The U.S. Must Be Ready to Let the Iran Talks Fail
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal are due to resume later this month. Before that happens, U.S. negotiators need to recall the pact’s original purpose: to give the world enough notice should Iran make a dash for the bomb. And they should be ready to reject any outcome that fails this test.
Former President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018. Iran’s violations since then make restoring it difficult. Iran has assembled and operated hundreds of advanced centrifuges forbidden by the agreement. It has enriched uranium to 60% — a short step from weapons-grade — and built a stockpile of fissile material eight times bigger than allowed. It has manufactured uranium metal, a key component in nuclear weapons. Most important, it has repeatedly undermined the work of international inspectors.
Iran might once have needed a year to produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb. That breakout time may have shrunk to as little as a month. Shipping fissile material out of the country and locking up centrifuges wouldn’t extend the timeline very much. Iranians have shown how quickly they can restart mothballed facilities. The newest centrifuges are more efficient, and Iran’s scientists more knowledgeable. Stricter enforcement will therefore be crucial — as the U.S. should be making clear to its European, Russian and Chinese negotiating partners.
As well as putting its advanced centrifuges, components and materials credibly beyond use, Iran should submit to stringent monitoring of any potential weaponization activities. It has stymied previous efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency, promising just enough help to avoid formal censure but leaving huge questions unanswered. The U.S. and its partners should demand full cooperation with inspectors before lifting sanctions. In addition, they should insist on enforcing the prohibition in the JCPOA’s Section T against weaponization activity, which would require ad hoc inspections of known and suspected nuclear facilities.
The Biden administration will need to be more forceful than it has been so far. Iran’s leaders won’t agree to such conditions unless they face concerted international pressure. The recent joint statement by the U.S., U.K., France and Germany warning of a “dangerous escalation” if Iran does not return to the deal was a good step. So was the decision to fly a B-1 bomber through the region. The U.S. and its allies, including Israel and the Gulf states, should also remind Beijing that the likelihood of open conflict with Iran is growing. The resulting instability and higher oil prices would hurt China as much as anyone.
If talks break down, the U.S. must be ready to contain the Iranian threat by other means. It will have to close loopholes in existing sanctions and look at imposing more. It should say more clearly where U.S. red lines lie — and what Iran risks if it crosses them.
The possibility of a diplomatic solution shouldn’t be foreclosed. Iran could be offered humanitarian aid, including Covid-19 vaccines, and limited sanctions relief outside the scope of the JCPOA, if it takes concrete steps to limit enrichment and cooperate with the IAEA. But the original deal’s weaknesses need to be kept firmly in mind — and settling for a new one that’s even worse should be out of the question.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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