'The Administration needs a plan B now' preventing Iranian nuclear weapons

Rob Malley's comments about reviving the JCPOA is "not on the agenda" and "not the focus" bring two main questions to the spotlight.

A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005 (photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005
(photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – US Special Representative for Iran Rob Malley’s remarks about reviving the Iran deal being “not on the agenda” and “not the focus” raises two main questions:

First, what led the US administration, after pursuing the deal for some 18 months, to make that announcement? Is it because of the ongoing protests and the regime’s brutal crackdown that caught the world’s attention, or is it because the administration came to the conclusion that it could not agree to the Iranian demands, such as delisting the IRGC from the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list?

Second, if the deal is not on the agenda, then what is the administration’s plan B?

What are the responses to the questions?

“I think this is a political pause and not a change in strategy,” said Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, who previously served in several positions in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, including in the Strategy, Middle East, and Nuclear and Missile Defense offices.

 A flag is waved in front of Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, August 4,2022. (credit: REUTERS/LISA LEUTNER) A flag is waved in front of Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, August 4,2022. (credit: REUTERS/LISA LEUTNER)

“I suspect that after the midterm elections that if the protest in Iran dies out for one reason or another, the Biden administration will return to diplomacy,” he said. “They put all their eggs in that basket.”

“Going to a deal in the months before the midterm elections probably hurt Biden more than it helps him,” he added. “But I think most important is the uprising in Iran. The idea that we’re going to be negotiating with the Islamic Republic with possibly giving them sanctions relief at a time that they’re committing these atrocities against their own people, I think, is a bridge too far for an administration that just released the national-security strategy about democracy versus autocracy in the world as being the biggest challenge.”

Asked what the administration’s plan B should be, Kroenig said: “I think they should be pivoting to the military option. The game is almost over. Iran has a breakout time of several weeks is what many outside experts are estimating. So, if we don’t stop Iran from producing one bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium, the game is over. They can build nuclear weapons any time they want. Biden said he’d be willing to use military force as a last resort. This is the time of last resort.”

Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who previously served as special assistant to president Barack Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, said the deal is not on the agenda for two reasons.

“First, the administration has no interest in doing a deal right now that would mean an infusion of cash to the regime as it continues its crackdown,” he said. “The focus is on isolating the Iranians for their ongoing oppression of the public. It will remain this way so long as the crackdown continues.”

"If we don't stop Iran from producing one bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium, the game is over. They can build nuclear weapons any time they want. Biden said he'd be willing to use military force as a last resort. This is the time of last resort.”

Matthew Kroenig, Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

“Second, the Iranians have no interest in a deal now because the supreme leader will fear looking weak,” he added. “But should calm be restored, after a decent interval, I would not be surprised if the Iranians want to come back to the deal given the value of trying to improve conditions economically and, in effect, try to buy off the Iranian public.”

 An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

“Will the administration be open at that point,” Ross said, “or will it say, ‘You had a chance for the deal, and that one is now off the table’ – meaning the administration goes back to a longer and stronger approach to a deal? I don’t know which approach the administration will adopt.”

“The Iranians, for sure, will heighten the pressure by accelerating their nuclear program if we say the former deal is off the table,” he said. “For a longer and stronger [agreement] to have any chance, the administration needs a plan B now. That means political isolation of Iran, greater enforcement of sanctions, a different public posture that makes clear continuing Iranian moves toward a weapon – like ongoing enrichment to 60% and production of uranium metal – will mean Iran is putting its entire nuclear infrastructure at risk.”

“In other words, we will need to make clear that while we prefer diplomacy, Iran is acting in a way that makes the use of force against their nuclear program, and their decades-long investment in it, more likely,” Ross said. “And back these words with some actions: Accelerate the sale of KC-46 aerial tankers to Israel; run exercises that rehearse hitting hardened targets.”

John Hannah, a former national security advisor to vice president Dick Cheney and the Randi and Charles Wax senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said the real reason the administration is downplaying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at the moment is because Iran has shown no serious interest in concluding a deal.

“At every point over the past 18 months when an agreement seemed close, Iran has issued new demands for US concessions that derail the talks,” he said. “But whenever Iran has decided that its interests required a return to negotiations, the Biden administration has rushed back to the table in hopes that the next time will be different.”

“It’s true that with midterm elections looming, and at a time when the Iranian regime’s hands are drenched in the blood of its own people and Iranian drones are bombing Ukrainian cities, the administration’s enthusiasm for striking a highly controversial nuclear deal that would grant Iran tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief is severely tempered,” Hannah said. “In that context, Iran’s current lack of interest in talks to revive the JCPOA is politically convenient for the Biden team. It allows them to say with a straight face that the nuclear talks are not currently their focus. But that’s only because they’re not currently Iran’s focus either.

“After the elections, if the supreme leader hinted that he might be prepared to drop some of his most unreasonable demands, return to the JCPOA and accept the massive financial lifeline that Biden has offered him, I’d wager big money that Rob Malley would be on a plane to Vienna in a heartbeat.”

Naysan Rafati is Crisis Group’s Iran senior analyst. His research is focused on the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s regional policies.

“As far as the US and Europeans are concerned, Tehran’s positions on a couple of issues pretty much closed the door on JCPOA negotiations in early September,” he said. “There’s been virtually no movement on that front since, and in the meantime, the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown against the protests and its provision of arms to Russia have very much taken center stage – hence the series of Western sanctions we’ve seen in recent weeks, which are unlikely to be the last.”

“So, for the moment, it seems that the gap between the two sides is going to deepen across a host of issues,” Rafati said.