In the fictional science fiction universe of Star Trek, prospective spaceship captains have their mettle tested via a training simulation. In it, Starfleet cadets hear a distress call from a civilian spaceship known as the Kobayashi Maru, which is stranded in a neutral zone with an enemy species known as the Klingons. Attempting to rescue the ship will break an international treaty, trigger a Klingon attack, and ensure the destruction of both the Kobayashi Maru and the Starfleet vessel. Failure to intervene will ensure the death of all civilians aboard the Kobayashi Maru. In it, there are no outcomes leading to a win. The prospective leader must demonstrate their character by making choices between bad outcomes.
President Joe Biden still has one favorable outcome left with Iran: A restoration of the nuclear deal originally struck in 2015. But if the negotiations collapse, he will soon face his own losing outcome in the rapidly escalating nuclear stand-off with Iran. Biden has affirmed that Iran will not get nuclear weapons on his watch, a pledge that has been taken by all recent US administrations. Likewise, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has indicated his intent to negate US sanctions and deliver urgently-needed economic relief. There is only one sure deal on the table, and that is a restoration of the nuclear deal originally struck in 2015.
President Joe Biden still has one favorable outcome left with Iran: A restoration of the nuclear deal originally struck in 2015.
As in any negotiation involving the US and Iran, however, interests are not the only factor at play. Even seemingly simple deals become bogged down in caustic domestic politics, misperception, and sabotage. Such has clearly been the case with a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and now US officials have escalated their warnings that time is growing short. As administration officials have hinted, this process may play out sooner than many think with a decision to be made early in 2022.
If the negotiations break down, the nuclear crisis will get worse quickly as both the US and Iran turn to escalatory options. Biden could easily be caught in a no-win scenario, a choice between bad and awful outcomes that US policymakers have sought to avoid for years.
THE BAD OPTIONS
One option the US could be forced to consider in a no-deal scenario is military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program, which Biden has reportedly directed his advisers to review in recent months. While Israel likely does not have the capability for unilateral strikes on Iran’s nuclear program, the US potentially does. Some believe that the US could destroy or set back Iran’s various nuclear facilities scattered across the country. But there are several problems with this line of thinking.
The first problem with a US military strike is that there is no certainty that the US could actually destroy Iran’s nuclear sites. For example, the enrichment facility at Fordow is deeply buried and even sustained strikes with advanced US weapons may fail to destroy it. A US military strike would also have to factor in Iran’s military capability. While the Iranian military isn’t as strong as the US’, Iran has air defenses that the US would need to target to support a massive and sustained bombing campaign.
Second, a US military attack would have significant fallout for Iranian civilians, not only for those in the line of fire, but within the whole country. Many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located near civilian population centers, putting countless lives at risk in even a “limited” and “precise” bombing campaign.
The third complication is that the US would also have to prepare for a lethal counter-offensive from a capable foe. It will be impossible to contain a war with Iran. Iran has thousands of ballistic missiles and has already demonstrated its capabilities of hitting US bases in the region, causing traumatic brain injuries to more than a hundred US troops stationed in Iraq after the Trump administration assassinated General Qassem Soleimani. Moreover, in war gaming in 2002, the US navy lost 19 ships including an aircraft carrier to missiles and attack boats in a simulated confrontation with Iran.
Adding to these extensive capabilities, Iran also has proxy forces that could be mobilized to strike US forces in Syria and Iraq, and cyberwarfare capabilities that could cause further problems. Add to this destructive mix already high oil prices, and the global economy would be in for a major shock. As many have warned, a full-blown regional war with Iran would make the 2003 invasion of Iraq pale by comparison, and Biden would pay the political costs.
Fourth, a US military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be illegal according to both US domestic and international law. While presidents have certainly used their executive power to authorize unilateral strikes, the political environment in the US today is different. Calls for limiting executive authority and repealing the Authorizations to Use Military Force have been gaining traction. If Biden was to strike Fordow, for example, he would face significant political backlash from both political parties (albeit for different reasons). A unilateral strike on Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities would also violate international law.
Finally, even if the US could execute a successful strike on Iran’s nuclear program, the US could not erase Iran’s nuclear know-how. Iran would simply build a more fortified and covert nuclear program without international inspections, and with a firm desire to secure a nuclear deterrent to prevent a future attack. Such a major war could set Iran’s nuclear program back a year or two, but would likely only delay — not prevent — Iranian proliferation. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis stated, despite these costs Iran would likely “be able to pick up the pieces and eventually complete a nuclear weapon.”
Biden’s second option would be to abstain from any direct military intervention while doubling down on sanctions even as Iran’s nuclear breakout risks become undetectable. Yet, sanctions have already proven to be useless in changing Iran’s behavior for the better. Instead, US sanctions have caused more harm and suffering in the country, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Military threats and sanctions both are more likely to spur Iran to expand its nuclear program as leverage, as has been the historical precedent. The end result would be Iran either on the threshold of a nuclear weapon or securing a nuclear deterrent that would risk further destabilization in the region. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival, has explicitly stated it will seek a nuclear weapon if Iran has one too, and other countries may be eager to follow suit. The global nonproliferation regime would suffer a major blow, and Biden would be excoriated at home for sitting idle as a government hostile to the US and Israel joins the ranks of nuclear-armed states.
THE ONLY OPTION
This is why the nuclear talks in Vienna are too big to fail. Iran has put forward a tough negotiating position in the seventh round, but it is unclear whether negotiators did so because they prefer talks to fail or because of an understandable and predictable desire to extract the maximum amount of concessions at the negotiating table. The US and parties to the agreement must exhaust the diplomatic process to find the answer to that question.
There is no good “Plan B” to fall back on, nor any guarantee that a less-for-less agreement can be reached amid a tit-for-tat escalation cycle. That means that the US should put credible diplomatic options forward to ensure Iran gets the benefit of sanctions relief if it rejoins the nuclear deal, and should work with as many countries that can influence Iran’s negotiating team to underscore the stakes.
In Star Trek lore, the famed Captain James T. Kirk found a way to “beat” the Kobayashi Maru simulation by rewriting the software. Unfortunately, no such deus ex machina can save the day in our real life crisis. The only way for Biden to beat his own no-win situation will be to avoid it entirely by ensuring the talks in Vienna reach the finish line. That won’t be accomplished by threats and sanctions, but by hard-nosed diplomacy in a pressure-filled situation.
Ryan Costello is the policy director at the National Iranian American Council.