US finally sets Iran-IAEA deadline⁠—sort of - analysis

Since last Thursday, the US has sent multiple loud signals to Iran that it will start exerting pressure if a nuclear compromise is not forthcoming.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi in Tehran (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi in Tehran
(photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

US President Joe Biden’s patience may finally be exhausted.

Since Thursday of last week, the US has sent multiple loud signals to Iran that it will start exerting pressure if a nuclear compromise is not forthcoming, and for the first time with some deadlines.

Late Thursday, Washington threatened to call an extraordinary ad hoc session of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to condemn the Islamic Republic within 30 days if there is insufficient progress in resolving disputes with international inspectors.

“If Iran’s non-cooperation is not immediately remedied... the Board will have no choice but to reconvene in an extraordinary session before the end of this year in order to address the crisis,” a US statement to the Board of Governors said.

It said it was referring “especially” to reinstalling IAEA cameras at the Karaj workshop, which makes parts for advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium.

A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran (credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)A number of new generation Iranian centrifuges are seen on display during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran (credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Karaj was struck by a drone in June, sabotage that Iran has accused the Mossad of perpetrating.

In response, Tehran not only increased various aspects of its uranium enrichment but also cut off IAEA inspectors’ access to the site.

America has tolerated nearly six months of the IAEA being blind regarding the site, but now it is giving Iran 30 days to remedy the situation.

Biden’s threat has double significance because the IAEA board just met this past week and kept its mouth shut about the lack of access and other issues so as not to undermine the start of nuclear talks in Vienna on Monday.

Early Friday, Russia quickly criticized the US threat and deadline, saying that America’s tone could undermine this week’s nuclear talks and that Iranians do not negotiate under pressure.

Moscow’s criticism seems to have been brushed off by Washington, as by Sunday, US Iran negotiator Rob Malley told BBC Sounds, “If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it.”

In a separate piece in Politico, an anonymous US official said the Biden administration is so pessimistic about Iran’s hardline position going into the Vienna talks that it has already started moving the wheels for a “Plan B.”

All of this would seem to be more in line with what Israel wants, so why has Jerusalem been at such loggerheads with Washington over Iran during the past week?

Because the deadline is only a sort of deadline.

It seems that if Iran again grants the IAEA access to Karaj, then the Biden team will overlook all of the unanswered questions about illicit nuclear material and undeclared nuclear sites that inspectors have been trying to get answers about for years.

More importantly, there is still no deadline for the nuclear talks or point of nuclear enrichment by which the US has said it would engage its Plan B.

So if the Islamic Republic makes the minimal concession of allowing inspectors access to this one nuclear site after a six-month pause, will all be forgiven?

Even if the US moved to Plan B, it is clear that Washington does not know how far it would go with exerting pressure on Iran and what its end game would be.

The Trump administration-era sanctions are already on and China is already ignoring them, so more sanctions might have a negligible effect.

Also, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi does not seem to care about the economic impact of the sanctions in his country at this stage, and it is unclear when he would start to feel more pressure on that issue given that he was primarily installed to be tough.

Would the US be ready to use its own cyber or covert capabilities to sabotage Natanz, Fordow or some other aspect of Iran’s nuclear program as Israel has (reportedly) in the past?

Or would it give Jerusalem the green light to do so again after a period of months where the impression was Washington has been asking the Jewish state to hold back?

Though both Israel and the US talk about all options being on the table, there is no sense among top officials that we are anywhere near the point where either country would launch a broad preemptive military airstrike.

So the US threats may be more of a tactical saving face than a strategic game-changer.

If Tehran does again grant access to Karaj, the positive would be restoring some greater monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program.

Yet, if this Iranian “concession” becomes an excuse for the Biden administration to make more strategic nuclear concessions, it could be a case of winning the battle in order to lose the war.