With negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resuming in Vienna this week, the prospects for success appear slim. Tehran does not seem as interested in the deal as it was and may well be willing to let the deal die rather than compromise. Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi has appointed hardliners to the negotiations who are repeating maximalist demands that the West has been clear it cannot accept. Iran has also rapidly expanded its nuclear program, reducing the utility of the 2015 agreement and coming closer to mastering the skills needed to build a bomb.
Despite this, the United States and Europe are hesitant to declare the Vienna process a failure. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has a gravitational pull in Western circles, precisely because the painstakingly negotiated deal succeeded in peacefully setting back Iran’s nuclear program. What is more, the alternatives to the deal, including military action, are not very promising. Yet, supporters of diplomacy and the deal in the United States and Europe must today face the uncomfortable reality of the deal’s demise — barring a major, and immediate, Iranian about-face. In the coming weeks and months, this will require the West to look beyond the old deal to a broader, messier suite of options, including sharpening the set of coercive tools that have remained dormant since the last nuclear crisis.
The broad contours of what an alternative “Plan B” strategy would look like are known: increasing economic, diplomatic, and potentially military pressure to persuade Iran to engage more seriously and reach another, likely smaller-scale deal that provides sanctions relief in return for meaningful nuclear constraints. But the real challenge facing Western policymakers is striking the right balance between pressure and incentives, while preventing unacceptable nuclear advances as the pressure builds.
No Quick Fix
Some have suggested the United States can simply resume a “maximum pressure” style campaign to force Iran back to the table. But it is not that simple. Policymakers will have to grapple with several dynamics that have changed significantly since the period from roughly 2010 to 2012, the last time Iran and the West were engaged in an escalatory cycle of sanctions and nuclear advances.
First, Iran has made quantitative and qualitative leaps in its nuclear program since then: Iran has produced 60 percent enriched uranium, making it the only country without nuclear weapons to enrich to that level. Iran also has large numbers of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium faster and has produced enriched uranium metal, gaining knowledge about an important stage in weaponization. This means that each new step that brings Iran closer to the bomb is inherently more provocative, and that the margin for error is far smaller than a decade ago.
Second, the U.S. sanctions regime is so comprehensive that there is less “headroom” for escalation, at least for steps within the realm of possibility. The Trump administration did not hold back on imposing economic restrictions: U.S. secondary sanctions already blanket every major Iranian industry, Iran’s biggest banks are already under sanctions, and Tehran remains unable to access its foreign reserves. The United States can certainly impose more sanctions against individuals and entities, but that would be a slow, methodical process of whack-a-mole that would probably not deliver a near-term economic effect.
Third, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East is significantly less than what it was the last time there were rumors of military action against Iran’s nuclear program. With U.S. policymakers more determined than before to focus on Asia, Tehran likely views Washington as unwilling to recommit major resources to the region, perhaps absent an extreme scenario. That could encourage more risk-taking by Iran.
Fourth, compared with a decade ago, U.S. relations with China are much worse, making collective global action against Iran less likely. Indeed, China has supported Iran diplomatically and economically more than any other party to the nuclear talks.
These dynamics counsel against the expectation of a quick fix or a clean pivot away from diplomacy to pressure. Instead, the United States must work with allies and partners to plan for the long haul and multiple contingencies.
Creative Diplomacy and Credible Pressure
A new strategy would combine creative diplomacy and credible pressure. While some supporters of the 2015 nuclear deal reject the efficacy of threatening while talking, in reality the that deal itself was possible only because the Obama administration used this two-track strategy. Iran is adept at mixing diplomacy and pressure. Washington should do the same again.
First, the United States needs to keep the door to diplomacy open and consider potential alternatives. Iran has made a number of demands that go beyond the scope of the previous deal, including the removal of all sanctions imposed by the past two administrations and a guarantee that future administrations will not withdraw from the deal. The United States should first offer to discuss those concerns as part of a new deal that would require greater nuclear restraints. Iran will almost certainly reject that offer. But even if Iran accepted it in principle, it would take a long time to negotiate, and the United States and its allies would still need to find a near-term stopgap measure to slow Iran’s nuclear progress.
