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Iran Might Already Have a Nuke

And Biden has no plan.
July 6, 2022
Iran Might Already Have a Nuke
A picture taken on August 20, 2010 shows an Iranian flag fluttering at an undisclosed location in the Islamic republic next to a surface-to-surface Qiam-1 (Rising) missile which was test fired a day before Iran was due to launch its Russian-built first nuclear power plant. (Photo credit should read VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, after the latest nuclear talks between the United States and Iran collapsed, a senior American diplomat commented that “the prospects for a deal . . . are worse than they were before [the negotiations in] Doha and they will be getting worse by the day.” As with the previous rounds of talks in 2021, American and Iranian negotiators aren’t actually addressing each other in the same room. Instead, European diplomats have been shuttling back and forth between the two sides in a scene more fit for the schoolyard than arms control diplomacy. Meanwhile, Iran is moving ever closer to joining the nuclear club—if it hasn’t already—as the U.S. envoy, Robert Malley, acknowledged in an interview that aired on NPR yesterday. As the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism sprints toward the nuclear threshold, the Biden administration apparently considers further negotiations useless but refuses to say so because then people will begin asking what the backup plan to stop Iran from going nuclear if the talks fail—and there is no backup plan.

The futility of the talks was obvious to anybody who understands both American and Iranian politics. It was the Europeans, not the Iranians or the Americans, who announced the latest round with a nod from Tehran, which indicates who really wanted the talks to resume. The Europeans stand to benefit handsomely from the lifting of sanctions on Iran, at least in the short term; the United States stands to benefit relatively less, and the regime in Iran is happy to do whatever kills time, as Malley suggested. From the beginning, the negotiations were handicapped by Malley’s poor leadership. Two senior members of the U.S. negotiating team quit, apparently in part because they distrusted Malley’s skills. Congress shared this lack of faith in the American envoy, which contributed to lawmakers’ suspicions of the new Iran talks—and as President Obama learned with the first Iran Deal, bipartisan congressional buy-in is vital to making a deal stick. President Biden, for his part, pledged not to lift any sanctions before an agreement, but then lifted some sanctions anyway as a gesture of goodwill. Other sanctions on the books are going unenforced.

Weeks before the diplomats gathered in Doha, David Albright and Sarah Burkhard of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank dedicated to nuclear nonproliferation, reported that Iran now has enough fissile material for a nuclear warhead, and the “breakout timeline is now at zero.” In other words, it is highly likely that Iran is, as the saying goes, “the turn of a screw away” from having a nuclear weapon, though they haven’t tested one yet.

Even in December, when an agreement momentarily appeared likely, the talks were never destined for success. For one, Iran demanded a guarantee that future administrations would not be able to withdraw from the agreement, which is not possible under U.S. law unless the Senate ratifies the agreement as a treaty with a two-thirds majority; the current Senate is closer to achieving a two-thirds majority against reviving the 2015 agreement.

The second problem was what some in the Iran lobby referred to as Donald Trump’s “poison pill”: the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Iran demanded the designation be rescinded, despite several obvious and important facts: The IRGC is responsible for at least one in six U.S. military deaths in Iraq, complicit in genocide, a sponsor of other terrorist proxies all over the region (including Hezbollah, Hamas, several Iraqi terror groups, and the Houthis), and the primary arm of repression and terror inside Iran. (It also controls somewhere between a quarter and half of Iran’s economy.) The designation is not merely symbolic; it also diminishes Iran’s conventional military and proxy capabilities. And policy aside, delisting the IRCG would be politically expensive—if not ruinous—for the administration: In May, 62 Senators voted for a resolution demanding the sanctions stay in place.

So they will remain. Sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiating table before, but they failed to result in an agreement strong enough to win the support of congressional leaders in either party—so the agreement collapsed. It’s unlikely the other signatories of the original Iran Deal—the U.K., France, Germany, the European Union, China, and, ahem, Russia—are eager to reimpose their own sanctions. Even if they were, the Iranian nuclear program has made great strides since the first Iran Deal—and as the president has admitted, and as the Treasury Department has confirmed, “sanctions never deter.” The Obama administration’s sanctions czar, Ambassador Dan Fried, has observed that the choice to impose sanctions often stems from an impulse to “do something,” regardless of what they actually accomplish.

Those who believe that economic pressure and diplomacy are enough to compel Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program do not understand the nature of the regime. Their ignorance doesn’t prevent them from trying to “do something,” however: Belief in the fitness of these tools within the Iran policy context has predominated among those who have formulated it in every administration from Clinton to Biden. For the regime in Iran, economic growth is a luxury while nuclear deterrence is a necessity. The two Republican administrations that dealt with Iran’s nuclear weapons program hoped that popular unrest would topple the regime before it could acquire nuclear weapons. If not simply foolish, this position was misinformed: Without foreign intervention, no amount of popular unrest will compel the regime to surrender to the people.

The Obama administration also believed a version of this fantasy. Behind closed doors, its officials and surrogates justified the Iran Deal by suggesting that the regime could collapse before the agreement expired in 2030, the year Iran would gain a clear path to a nuke. Even President Barack Obama admitted:

Essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years’ assurances that the breakout [time to a bomb] is at least a year. . . . What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.

In other words, President Obama’s hope was that fifteen years from when the deal was signed—eight years from now—the government of Iran would look substantially different from the way it looks now.

But hope is not a strategy.

The likeliest scenario ahead is that Iran will soon begin building nuclear weapons. It might even have built one already. If its leadership is canny—and we have every reason to believe that is is—the regime will wait to test a bomb until they have gained something close to a second-strike capability, which would deter a summary military operation against its nuclear program. If or when that happens, every administration of the past thirty years will share the blame for allowing Iran to accomplish the one goal American leaders all promised they would prevent it from realizing. Each is partly responsible for this failure to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons to yet another murderous dictatorship.

There is one alternative: Let the Iranians know that the program will be stopped—if not peacefully, then militarily. The opportunity to prevent an Iranian bomb has not yet passed. Unfortunately, it appears that the Biden administration’s plan B is not to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but instead to learn how to live with it when it does become one.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.