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Iran, negotiations, Vienna talks

Biden’s Tough Choice on Iran

The key obstacle holding up the Vienna talks has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program.

Words: Daniel R. DePetris
Pictures: Johannes Mändle

On Jun. 8, 2022, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors passed a censure resolution condemning Iran for refusing to cooperate with the organization’s probe into past nuclear work. A day later, Tehran retaliated against the censure by removing 27 IAEA cameras that were put in place to monitor activities at several of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The latest developments add to an already murky picture of whether the United States and Iran can find a mutually-acceptable way to restore the Iran nuclear deal, which capped Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. More than a year after US and Iranian officials first met in Vienna, negotiations are at risk of falling apart. Ironically, the key obstacle holding up the talks has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, Iran continues to insist that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of Iran’s military, from the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Washington has rejected those demands, arguing that Tehran must address non-nuclear-related US grievances if it wants the IRGC designation lifted.

While it’s true that Iran’s negotiating tactics have caused US diplomats heartburn for well over a year, it’s also true that this entire drama never needed to happen if the Trump administration continued implementing the nuclear deal instead of prematurely withdrawing from it. Instead, when Washington opted for a strategy of “maximum pressure,” it gifted the Iranian government a golden opportunity to withdraw from its commitments.


Advocates of the maximum pressure strategy claimed that, over time, sanctions on the Iranian economy would force Tehran to return to the negotiating table on US terms. “Iran will be forced to make a choice: either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad,” then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech shortly after Trump abrogated the agreement.

Ironically, the key obstacle holding up the Vienna talks has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program, and instead has to do with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “foreign terrorist organization” designation.

Iran did make a choice, but it was a choice Washington was unprepared for. Even as US sanctions reduced Tehran’s crude exports by about 70% and drove Iran into a recession, Iranian scientists installed more advanced centrifuges and churned more uranium. Instead of succumbing to US diktats, Iran was sabotaging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf to send a message: if Tehran couldn’t export its oil to world markets, neither could its competitors. Iran’s strategy persists to this day; after Greece recently confiscated a ship carrying Iranian oil at the request of the United States, the IRGC seized two Greek-owned tankers in an act Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei bluntly admitted was retaliation.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to produce uranium unencumbered. At more than 2,800 kg, Iran’s stockpile is more than 14 times higher than when the deal restricted Tehran. Iran now possesses approximately 43 kilograms of uranium enriched at 60% purity, enough fissile material for a single nuclear warhead if Tehran decided to enrich to weapons-grade levels.


The Biden administration is faced with two courses of action. The first is to grit its teeth and do what is necessary to put Iran’s nuclear program back under the strongest inspection regime in history. This will likely require Washington to relent on the IRGC issue. While such a concession would produce howls of righteous indignation in Congress, it would hardly be a gift for Iran. Even if the IRGC is removed from the foreign terrorist organization list, Iran itself would still be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. The IRGC-Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the group, was designated as a terrorist organization in 2007 and would still be labeled as such. The United States, in short, would still have the full range of resources to protect itself from Iran-supported terrorism.

The other option for Washington is to remain steadfast on the IRGC issue and settle on a Plan B as the negotiations fall apart. This would likely include additional sanctions targeting Iran, particularly against Chinese entities that purchase and transport Iranian oil. But if the previous iteration of maximum pressure failed to accomplish US policy objectives, it’s the height of folly to expect even more pressure to have a different result.

Presumably, the United States could conduct military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities to destroy the program. But as Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s chief Iran envoy, said during his May 25 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the military option would, at best, delay Iran’s nuclear program; at worst, it would push Iran into pursuing its nuclear ambitions with even more intensity, perhaps going as far as to weaponize its program entirely — a decision the CIA assesses Tehran has yet to make. Moreover, as always, any hypothetical military option Washington conducts would likely produce civilian casualties — and any civilian casualties would be a propaganda gift to the Iranian government at a time when public support for President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration is lacking. None of this even mentions the retaliatory attacks Iran or its proxies would undertake against the United States. With as many as 60,000 US troops in the region, there is no shortage of targets for Tehran.

Good statecraft is partly about laying out all available options and engaging in honest, rigorous analysis. Then, when the process plays out, the conclusion is clear. In the case of talks with Iran, the risks involved in letting the negotiations break down is a high-cost option that doesn’t serve US interests.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

Daniel R. DePetris

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