A flare-up of tensions between the UN’s nuclear monitor and Iran this week has left US President Joe Biden in an increasingly tight jam.
The US leader opened his presidency with a pledge to return to the 2015 international agreement that aimed to prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons after predecessor Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it.
Negotiations to restore that agreement have been deadlocked over the very last details for three months.
Without a deal — and Iran ever closer to a nuclear “outbreak” — Biden faces a tough choice: make more concessions to Tehran and be accused of weakness by Republican opponents ahead of the midterm elections, or declare talks dead, which could trigger a new crisis in the Middle East.
Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Thursday that Tehran’s removal this week of 27 cameras monitoring its nuclear sites could pose a “fatal blow” to the negotiations.
“At this stage things could go either way,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group. “The tension of recent days could prompt leadership in Tehran and Washington to adopt the deal on the table.”
Or, he said, “It’s the first step in a new cycle of escalation, and from this point it would only get worse.”
“Worse” could mean that Tehran continues to build a nuclear weapon, and its adversaries like Israel and the US hardliners are demanding tough action to prevent that.
On the verge of a deal
Talks in Vienna between Iran and the great powers resumed last year at the impetus of Biden, with the US agreeing to withdraw sanctions in exchange for Tehran returning to full implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
But on the brink of a deal three months ago, talks stalled due to Iran’s final demands unrelated to nuclear issues, according to US officials.
Meanwhile, officials say Iran has made progress with uranium enrichment operations that bring it close to weapons capability.
The situation worsened this week when members of the IAEA denounced Iran for its failure to cooperate. A day later, Iran removed the 27 cameras.
Call for ‘maximum pressure’
Proponents say the deal is the only thing that has stopped Iran from building nuclear weapons, and that saving them is worth Biden making concessions to Tehran.
But opponents — Republicans and strong supporters of Iran’s nemesis Israel — say Iran’s lack of cooperation shows the agreement isn’t worth pursuing.
If Tehran’s accelerated uranium enrichment operations “are not enough to change the Biden administration’s course, then what will?” asked Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which opposes the JCPOA.
“The time has come for a multilateral version of maximum pressure,” he said, referring to Trump’s approach.
Even under Biden’s Democratic Party, some voices are growing impatient.
“At what point will the administration recognize that Iran’s nuclear advances make a return to the 2015 JCPOA that is not in the strategic interest of the United States?” said Senator Bob Menendez.
Vaez says the Biden administration has settled into the situation where there is no agreement or crisis left.
“The developments of the past 48 hours have essentially shown both sides that the status quo in the past three months of no deal, no crisis is really untenable,” Vaez said.
Yet Washington has not set a deadline. Secretary of State Antony Blinken only warned on Thursday that removing the surveillance cameras jeopardized JCPOA’s recovery.
“The only outcome of such a path will be a deeper nuclear crisis and further economic and political isolation for Iran,” Blinken said.
Instead of a hard line, the top US diplomat kept the door open.
Returning to the deal “would still achieve our most important and urgent non-proliferation goals and would be strongly in our national security interests,” a Blinken spokesperson said.
Randa Slim, a researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, called the deadlock a state of uncertainty “where everyone will assume that talks in Vienna have collapsed, but no one will be willing to announce it.”
That’s Biden’s dilemma, she said.
If they end the talks and conclude that Iran has nuclear weapons in the near term, Washington could be forced to take direct action against Iran, or support such action by Israel, Slim said.
“There are two clocks ticking….putting a lot of pressure on the Biden administration,” Vaez said.
One is the clock on the actual progress of nuclear technology in Tehran, he said.
“And then there’s the political clock,” from November’s congressional election, which could severely erode Biden’s political clout.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by DailyExpertNews staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)