There was one thing everybody wanted to ask US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at last week’s Manama Dialogue: Had America abandoned historic commitments to Middle Eastern security? No amount of reassuring platitudes and references to tens of thousands of troops present in the region could allay these concerns. Is America willing and ready to do what it takes to address regional strategic threats, especially the likelihood of Tehran achieving nuclear breakout capacity?
With Iran nuclear talks recommencing on Nov. 29, I asked every US official I met in Manama about their expectations. The problem was that, while none of them expected any progress, there was a dire lack of strategic thinking about what would happen when talks inevitably failed.
When I pushed one senior US official about prospects of a military solution ultimately becoming necessary, he reluctantly acknowledged: “It might very well come to that.”
Europe, Russia and China remain mired in denial about the gravity of the threat. However, there are indications that at least some of Biden’s foreign policy experts have gazed into the abyss and are beginning to comprehend that they must grapple with the consequences of the failure of these negotiations. Regarding prospects for a return to the 2015 deal, the US State Department’s Iran envoy Robert Malley retorted: “You can’t revive a dead corpse!”
General McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, acknowledged that America was developing “other options” for the day after talks failed: “Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon. Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.”
Regarding Iran’s proximity to nuclear capacity, McKenzie said: “They’re very close this time. I think they like the idea of being able to break out.”
Following his failed visit to Tehran, the IAEA’s Rafael Grossi warns that his institution is “going blind” in Iran as a result of Tehran’s deliberate impediments upon IAEA inspections, at a moment when Iran is enriching uranium to 60 percent. Grossi stipulated that this is a level of purity which “only countries making bombs have.”
Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani stubbornly rejects the legitimacy of talks, saying: “We have no such thing as nuclear negotiations.” Kani merely awaits the removal of “unlawful and inhuman sanctions.” Iran dismissively rejected US speculation about an interim deal. Meanwhile, how can there be confidence-building when the two sides won’t even sit in the same room as each other?
Iranian officials tediously parrot their three impossible conditions: Washington must immediately lift all sanctions, guarantee no future administration will exit the deal, and admit to wrongdoing in pulling out of the deal. Yet Biden has no legal means of compelling successors to abide by his decisions. This can only be achieved through a deal enjoying bipartisan US support, by closing down all Iranian routes to military nuclear capabilities.
Reporting from within the White House suggests wholesale policy confusion in the event of negotiations failing. Non-military options are likely to be ineffective, particularly as Trump already imposed sanctions on every conceivable Iranian target. Biden and his European counterparts desperately don’t want to countenance worst-case scenarios. Yet this flagrant squeamishness is precisely what makes the ayatollahs believe they possess the window of opportunity for nuclear breakout.
Iranian officials tediously parrot their three impossible conditions: Washington must immediately lift all sanctions, guarantee no future administration will exit the deal, and admit to wrongdoing in pulling out of the deal. Yet Biden has no legal means of compelling successors to abide by his decisions.
As former British ambassador Sir John Jenkins said in an excellent Arab News article: “The issue is not troop numbers. It is political will. The idea that an administration that has made clear its desire to leave Middle Eastern conflicts behind will seek to put Iran back in its box, is fantasy. And Tehran knows this.”
Despite spectacular Israeli acts of sabotage, Iranian scientists have gone to extraordinary lengths to rebuild and keep nuclear development on schedule, even at a time when thousands of impoverished citizens are dying from neverending COVID-19 outbreaks and much of the country runs out of water.
According to intelligence officials, Tehran replaced damaged equipment with new technology that operates faster and at higher volumes. Hence, reliance on cyberattacks and pin-prick sabotage has only made Iran double-down on its efforts.
Off the record, I was told by Western officials that the Israelis were “100 percent certain” to decisively hit Iran’s nuclear and ballistic capabilities, along with having the ability to severely degrade Hezbollah’s weapons arsenals, if matters came to this.
US officials gloomily recognize that they would be sucked into such a conflict. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that the 2015 nuclear deal acted like a “sleeping pill” for Israel. He pledged not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, and stated that Israel would not be bound by any new deal.
Iran’s attainment of nuclear capacity has immediate implications for global security. As with North Korea, the world would be forced to grapple with Iranian aggression very cautiously because of the likelihood that it could rain down ballistic and nuclear weapons upon neighbors.
Unlike North Korea, Iran has proxy forces deployed throughout the region which henceforth could act with impunity, shielded by Iran’s nuclear umbrella. Multiple regional states are readying themselves for developing their own nuclear arsenals if Iran achieves breakout – a recipe for Armageddon in the world’s most chronically unstable region.
The US dilemma is simple: If Iran is hellbent on developing nuclear weapons, and the world is serious about stopping Iran, then ultimately there may be no alternative to some form of military force, such as surgical strikes for permanently eliminating nuclear sites. There is no sugaring this pill.
The ayatollahs must be under no illusion that they can stealthily filibuster their way toward nuclear breakout capacity.
Western ambivalence and naivety have only made matters worse. Iran must be bluntly and forcefully told: If you proceed down this path. We will stop you!
- Baria Alamuddin