According to recent reports, Iran has begun producing uranium metal, a key component of nuclear weapons. Iran’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, has similarly hinted that Iran may be “pushed” by the United States into pursuing a nuclear weapons program. While this may incite panic among those who anticipate Iran racing to obtain a nuclear weapon, the United States has tools to prevent this outcome without risking conflict.
It helps to understand that Iran’s motive for these nuclear developments is to gain leverage in negotiations. The Biden administration is pushing for Iran to make the first move before the United States provides sanctions relief. Iran won’t accept delaying sanctions relief while it suffers economic turmoil, and likewise won’t make the first move. Therefore, Iran is forcing urgency by taking steps that shorten its “breakout time,” the time it would take for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.
This doesn’t mean Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, only that the period before it could attain one is shorter than before. US leverage in negotiations won’t increase by stonewalling a return to the nuclear deal. Furthermore, Biden’s return to “moral leadership” in foreign policy is undermined when sanctions sow ruin even among those not affiliated with Iran’s government. For US credibility as much as for regional security, the Biden administration should take immediate sanctions relief actions to demonstrate renewed commitment to a diplomatic approach.
By attempting to gain a concession from Iran first, the Biden administration has tacitly accepted a continuation of the “maximum pressure” economic sanctions which started under the Trump administration.
By attempting to gain a concession from Iran first, the Biden administration has tacitly accepted a continuation of the “maximum pressure” economic sanctions which started under the Trump administration. But these sanctions are what prompted Iran to resume nuclear enrichment in the first place, and they likewise nearly provoked a war between the US and Iran. The United States first reneged on the deal that it negotiated, therefore it’s the US responsibility to reenter it first.
The United States should also avoid using the military hammer to strike at anything that resembles a nail. President Trump considered a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities late last year, which would have provoked a war. President Biden, to his credit, hasn’t pursued this option. He wisely withdrew the USS Nimitz carrier group from the region, which will keep 5,000 US sailors and marines out of harm’s way while reducing tensions.
But in order to keep the US and Iran out of a war in the long term, President Biden should go further. US troops remain in Syria and Iraq, and the US continues to support Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, albeit only defensively. These are all fault lines that pit Iran against the United States.
But why do we persist in the Middle East? Most terror groups in the region pursue local objectives in local conflicts, and the notable exceptions, ISIS and al-Qaeda, are attrited to the point of irrelevance. The US military presence hasn’t brought an end to the war in Syria, has discouraged negotiation in Yemen, and its presence in Iraq has forced many nationalist figures in Iraq to bandwagon with Iran against the US The costs in blood and treasure are high, and the unmitigated disasters prove the US should pivot from a military to a diplomatic approach.
By withdrawing US troops, Washington can remove the barriers to a lasting diplomatic relationship with Iran. Moreover, the US withdrawal would remove what Iran sees as its greatest threat in the region. If the US seeks to decrease Iran’s support to its proxies and discourage its ballistic missile program, withdrawing would do just that.
Without an American threat to counter, Iran doesn’t need to augment its asymmetric capabilities to the same extent. Likewise, without the US presence providing a security curtain to its Gulf allies, the region would form a new balance of power. With no superpower in the region, this would likely give way to deterrence rather than war.
The US shouldn’t panic because of recent nuclear advances or posturing from Iran. Instead, the US should focus on ending sanctions to reengage Iran and withdrawing troops to disentangle the US from local conflicts. Iran faces two choices: a nuclear deal or a nuclear weapon. By keeping sanctions in place and not returning to the deal, Washington is closing off the former possibility. The United States can either end the sanctions campaign on Iran or accept a world with one more nuclear power.
Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.