Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

America Has No Good Options on Iran

| Jan. 17, 2022

But Reviving the Nuclear Deal Is the Least Bad

Iran is closer than ever to being able to build a nuclear weapon. After President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran began enriching uranium to higher levels and stockpiling more of it. As a result, Iran now has the capacity to make enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in less than a month—compared with the roughly one year it would have needed to do so before the United States quit the nuclear accord in 2018.

Iran’s leaders and President Joe Biden’s administration both say they want to return to the 2015 deal, but the parties remain far apart on what nuclear steps or sanctions relief should come first and how far-reaching those steps would need to be. Every day that the talks drag on without resolution, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning; in late December, European governments warned that “weeks, not months,” remained before restoring the old deal would no longer be possible.

The hard truth is that the United States now has few good options for containing Iran’s nuclear program. It can persist with the no-deal status quo, allowing Iran to continue inching closer to a bomb while suffering under sanctions. It can pursue a return to the 2015 agreement and then attempt to get Iran to agree to a “longer and stronger” pact, as the Biden team has suggested. It can try for various other deals, either more or less stringent than the 2015 agreement. Or it can attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure with a military strike, possibly setting Tehran’s progress toward a bomb back by a few years but almost certainly provoking retaliation and possibly a sprint toward the nuclear finish line.

Of these options, a return to the 2015 deal is the least bad. It would pull Iran back from the nuclear brink, and it would offer modest hope for further talks on hard problems such as Iran’s missile program and its support for armed groups throughout the Middle East. It would pose far fewer risks than attempting to set Iran’s program back with a military strike, and it would likely buy more time. But Iran’s gains in knowledge are irreversible, meaning that the old accord won’t be as strong a barrier to the bomb as it was before Trump tore it up, and getting Tehran to agree to strengthen the deal over time will be difficult.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew.“America Has No Good Options on Iran.” Foreign Affairs, January 17, 2022.

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