Talks With Iran Are Dead. Now What? | Opinion

As far as Iran is concerned, the Biden administration wants you to know that it has given up on trying to persuade the country to return to the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Where that leaves U.S. policy on Iran, however, is an open question.

Last November, President Joe Biden conceded that nuclear talks with Iran, which began in April 2021, were "dead." Secretary of State Antony Blinken was more diplomatic, but he too admitted during a joint press conference last month that "the JCPOA has not been on the agenda as a practical matter for many months now."

The Iranians don't seem particularly concerned that negotiations are in a coma. While the Iranian economy continues to struggle with unemployment and high inflation, the Iranian government has recouped some of the crude oil sales it lost due to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018. The International Monetary Fund reported that Iranian oil exports have more than doubled since 2020, when they were at a record low. Much of that oil is going to China, a country that opposes Washington's attempts to browbeat other countries into enforcing the U.S. pressure campaign.

Iran's nuclear work is also continuing apace. The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) latest report tallied Tehran's total stockpile of enriched uranium at 3,673.7 kilograms, 12 times more than what the JCPOA permits. The Iranians are now enriching to 60 percent, a short technical step away from bomb-grade fuel, in its Fordow facility, which is buried beneath a mountain. IAEA access to Iran's network of plants, enrichment sites, and centrifuge manufacturing facilities has been limited ever since the Iranians removed some of their cameras in retaliation for an IAEA censure resolution.

The U.S. has limited options now that diplomacy is floundering. The Biden administration, like previous administrations, reiterates it won't allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon under any circumstances. It doesn't take much imagination to comprehend what the White House means here: The U.S. would bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure if needed. To press the point, the U.S. began all-domain military exercise with Israel this week.

Military action, however, is fraught with risk. There is a reason why multiple U.S. administrations have held off on executing or assisting an operation: when one weighs the pros and cons, the use of force isn't worth the trouble.

The pros of a hypothetical air campaign are obvious. With its mid-air refueling aircraft, stealth fighter planes and bunker-buster munitions, there is no doubt the U.S. possesses the capability to destroy a significant chunk of Iran's nuclear program. While nobody can say with certainty that every single centrifuge would be wiped out, it's indisputable that the Iranians would wake up the next morning to find decades of investment in the form of rubble and rebar. The so-called breakout time, the amount of time Iran would need before it could assemble a viable nuclear warhead, would be dealt a blow of epic proportions.

A view shows the the Iranian flag
A view shows the the Iranian flag in capital Tehran with the snow-covered Alborz mountain range in the background on Jan. 18, 2022. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Yet the cons of a military strike are considerable. First, it's highly likely the Iranian political leadership would be even more determined to build a nuclear capability after a strike than they are today. For all the speculation among Iran hawks that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already decided to get a bomb, intelligence officers have reported otherwise. CIA Director Bill Burns said the U.S. "doesn't see any evidence that Iran's Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize." Khamenei may be an aging, 83-year-old cleric known for railing against U.S. policy and the West's moral decadence, but he isn't crazy. He appears to recognize that proceeding toward a nuclear bomb at the present time would do more harm than good. Iran's rivals in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, wouldn't just passively stand by, and any goodwill the Iranians have left would evaporate.

As the U.S. intelligence community assessed back in 2007, "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs." In other words, the mullahs who run the Iranian government aren't religious loons immune to rationality—they make decisions based on their external environment and are careful to weigh how other states would react.

At the moment, the cost-benefit rationale is in favor of staying away from the bomb. The last thing the Iranians want is nuclear proliferation in the region, even more isolation in their foreign relations, and the risk that its top energy consumer, China, turns its back on Iranian oil.

But the cost-benefit analysis would change markedly the day after a U.S. military strike. The Iranian leadership, previously concerned with stoking Washington's wrath and preserving its foreign relationships, would now have an incentive to do whatever it could to safeguard its own security. The U.S. would be indirectly handing hardliners within the Iranian establishment renewed credibility; Khamenei or whomever succeeds him would find it very difficult to resist pressure from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to not only rebuild the nuclear program but accelerate it. A weapon Iranian officials now view with some skepticism would suddenly be viewed as the best deterrent to future U.S. military action.

Then there is the collateral damage to civilians and the inevitable Iranian military retaliation that would occur after a potential U.S. strike. Because U.S. aircraft would have to neutralize Iran's command-and-control system, air defense batteries and airfields to ensure its own losses are kept to a minimum, civilian casualties are guaranteed. Those casualties would backfire spectacularly on the U.S. and provide a popularity boost to the very regime Washington hoped to weaken. As far as Iranian retaliation is concerned, the network of U.S. bases in the Middle East gives Tehran a plethora of options.

Diplomacy is dead at the moment. The U.S. and Iran have to ask themselves whether the current situation is sustainable.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.