President Joe Biden has failed to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Regional powers may be preparing for a major conflict.
A woman walks past a mural of the Iranian national flag in central Tehran, Iran, on Nov. 7, 2019.
Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images
The United States is going to war with Iran.
That conclusion seems unavoidable watching President Joe Biden fail to revive the Iran nuclear deal from which the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew in 2018. The Iranian side has demanded the removal of sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump, as well as a guarantee that a future U.S. administration will not once again abruptly pull out of the nuclear deal, which is known as the JCPOA. While Iran has continued to abide by the minimum terms of the deal in order to preserve the possibility of bringing it back to life, Biden’s unwillingness or inability to meet its terms has left observers now warning of a “worst-case” scenario in which Iran proceeds to weaponize its nuclear program and the two countries come to a full-blown armed conflict.
It is worth reflecting on how both sides came to this point. The nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration was a means of averting war by placing Iran’s nuclear program under international monitoring in exchange for economic integration with the West. That agreement was abruptly torn up by Trump, seemingly in a fit of personal pique at President Barack Obama, with the encouragement of hawkish advisers and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In place of a diplomatic arrangement, the Trump administration waged a campaign of economic pressure, sabotage, and assassinations targeting Iranian leadership.
Those efforts did great harm to innocent Iranians as well as to U.S. diplomatic standing. They have not done what the diplomatic agreement did: actually curb Iran’s nuclear program. Iran today remains under U.S. sanctions that have severely harmed its economy and sent its people into desperation. Its nuclear program, however, has continued to advance. The Biden administration’s failure or incapacity to do the minimum of reversing Trump’s economic sanctions has likely put an end to the old agreement. Absent the 2015 nuclear deal, the only two options left on the table are the international community accepting an Iran with nuclear weapons capability or going to war to stop it.
The truly depressing thing is that even if Biden wasn’t dragging his feet, it is unclear whether the original deal was even revivable after Trump showed that the U.S. could turn against it without notice. Western companies that had expressed an interest in investing in the Iranian market when the deal was first negotiated have been scared off, likely for good. “Even if the JCPOA was restored, no Western company would dare invest a cent in Iran, no Western bank would finance any deal in Iran with the threat of the return of US sanctions in 2025. Once was enough. The Iranians know it,” former French diplomat Gérard Araud observed in a tweet.
In addition to its unwillingness to lift the Trump-era sanctions and its inability to make executive promises that bind future administrations, the Biden administration probably lacks the majority votes it would need in the U.S. Senate to ratify the deal as a treaty. That means the odds of another rug-pulling in 2025 are high if a Republican administration comes to office. Absent the ability to guarantee the not-unreasonable demand that a signed deal be adhered to, the U.S. faces the prospect of being structurally unable to carry out the type of complex diplomacy necessary to avert war or nuclear proliferation.
Regional powers are already sending strong signals that they are preparing for a major conflict over the issue.
In recent days, top-ranking Israeli military officials have visited the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command for meetings said to be about the deteriorating situation with Iran. The Israeli defense establishment has been divided in its views on the Iranian nuclear issue, with some officials contradicting the position held by Netanyahuthat the deal is an unacceptable threat to Israeli security. But even Israeli officials who have said that Iran is not close to making a bomb have begun to signal that airstrikes are now on the table, particularly as it appears that the nuclear program may soon be freed of the oversight imposed by the original deal. In addition to discussing strikes against nuclear targets in Iran, Israeli news reports this week have claimed that officials are even pushing their U.S. counterparts to carry out strikes against Iranian targets elsewhere in the Middle East.
In the big picture, Iran is not completely free of blame for this predicament. Its decision to make Israel its primary villain in its public rhetoric despite the absence of any concrete territorial dispute between the two countries has mired it in a serious conflict that it may otherwise have avoided. But the fact remains that the 2015 nuclear deal, which Iranian diplomats at the time characterized as a first step toward broader conversations on areas of disagreement with the U.S., was being upheld on their side at the moment that Trump decided to tear it up and that the Biden administration has failed to reverse the steps that Trump took. The response to the question “What now?” has no easy or comforting answers.
The sclerotic nature of foreign policy debate means that if and when a major war with Iran comes, including airstrikes, naval conflict, and possible ground operations involving U.S. troops, most Americans will have forgotten the precipitating events that brought the two countries to this point, as well as the people responsible for destroying a diplomatic agreement intended to prevent bloodshed. After 20 years of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, Americans are clearly fatigued and eager to avoid new wars in the region. Despite how tired they may be of confrontation, their leaders seem bent on having one more — perhaps the biggest of all.