In its initial blunder, the regime in Tehran refused to give the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, satisfactory explanations for traces of uranium found in sites that Iran had failed to declare to the agency’s monitors. This made it inevitable that the agency’s 35-member board of governors would vote to censure Iran.
Then, as if its concealment of information wasn’t suspicious enough, Tehran threatened unspecified retaliation if the censure vote went through. Per usual, it sought to portray itself as a victim of American chicanery. But that narrative was demolished when the vote was held on Wednesday: In addition to the US, 29 members — ranging from Argentina and Burundi to Malaysia and Vietnam — were in favor of the censure. Only China and Russia voted against, and three others (India, Pakistan and Libya) abstained.
It was, in diplomatic terms, a stinging rebuke of Iran’s recalcitrance. But far from being chastened, Iran has chosen to paint itself further into a corner by reducing its cooperation with the international community. On Thursday, the nuclear watchdog said Iran had begun removing IAEA surveillance cameras from nuclear sites across the country. (Iran had already withheld some footage from the agency for over a year.)
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has warned that if full monitoring isn’t restored in the next three to four weeks, the agency will no longer be able to piece together Iran’s nuclear activities and account for its nuclear material. This accounting is the centerpiece of the 2015 nuclear deal Iran struck with the world powers, and Grossi said that failure to restore the monitoring mechanisms “would be a fatal blow” to reviving the deal.
The US pulled out of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018; President Donald Trump said it didn’t provide adequate safeguards against Iran developing a nuclear weapon. President Joe Biden has made reviving the deal a foreign policy priority, but Iran has rejected overtures and instead raced ahead with its uranium enrichment program.
The IAEA reported late last month that Tehran had already accumulated enough enriched uranium for an atomic bomb. While its ability to actually make a bomb is uncertain and the regime maintains it has no desire to do so, the arc of its known activities suggests weaponization is the next step: It has nearly 100 pounds of uranium enriched to 60%, far beyond the levels required for any peaceful purpose.
Until now, the Biden administration has been treating Iran with kid gloves. Since Trump withdrew from the JCPOA unilaterally and without adequate consultation with the other signatories, Tehran was able to portray itself as the wronged party, even as it stonewalled the IAEA and accelerated enrichment. Even the European signatories — Germany, France and Britain — pressed for a quick American return to the deal and indulged Iran’s flouting of its terms.
In an attempt to soften the Iranians, Biden eased up on implementation of economic sanctions imposed by his predecessor. Among other things, this has allowed Iran to export substantial quantities of oil, mostly to China. The goodwill hasn’t been reciprocated by Tehran, which refuses to allow American representation to negotiations in Vienna for a revival of the JCPOA.
But the IAEA vote demonstrates that indulgence for Iran has worn thin, and not only among the US and the European troika. Biden now has the opportunity to build an international coalition to ramp up pressure on Tehran to return to compliance with the JCPOA.
First, the US must insist that it be allowed back at the negotiating table: The charade in Vienna, in which the Europeans ferry messages to and from the Americans and Iranians, has gone on long enough.
Second, Grossi’s warning that the deal could be a dead letter in four weeks allows the US to set the Iranians a firm deadline: Restore full monitoring and end enrichment in a month’s time, or the negotiations, having become moot, will end. That will lead to a return of UN-approved international sanctions imposed on Iran before the JCPOA was signed.
Third, Biden should show that the US and its allies are prepared for that outcome by shoring up the defenses of the countries at greatest risk of Iranian mischief, notably Israel and the Arab nations. The president should welcome a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress that requires the Pentagon to work with these countries to integrate their air defenses, the better to guard against threats from Iran.
Finally, Biden should resume full implementation of the economic sanctions against Iran, cutting off the regime’s access to international markets. This may be easier to do now that China is already reducing its imports of Iranian oil and instead taking more from Russia.
Beijing and Moscow may be inclined to stand by Tehran, but they too will have noted the growing international consensus against Iran’s nuclear activities. And meanwhile, growing anger at runaway inflation and chronic unemployment among ordinary Iranians will exert more pressure on the regime.
The IAEA’s censure of Iran has given Biden as strong a hand as an American president can hope to have: He should play it.
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
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