“We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” President Joe Biden proclaimed before last fall’s United Nations General Assembly, a stance he has repeated numerous times throughout his presidency. But does he actually mean it?
Contrast those strong words with Washington’s approach at this month’s meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The West opted not to censure Iran, even though the IAEA warned in February that the Islamic Republic had enriched uranium to near atomic weapons-grade. Washington only chastised Tehran, calling its actions “alarming” and declaring that the clerical regime “must ensure that such an incident never occurs again.” France, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the “E3”) deemed Iran’s action “an unprecedented and extremely grave escalation.” The agency’s 35-nation board could have imposed a timetable for Iranian cooperation. It could have referred Tehran’s case to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions. Yet Biden led the free world in doing … nothing.
By failing to penalize the Iranian regime, America and its European allies will only encourage additional nuclear moves, thereby risking the West’s involvement in another war in the Middle East. They should quickly pivot to pressuring, containing, and deterring Iran’s advances lest the West soon face the regime dashing through the final steps to atomic bombs.
For more than two years, Iran has made a series of unprecedented nuclear advances while participating in fruitless negotiations with the West. Tehran’s salami-slice approach to breaking out of its nonproliferation obligations has apparently paralyzed the West as Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin cling to failed hopes of diplomacy to stave off Iran’s progress.
The Tehran regime has now amassed the capability to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon within 12 days of a decision to do so and could make enough for an additional four weapons within a month. The Biden administration and supporters of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran blame former President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the accord. Yet many of Iran’s egregious nuclear actions occurred after Biden’s election and his attempts to resurrect the deal.
In 2021 and 2022, Tehran limited IAEA monitoring, hardened its nuclear capabilities underneath mountains, installed thousands of fast-operating uranium-enrichment centrifuges, enriched uranium first to 20% and then to 60%, and produced material used in nuclear weapon cores. In January, at Iran’s underground Fordow facility, the IAEA detected the regime enriching to nearly 84%, a stone’s throw from 90% or atomic weapons-grade — and only after discovering that the Islamic Republic had violated its safeguards agreement with the agency by altering centrifuge enrichment connections.
Iran likely gained valuable knowledge in making near weapons-grade uranium. But perhaps more worryingly, it has noted the international community’s unwillingness to respond to these steps.
For four years, Tehran has also stonewalled a separate IAEA investigation into its other breaches of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty involving undeclared use of nuclear material and atomic weapons work. Iran’s obstruction underscores the regime’s freedom to conduct sensitive activities unchecked by Western pressure and international monitoring.
By pursuing a pressure-free approach with the Islamic Republic, the West has significantly narrowed its options to respond should Iran move for atomic weapons while raising the risks of war.
Iran could delay or obstruct IAEA inspectors’ access to the underground Fordow enrichment site and “sneak out” of its nonproliferation obligations, producing weapons-grade uranium in plain sight.
And since the United States and Europe did little to respond to Tehran’s reduction in 2021 of IAEA monitoring at centrifuge production sites, the regime could easily stockpile a few hundred fast centrifuges at a clandestine enrichment plant and then spirit away its enriched uranium stocks to such a plant for further refinement to weapons-grade. In either case, Tehran would fashion its nuclear arsenal at another secret site, including one of many buried deep under mountains and fortified against military strikes.
Biden or a successor could be faced with little time and limited information to act in order to stop Iran from testing a nuclear device. Only two undesirable options might exist: dramatic military attacks on Iranian facilities or acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Tehran.
At the same time, Western inaction also raises the risk that Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned on Iran’s nuclear program: “The longer you wait, the harder [military action] becomes. We’ve waited very long.” Jerusalem might be compelled to act around the 2024 U.S. presidential election when Biden or a potential successor would face substantial domestic pressure to assist.
An Israeli attack is unlikely to be one event, but a monthslong campaign to degrade Tehran’s capabilities fraught with risks of escalation. Iran and its proxies are certain to inflict unprecedented bombardment on the Israeli public, using missiles, rockets, and drones. In the end, Washington is likely to be drawn into the conflict to stop the bloodshed.
Luckily, there is a middle way between military options and a nuclear Iran. Washington and its allies have time to change course and possibly prevent these scenarios — but only if they act soon.
The Biden administration and its partners must impose massive economic and financial pressure on Tehran and make clear that more is to come should Iran move toward nuclear breakout. Such a campaign must include sanctions on entities importing and facilitating the export of Iran’s oil and the interdiction of shipments to China, Syria, and other countries. Iran’s currency, the rial, is plummeting, and the regime is under pressure at home, meaning tightened Western sanctions stand a good chance of deterring Iran from further nuclear steps.
The West should also enact the “snapback” of U.N. Security Council sanctions that remain lifted by the U.N. resolution associated with the 2015 nuclear deal. Invoking the snapback would have the added benefits of outlawing Iran’s missile and drone assistance to Russia and providing a legal basis for other countries to stymie Tehran’s activities.
In addition, if the West demonstrates a more credible threat to use force against Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran may be deterred from breaking out altogether. The clerical regime worries about Western military forces striking its atomic assets, which means America and Israel should continue to deepen those fears by regularly demonstrating joint strike capabilities. The U.S. should also provide Jerusalem with all it requires to threaten the ability to undertake a strike and succeed.
Biden should also speak more convincingly about the possible use of force to stop an Iranian breakout. Since the administration’s strategy has been to focus attention and resources in Europe to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s rise, U.S. adversaries such as Tehran have a fear deficit regarding American will to use force against weaker foes.
Biden has said he will not allow Iran to go nuclear on his watch but seems hopelessly wedded to diplomacy as Iran advances to the nuclear threshold. America and its allies must use all available tools to penalize Tehran and stop it from taking the final steps. Failure to confront Iran before Biden’s options narrow could mean America will be needlessly drawn into another war in the Middle East.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the program and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. Follow Andrea and Anthony on Twitter @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.