The Biden Administration's Time for Choosing On Iran | Opinion

Vienna is bustling with another round of diplomacy on the Iran nuclear file. Unlike the direct talks that resulted in the flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this time the American and Iranian sides are not engaging directly.

No matter the format, the end result is hard to escape: another bad deal. A diplomatic collapse is coming, based on a familiar but wrongheaded negotiating approach by American diplomats.

This coming collapse is not hard to understand. The Biden administration is imploring the Islamic Republic of Iran to return to compliance with the JCPOA—and the regime's talented negotiating team is playing hard to get. The talks revolve primarily around what the West should pay the world's most prolific state sponsor of terrorism for the privilege of re-entering a faulty nuclear agreement that in 2015 granted Iran everything it wanted—namely, a patient pathway to atomic weapons and massive economic relief.

Nuclear diplomacy is fine, but it must be shaped by American leverage. That leverage is strong right now, with Iran's accessible foreign exchange reserves down from over $120 billion in 2018 to just $4 billion. The Iranian government is running on fumes and facing an economic crisis. To make matters worse for the clerical regime, the main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz was reportedly set back by around nine months because of an explosion earlier this month. Its nuclear weaponization ambitions were also delayed significantly by the assassination last November of the longtime head of its military-nuclear program, Mohsen Fahkrizadeh. Finally, the regime is still struggling to regain its footing regionally after the Trump administration in January 2020 took out the Islamic Republic's most talented battlefield commander, Qassem Suleimani.

All of this is leverage for Washington. And that leverage can be further enhanced by building a credible military threat to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities if the mullahs move to a bomb.

The Biden team says it seeks a "longer, stronger, broader" deal. But this is not possible unless the White House sets forth a new Iran policy that is not held hostage by the JCPOA. A rapid return to the old agreement—or even worse, an incremental return—cedes crucial leverage to Tehran. Such an approach gives the regime zero incentive to negotiate another deal.

The Iranian strategy is clear: wield the threat of nuclear escalation to extort massive economic concessions in the form of American sanction relief and a return to the JCPOA. This will give the regime tens of billions of dollars and allow it to forge ahead on nuclear R&D (sadly, the regime's advances are based on knowledge and production capabilities they gained by violating the 2015 agreement). By returning to the JCPOA, the regime can legally install advanced centrifuges, build up their enrichment capabilities and wait for key restrictions to sunset over the next two to nine years. After 2030, there will be no prohibitions on the Islamic Republic's ability to enrich massive uranium quantities to weapon-grade.

The regime is currently enriching uranium at 60 percent and threatening to go up to 90 percent and quickly moving toward industrial-scale production capabilities—including second- and third-generation centrifuges that are more efficient in uranium enrichment. Some of these machines were already installed underground at Natanz.

The explosion at Natanz and the July 2020 destruction of an advanced centrifuge assembly facility did significant damage. But these actions will only temporarily set back Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The Islamic Republic can now produce advanced centrifuges in large quantities. Overall, the regime can enrich uranium three to ten times faster, to all levels, and in clandestine facilities.

Iran nuclear talks in Vienna in April
Iran nuclear talks in Vienna in April 2021 EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty Images

It's game, set, match unless the Biden administration pushes for a new deal that requires Tehran to fully account for its military-nuclear activities—now known to the world because of the Iran Nuclear Archive that Israel's Mossad spirited out of Iran in 2018. The Iranian violations are even worse in light of the recent and detailed findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the clerical regime has been hiding undisclosed nuclear materials.

In short, the IAEA's 2015 decision—pushed by then-Secretary of State John Kerry—to close its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program was a serious mistake. The Archive findings and the IAEA's discoveries from its visits of Iranian nuclear sites demonstrated that the Islamic Republic was much closer to weaponization than was previously believed. The IAEA's failure to submit the reports outlining those findings represented one of the JCPOA's biggest flaws. What is the point of "unprecedented" monitoring of these sites if the IAEA never established a baseline of Iran's weaponization efforts?

"Fixing" the old deal by addressing sunsets, monitoring and missiles doesn't address today's problems: Nuclear weaponization, including Tehran's past activities and current violations, Iranian enrichment in underground facilities and its advanced centrifuge R&D. Even with the recent setbacks, the Islamic Republic is still hard at work on the weaponization of its nuclear program as it develops advanced centrifuges that give Tehran an easier clandestine "sneak out." These most powerful centrifuges—with fewer machines required to weaponize uranium—are easier to hide and more difficult to detect.

Gone are the days of keeping Iran at "one year" from producing a sufficient quantity of weapon-grade uranium for a first bomb. Returning to the JCPOA allows Iran to build on its advances and to continue installing advanced enrichment and infrastructure in undisclosed new facilities. The JCPOA all but gives a green light to the regime to clandestinely accumulate the enriched uranium it needs for a bomb, or several bombs. There are new concerns, too. The regime's advances in critical weaponization activities, like metal uranium processing, hot cells and irradiation of 20 percent-enriched materials, also must be addressed. All of this can help the regime build a nuclear weapon.

A "longer, stronger" deal must prevent Iran from being a "nuclear threshold country." The clerical regime cannot maintain a "civilian nuclear program" in underground facilities, and it must come clean about the past. A new deal must address all three elements of Tehran's illicit nuclear program: fissile materials, weaponization and the means of delivery. There may be time for a broader agreement that covers the regime's support for terrorism, as well as other regional concerns. But the nuclear problem must be solved first, or we run the risk of American diplomats giving concrete nuclear concessions for unenforceable Iranian commitments to limit their other nefarious regional activities.

The U.S. can permanently cut off Iran's pathways to nuclear weapons or collapse at the negotiating table. It's now time for the Biden administration to choose.

Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty. He previously served as acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as head of the National Security Council. Mark Dubowitz is FDD's chief executive. An expert on Iran's nuclear program and sanctions, he was sanctioned by Iran in 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.