At a closed-door Iran briefing in May, Biden administration officials reported to the U.S. Senate on the rapid advance of Tehran’s nuclear program. Senators who emerged from the briefing could not point to any clear plans the administration has to stop Iran from approaching the nuclear weapons threshold. Negotiations have stalled, but the White House also lacks a plan to turn up the pressure. Rather, the administration appears content to kick the can down the road, a strategy that may soon become untenable as Tehran’s nuclear capabilities approach a critical juncture—beyond a certain point, sanctions, and diplomatic pressure will not be able to deter Iran from building a bomb.
Inertia prevails in the White House even though the administration insists it is fully committed to preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Biden’s emphasis on great power competition entails a focus on China and Russia, not Iran. His priority for the Middle East is avoiding any new military intervention. Persian Gulf oil once commanded Washington’s attention, but the shale revolution has made the United States the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, so there is less pressure to play an active role.
The Biden administration is also short on foreign policy bandwidth. The war in Ukraine and fears of a confrontation over Taiwan are both consuming senior officials’ attention.
Clearly, the White House would like to conclude a new nuclear deal with Iran, but the changing nature of Tehran’s nuclear program makes it impossible to return to the original deal from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. Iran’s clerical regime has enriched uranium to much higher levels than ever before, approaching the production of weapons-grade material it could use in a warhead. Most of this progress occurred after Biden made clear he wanted a new deal—Tehran understood this meant the White House would tolerate new provocations.
Washington acknowledges that there is no simple way to return to the original nuclear deal and a longer and stronger deal is needed. Yet the lack of a viable alternative leaves the Biden administration seemingly rudderless. Instead, the White House appears to be stalling for time, hoping some unforeseen bit of good luck resolves its nuclear dilemma. But deferring decisive action may soon become impracticable. Time is on the side of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Soon, no combination of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions will be sufficient to stop him if he decides he wants the bomb.
The Iranian economy continues to struggle, yet Biden’s decision not to enforce sanctions vigorously has strengthened Khamenei’s hand. The regime continues to grapple with very high inflation, massive devaluation of its currency, and sluggish growth. Yet Iran still has substantial export revenue thanks to the lack of sanctions enforcement. In the Persian year 1401 (April 2022 to March 2023), Tehran exported $53 billion in non-oil goods. In just the first half of that year (April 2022 to October 2022), Tehran exported $29.4 billion in oil, gas, and condensate, according to the Central Bank of Iran. For comparison, between April 2020 and October 2020, Tehran managed only $8.6 billion of such exports. The majority of Iran’s crude oil exports go to China, which is glad to help undermine U.S. leverage.
Diplomacy with rogue states rarely results in disarmament. Even North Korea, with far fewer natural resources than Tehran, proved itself capable of withstanding a combination of economic and diplomatic pressure. It strung out negotiations over multiple decades, all the while building its nuclear arsenal. Libya did agree to dismantle its nuclear program, but only when the alternative appeared to be U.S. military intervention. In contrast, Israeli airstrikes destroyed both Syrian and Iraqi reactors.
Instead of its current policy (or lack thereof), the United States needs a “Plan B” that restores economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on Tehran. The Iranian nuclear program has reached a point where containment is not enough; rather, the United States needs to reverse the advances the program has made over the past two and a half years. The first step is to restore the credibility of U.S. military option through bold actions, such as the 2020 elimination of Qassem Soleimani, or destroying vessels that harass the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Washington could also enforce crippling sanctions, including using the Navy to stop Tehran’s exports of sanctioned goods such as crude oil and petrochemical products. If all else fails, and Tehran makes it clear that will acquire the bomb no matter what, then what is left is implementing a comprehensive plan to support the revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow Iran’s clerical regime.
The only alternative to Plan B is to accept the emergence of a nuclear-armed radical Islamist regime.
Dr. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), specializing in Iran’s economy and financial markets, sanctions, and illicit finance. Follow him on Twitter @SGhasseminejad. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.