Rob Malley, the US special envoy for nuclear talks with Iran, went to Qatar in the last week of June to resume European Union-facilitated negotiations with representatives of Tehran. Speaking with NPR recently, Malley expressed dismay about how they went. “It was a little bit of a — well, more than a bit of a wasted occasion,” he said, laying blame for diplomatic stagnation squarely on Iran. It’s still possible, he continued, that the United States will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and Iran will return to compliance with its constraints, but that opportunity is fading. Eventually “the deal will be a thing of the past,” Malley said, and in the meantime, Iran’s uranium enrichment means the United States is in “a very dangerous situation.”
Four years after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this is a familiar story: US–Iran talks, typically with a European mediator, have been floundering since 2018. President Joe Biden’s 2020 promise to return to the nuclear deal has so far gone unfulfilled, and it may never happen. That would be unfortunate, insofar as the nuclear deal could be a foundation for normalizing US-Iran relations and could even help prompt some liberalization of the regime in Tehran.
Biden is currently on his first official tour of the Middle East, where he has met with Israeli officials and plans to go to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Speaking in Jerusalem on Thursday, he said his administration won’t “wait forever” for Iran to comply with US demands and that “we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” even if, as a “last resort,” that requires military intervention.
But if the deal does become a thing of the past, Malley’s characterization of the danger to US security is greatly overstated, and military intervention isn’t inevitable. With or without the nuclear deal, we can still avoid war with Iran. US deterrence can continue to achieve that end even if diplomacy does not, though ongoing US military intervention in the greater Middle East — especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen — raises the risk of open conflict.
RELYING ON DETERRENCE
The possibility that we’d continue to rely on deterrence through the duration of the Biden administration has been evident from its beginning. Less than two weeks after Biden took office, Iranian diplomats offered a way past what was then — and still is now — the primary diplomatic roadblock: timing. Which country will go first in restoring the nuclear deal? Tehran says that because Iran was compliant with the agreement until after the US withdrew and reimposed punishing, unilateral sanctions the deal had lifted, Washington should demonstrate good faith by rejoining the deal before Tehran returns to compliance. Washington disagrees, pointing to Iran’s uranium enrichment as evidence that it is actually Tehran that owes the show of good faith.
If the Biden administration can be more diplomatically flexible and restore a deal, it would provide stability in a region bogged down by conventional and proxy wars alike and help promote de-escalation and nonproliferation.
In early February 2021, with Biden newly inaugurated, Iran offered a compromise: a simultaneous, coordinated return. Bafflingly, Biden said no, and since then, Iran has elected a new administration of its own — a more conservative administration, unlikely to offer any similarly face-saving concession again. Negotiations have continued in fits and starts without significant forward motion. Both countries insist the ball is in the other’s court. In Doha, neither party budged, and European facilitators too have begun to express doubt that an agreement will be reached.
The question, in that case, is whether, in the phrase of Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at Crisis Group, we can maintain the “no deal, no crisis” dynamic. If the nuclear deal disintegrates, with nothing to take its place, is US–Iran war inevitable? Are we doomed to yet another grinding, unwinnable Mideast conflict, a new forever war to take the spot Afghanistan so recently vacated? Or, worse, are we doomed to nuclear strife?
Malley’s account of our “very dangerous situation” suggests we are, but the record of the past two decades says otherwise. In that span, US–Iran tensions have regularly run high. Outside the three-year JCPOA term of 2015 to 2018, Iran has enriched uranium and approached bomb-making capacity at varying rates. Its enriched uranium stockpile as of mid-2022 is less than half of what it was before the nuclear deal was signed. It’s important to note, to US “knowledge, they have not resumed their weaponization program, which is what they would need to develop a bomb,” Malley said, and it’s amply plausible that Iran would continue enriching uranium without ever building a bomb, let alone using it.
Former President Donald Trump recklessly brought us to the brink of war with Iran by assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in early 2020. Iran initially responded to the escalatory move, which the Trump administration billed as de-escalation, with casualty-free missile strikes on US bases in Iraq. But after that, mercifully, both governments backed down. However, both before and since then, US forces and their partners have frequently fought Iran-linked militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
ARE WE DOOMED?
Yet, for all that, we’ve been able to coexist with Iran without drifting into open war. Iran’s government fully understands the enormous imbalance of power between its own military and that of the United States. For example, Iran’s annual military budget is about $25 billion, 3% of the Pentagon’s $800 billion, which is in turn about three times Iran’s entire GDP of $230 billion. There is no scenario in which Iran wins a war it starts with the United States, and the regime in Tehran is well aware of that fact. The American public’s appetite for war with Iran in Washington is similarly low: polling reliably shows the public is worried about Tehran getting the bomb but wary of war and uninterested in a military intervention in Iran. That wariness should be mirrored by the White House and the US foreign policy establishment, but Biden’s recent remarks suggest it’s not.
It’s true, as Vaez warns, that “[w]ith so much friction between Iran, the US, and their respective regional allies, there is plenty of space for deliberate or unintended escalation that might spiral out of control.” But that is an argument for drawing down US military involvement in long-running Mideast conflicts with no real connection to US security. It is not an argument against the possibility of “no deal, no crisis” with Iran.
If the Biden administration can be more diplomatically flexible and restore a deal, it would provide stability in a region bogged down by conventional and proxy wars alike and help promote de-escalation and nonproliferation. But if we stay on the path set by Biden’s more aggressive rhetoric on Thursday, we’ll find ourselves on the way to war with Iran — a war neither side can win.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank. She is the author of “Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community” (2022) and a columnist at Christianity Today. Her work has been widely published in outlets including The New York Times, The Week, USA Today, CNN, and Politico.