light of U.S. warnings.

The fourth and most important goal is to make it clear to incoming President Biden that the best option for him, in order to stem Iran’s nuclearization, is to return quickly to the nuclear agreement according to Iranian dictates, i.e., a concurrent return of both sides of the accord, and an Iranian refusal to change the characteristics and scope of the agreement or even discuss such changes.

South Korean tanker
South Korean tanker, Hankuk Chemi, seized by the Iranian National Guard Navy near the Strait of Hormuz. (Screenshot)

The initial international response to the move has been slack. More attention is given to Iran’s hijacking of a South Korean tanker, which is also an Iranian pressure tactic, this time against Seoul, in anticipation of releasing frozen Iranian funds. There is evidence in this weak response of Iran’s correct assessment that the reluctant West does not want a confrontation and will return to the nuclear agreement according to Iranian dictates. A clear expression of this was stated by the designated national security adviser in the Biden administration, Jake Sullivan, who, on the basis of what he described as the failure of American pressure, reiterated the familiar mantras of the incoming administration about the need for a return to the JCPOA before negotiations on a broader agreement begin.1, 2 On the other hand, the Trump administration has determined that this is an “attempted nuclear blackmail, an attempt designed to fail.”

Iranians’ Willingness to Return to Agreement Shows Their True Will

In light of the economic pressure, the Iranian situation is entirely different from the image its leaders are trying to create. The new Iranian measures reflect distress. The economic pressure and regional developments – the “Abraham Accords” and the reconciliation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – worry Tehran. The enrichment acceleration for a nuclear device is worrisome, but it necessitates crossing a dangerous threshold whereby military action against Iran may occur while continuing the economic sanctions that could jeopardize the stability of the regime.

For now, Iran will be happy to take that safe bet on the way to a toothless nuclear agreement that will give them not only one nuclear bomb but a large arsenal of nuclear weapons in a decade – without suffering militarily or economically. The declared willingness of Iran to return to the agreement testifies to its preferences.

How to Respond

The appropriate response to the Iranian move is to make clear that any attempt to move towards the acquiring of enough enriched uranium for the production of nuclear weapons will be met harshly, and in this context, “all options are on the table.” At the same time, the economic pressure must be continued in order to compel Iran to accept a new agreement that would scrupulously prevent any possibility of its stockpiling nuclear weapons, which includes full oversight everywhere and at all times, the lifting of restrictions on the duration of the agreement, the demolition of the enrichment facility in Fordo, and the inclusion of ballistic missiles in the deal.

The likelihood of this kind of scenario in a Biden administration is not great, but if it chooses this path, the new President is going to have a good chance to force Iran to accept a new agreement. Such a Biden policy can expect European cooperation, Arab and Israeli support, and Iran cannot present him as a sworn enemy of Tehran like they tried to do with his predecessor. For the immediate future, an escalation during Trump’s last days in office is possible if Iran dares to take action against American interests.

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1 “The United States should, under a new president, “immediately re-establish nuclear diplomacy with Iran and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal,” and then work with allies and Iran “to negotiate a follow-on agreement.” Jake Sullivan, Biden Plans Renewed Nuclear Talks With Russia While Punishing Kremlin, Adviser Says,

2 “President-Elect Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal, that is to say it reduces its stockpile, it takes down some of its centrifuges and other measures so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in. But that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation. To your question directly about ballistic missiles, our view is that ballistic missiles and Iran’s ballistic missile program has to be on the table as part of that follow-on negotiation. We also believe that there can be conversations that go beyond just the permanent five members of the Security Council, the P5+1.” Jake Sullivan, – Transcripts, Fareed Zakaria, GPS.