In concert with Europe, Washington should focus its energies on designing a smaller, “less for less” agreement that would put a ceiling on Iran’s nuclear advances and allow limited economic relief. The United States has reportedly already started conversations with allies and partners about this option. Iran may not be interested in even discussing such a deal, but the United States and Europe should nonetheless develop viable proposals, which could put pressure on Tehran to negotiate while also demonstrating to Russia and China that Iran is the main obstacle to progress.
Second, the United States and its allies and partners should expand economic and political pressure on Iran. Critics will assert that this is merely a continuation of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy, but it would not be. The Trump administration aimed to push Iran toward capitulation or collapse. This strategy would instead aim to demonstrate that Iran cannot sustain its economy and international standing without engaging seriously in diplomacy, and to foster doubts among the regime’s leadership that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s “resistance economy” strategy can succeed over the longer term. The Raisi government has openly acknowledged the poor state of the country’s economy, but it believes it has solutions — such as boosting industrial production and focusing more intently on Russia, China, and its neighbors —that can neutralize the effect of sanctions. The West would aim to show that it cannot.
Additional pressure could take many forms, including aggressively enforcing existing sanctions, applying new targeted sanctions, triggering snapback at the U.N. Security Council, and censuring Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors. Trying to convince China to cut down its oil imports will be a difficult but essential aspect of this strategy, as will persuading the United Arab Emirates and other states to monitor and constrain oil transfers. And it should be paired with humanitarian gestures focused on COVID-19 relief, which would not undermine U.S. pressure but rather strengthen the argument that President Joe Biden differs from his predecessor and that the United States has no animus toward the Iranian people.
However, Western policymakers must also be realistic about the impacts of economic and political tools. Building that pressure will be a medium-to-long-term endeavor, lasting months if not years, while Iran’s nuclear program can advance much faster. Simply put, Iran can add centrifuges faster than Washington can add pressure.
The key challenge for the West will be to buy time until any pressure begins to take effect. The risk is that Iran takes dramatic steps in the interim — such as kicking out inspectors or beginning to enrich to 90 percent — that would demand a more severe response. Preventing this requires bolstering the credibility of the military option.
Keeping the Military Option Open
To buy time for negotiations to work, Washington should make it clear that the United States still poses a military threat to Iran’s nuclear program and that it would act under the right circumstances.
This can be demonstrated in a number of ways. The U.S. military, for example, has already taken steps in this direction with bomber flights and unprecedented levels of coordinated exercises with Israel and the Gulf states. Other measures could include more explicit discussion of the military option by Biden and high-profile briefings by senior officials to Congress on Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. options to constrain it. The United States could also increase defenses of U.S. installations in the region, with the implication being that the United States was preparing to weather an Iranian retaliatory attack.
Finally, the United States should immediately begin a coordinated process aimed at determining, at least internally, nuclear developments that would trigger a military response. There is room for debate about what these red lines should be and how they can most effectively be communicated to Iran. But the basic theory behind setting them would be to prevent Iran from producing weapons grade material or to avoid a situation in which Iran’s program advances to such a level that it would be impossible for the United States to stop Iran if it were to try to break out. This exercise is important to combat the inclination among policymakers to move goal posts and avoid considering worst-case scenario planning.
This alternative approach is far from ideal. Its messiness only reinforces why pursuing the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and seeking follow-on diplomacy was the right strategy. Yet, given Iran’s signaling that it is looking beyond the nuclear deal, it is incumbent on the deal’s supporters inside and outside Western governments to do the same.
Eric Brewer is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he focuses on nuclear weapons and proliferation. He formerly served on the National Security Council and the National Intelligence Council. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrewerEricM
Henry Rome is the deputy head of research at Eurasia Group, where he focuses on Iran, Israel, and Middle East geopolitics. You can follow him on Twitter at @hrome2.