The United States and Iran Are Headed Toward a New Nuclear Normal
Ambiguity rather than clarity, intentions rather than capabilities, are at the heart of an era of strategic stability now tentatively on offer by Washington and Tehran.
President Joe Biden was not betraying any secret when he was recently caught on a live mic observing that the effort to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is “dead.”
Everything has changed—for the worse—since the diplomatic effort to put Iran’s nuclear program “in a box” was initialed in 2015. Tehran can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in less than a week.
The search is on for a new formula that will diffuse the ongoing crisis. French president Emmanuel Macron suggested in November that a “new framework“ is likely to be required.
There is good reason not to despair, or to fear an overt Iranian nuclear breakout in the wake of the JCPOA’s demise. There is indeed “a new framework” in the making.
The JCPOA was premised on the assumption that Iran would agree to a series of intrusive measures, many of them unprecedented, that would reduce Iran’s nuclear “break out” period to a year by creating real obstacles to Iran’s uranium enrichment program at a level necessary for the development of a nuclear weapon. In return the US would lift its veto on Western investment in the Iranian market.
Iran always saw this as an unequal and coercive bargain, which masked a continuing effort by Washington to undermine the Iranian revolution of 1979. Washington, for its part, proved unwilling, even in the wake of the 2015 agreement, to forego the use of ever-escalating economic sanctions at the heart of its policy of “maximum pressure” towards Tehran.
The Trump administration’s repudiation of the agreement precipitated the complete breakdown of this enterprise, which the Biden administration has failed to remedy.
But there is reason to believe that the JCPOA’s failure has created an opportunity to build a post-JCPOA understanding between Washington and Tehran that may indeed prove more lasting and effective than the moribund JCPOA in defusing Washington’s (if not Israel’s) concerns.
The keystone of this new phase of U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy is a mutual embrace of the concept of nuclear ambiguity.
This cautious development in U.S.-Iran relations rests on a mutual Iranian and American interest to maintain and honor a studied uncertainty concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.
This posture stands in direct opposition to the were the key objectives at the heart of the JCPOA: to preempt, prevent, and aggressively monitor the expansion of an Iranian nuclear enrichment capability.
The doctrine of nuclear ambiguity has a central place in nuclear diplomacy. U.S. and Russian doctrine are based on an openly declared nuclear capability, backed by the promise and the opposing arsenals of mutual nuclear destruction. North Korea maintains a declared nuclear arsenal and delivery system aimed at deterring foreign intervention and maintaining the regime in power.
Nuclear ambiguity, in contrast, as practiced by Israel and now increasingly by Iran, all but ignores the issue of uranium enrichment that was at the center of the JCPOA era. It focuses instead on the deliberate decision not to declare the existence of a nuclear weapons capability, either as a deterrent or as a weapon. A policy of deliberate uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities helps to diffuse unwelcome pressure by the international community to disarm. In contrast, integrating nuclear weapons openly in its military doctrine could well instigate rather than deter armed conflict.
The parameters of this new grand bargain between Tehran and Washington first appeared last summer.
Not surprisingly, its key elements were announced in the context of U.S. commitments to Israel.
The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, announced on July 14, 2022, reaffirms the longstanding “unshakeable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, and especially to the maintenance of its qualitative military edge (QME).”
As long as Washington maintains Israel’s conventional superiority over Iran and its neighbors, Jerusalem will keep its famed nuclear arsenal “in the basement”—that is, ambiguous, undeclared, and undeployed.
Nothing new here.
But the declaration, taking note of the new post-JCPOA policy on Iran unveils an unusually explicit and perhaps unprecedented public U.S. commitment, “to use all elements of its national power” to ensure that “Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
It is instructive to pay close attention to the extraordinary language now employed by the Biden administration to describe this U.S. policy. The U.S.-Israel agreement, subsequently repeated by administration officials in various venues, does not warn Iran against enriching uranium but rather advises it of certain unprecedented peril (employing “all elements of [U.S.] national power”) should it choose to acquire a nuclear bomb. The distinction is significant, all but inviting Iran to adopt a policy of nuclear ambiguity short of acquisition and deployment as a way of avoiding a preventative or preemptive U.S. (nuclear) attack.
Iran appears to have internalized the new line declared by Washington.
In the wake of the U.S. announcement, Kamal Kharazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and a top aide to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, acknowledged that Iran indeed has the ability to produce a nuclear weapon, but it is choosing not to do so—the formula at the heart of a policy of nuclear ambiguity. Kharazi told Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel that “In a few days we were able to enrich uranium up to 60% and we can easily produce 90% enriched uranium ... Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb but there has been no decision by Iran to build one.”
According to a statement by Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, “The window for reaching an agreement on the part of the Islamic Republic of Iran will not always be open.” He continued: “If the Westerners want to continue their hypocritical and interventionist behavior, we will move in the direction of another plan.”
That other plan—Macron’s “new framework”—could well be one based upon nuclear ambiguity.
The new nuclear era now emerging in Washington and Tehran (if not necessarily Israel) repudiates two concepts at the heart of the moribund JCPOA. Ambiguity rather than clarity, intentions rather than capabilities, are at the heart of an era of strategic stability now tentatively on offer by Washington and Tehran. Yet unlike the blossoming of Washington’s relations with Israel that followed their nuclear understandings in the late 1960s, relations between Iran and Washington in the wake of this emerging nuclear rapprochement are set to remain in the deep freeze.
Geoffrey Aronson is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.