“We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” — Joe Biden
President Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East generated considerable news coverage — much of it devoted to his friendly “fist bump” with the murderous leader of Saudi Arabia. Beyond that, most attention focused on the remarkable warming of relations between Israel and nearby Arab states. The “Abrahamic Accords” have set in motion a new geopolitical landscape with diplomatic and even security cooperation on tap.
The impetus for these striking developments comes, in part, from economics, but it is mainly driven by a shared concern over Iran. Specifically, Iran’s increasingly robust nuclear infrastructure and technology has alarm bells ringing across the region. Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers are world class and there is no doubt that they know how to design and build a weapon, if ordered to do so. But first, they must produce sufficient amounts of highly enriched uranium that will constitute the fissionable explosive core of a device. At this moment, Iran has thousands of advanced centrifuges doing just that. Israel’s defense minister estimates that Iran is weeks away from having the necessary amount of weapons-grade enriched uranium. Other experts put the timeline a bit longer.
For Israel and its Arab neighbors, an unfriendly, nuclear-armed Iran is a first order security threat. But it is one thing to identify a threat; it is another to devise a response. As Biden arrived, the region, both figuratively and literally, was looking to him for a solution. The President was in the Middle East to reassert American strategic leadership and rebuild ties with both Israel and the Arabs. He met the moment by reassuring his hosts that the U.S. “will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Almost no one has taken a deep breath and considered the full implications of that pledge.
How did we get to this situation? Ever since the clerical regime came to power in 1979, U.S. relations with Iran have fluctuated between bad and poisonous. The Iranian revolutionaries invaded the U.S. Embassy and took American diplomats hostage for more than a year. The U.S. seized Iranian financial assets and imposed sanctions. In Iran, mass rallies routinely called for “death to America.” Israel received similar treatment. Actually, Iran’s real enemy was Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab regime next door. From 1980 to 1988, the two countries fought a gruesome border war that ultimately cost an estimated 2 million lives about evenly divided between the two adversaries. When President Bush decided to invade Iraq after 9/11, he solved Iran’s biggest security headache. The Iraq invasion was an American blunder and an Iranian godsend.
All this produced an inclination in official Washington to have as little to do with Iran as possible. However, by Obama’s second term, it was no longer tenable to act as if Iran did not exist. Tehran’s decision to invest money, talent and national prestige in an effort to master nuclear technology had implications for the region and the U.S. that could not be ignored. Tehran insisted (and still insists) that the objective is nuclear energy — a hedge against the day when oil reserves will be depleted. From the outset, Israeli leaders were convinced that the real objective was a nuclear weapon — a challenge to Israel’s strategic nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Israeli policy took on a tone of near hysteria, characterizing Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an imminent threat to Israel’s very existence. [It didn’t help that Iranian leaders routinely called for Israel’s elimination.] Governments led by Bibi Netanyahu were particularly strident — obsessed with the perceived need to destroy the Iranian program. Since Israel lacked the full military capability to accomplish this, Netanyahu made it abundantly clear that he expected the U.S. to do so on Israel’s behalf.
The Obama administration had no intention of doing any such thing, and instead sought a diplomatic solution. The result of intense effort was a remarkable agreement between Iran and the world’s major powers — the Joint Plan of Action. The JPOA provided Iran sanctions relief and other economic benefits and, in return, Iran agreed to limit further enrichment and allow its nuclear facilities to be monitored by international inspectors.
It was a seminal achievement — but short-lived. Netanyahu attacked the agreement at every opportunity, including during an address to the U.S. Congress. When Donald Trump took office, he immediately announced that the U.S. would pull out of the JPOA and impose a “maximum pressure” campaign that would force Iran to make a raft of additional concessions. Netanyahu celebrated. But the result was exactly the opposite of what Trump promised. Iran reacted with understandable fury, rejected all the new U.S./Israeli demands and recommitted to enriching uranium. Meanwhile, Israeli military strategists have concluded that Israel’s opposition to the JPOA was a mistake.
Joe Biden came into office determined to revive the JPOA, if at all possible. What he offered was an unconditional restoration of U.S. participation in implementing the original agreement. Other signatories, including Russia and China, welcomed the decision, but Iran did not. Since the JPOA was negotiated, hardliners had become politically ascendant in Tehran. Now they were the ones insisting on several US concessions. The White House has rejected these demands as legally and/or politically unacceptable given unanimous opposition among Senate Republicans. When President Biden visited the Middle East, his hands were effectively tied. Meanwhile, Israel’s defense minister has declared that Israel is very close to having a capability to attack Iran on its own.
If Tehran decides to force Biden’s hand, the peril is obvious. Iran has dozens of nuclear facilities, many of them deeply buried and heavily shielded against a possible attack. If the Pentagon is ordered to destroy them, it may well require a barrage of ballistic missiles with deep penetration warheads (originally designed to attack Soviet command centers) using nuclear warheads.
And what then?
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.