Last year saw soaring tensions in two regions at the center of US statecraft: Europe and East Asia. The great crisis of this year could come in a region Washington would prefer to forget: the Middle East. As Iran comes closer to the bomb, a slow-motion nuclear showdown may accelerate — while the war in Ukraine makes this Middle Eastern crisis harder to resolve.

President Joe Biden initially sought de-escalation with Russia and Iran so the US could focus on China. In 2021, he pursued “stable and predictable” relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin; with Iran, he sought a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal that would replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that one predecessor, Barack Obama, had negotiated, and another, Donald Trump, had forsaken. Yet Moscow didn’t go along with Biden’s plan, and neither, it seems, has Tehran.

Iran has enriched uranium to 84% purity, just short of the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon. Even if most of its stockpile is still about 60%, Tehran’s breakout time — how long it would take to amass enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb if Iran went full-speed ahead — may be less than two weeks.
It would take several months more to actually build a bomb, and for now Tehran is inching rather than sprinting toward the finish line. Even so, Iran has become a nuclear threshold state, and Biden lacks good diplomatic options for restraining it.

The negotiations to revive and strengthen the JCPOA are going nowhere. An increasingly hardline Iran was never likely to return to an agreement the US had walked away from, unless that deal was somehow sweetened. Yet Biden was never likely to accept a deal that was weaker, from an American perspective, than the original. Now the prospects for diplomacy have gotten even worse.

Iran’s regime is murdering protesters at home while helping Putin murder civilians in Ukraine, moves that make any relaxation of tensions with Washington unlikely and make any deal with Tehran political poison for Biden. Perhaps some interim “standstill” agreement can be struck, but the odds seem long. The JCPOA is “dead, but we’re not going to announce it,” Biden has said — because doing so would raise the question of what happens next.
What happens next is intensified coercion. The last thing Biden wants is another US war in the Middle East, so he probably still views an American strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities as a last resort. More likely, the US and Israel will dial up the pressure, short of war, in ways meant to make Iran slow or halt its nuclear program.

There are many possibilities: Cyberattacks or other covert efforts to disrupt the Iranian program, low-grade military attacks that remind Tehran of its vulnerability, efforts to tighten US sanctions or “snap back” the multilateral sanctions suspended when the JCPOA went into effect. Much of this is apparently happening already: Israel has reportedly assassinated key Iranian scientists and attacked a missile facility within Iran.

Both America and Israel are signaling they will go further if they have to: In January, US and Israeli forces conducted their largest ever bilateral exercises, simulating many of the tasks necessary to pummel Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli officials are averring they won’t accept an Iranian bomb; US officials are saying they won’t tie Israel’s hands.
Given how dangerous a nuclear Iran would be, a ramped-up coercive campaign makes sense. But it comes with great risk.

When the Trump administration tried strangling Iran economically in 2018-19, the result was an escalatory spiral that culminated in the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and an Iranian missile attack on a US base in Iraq. Significant US casualties, and a larger war, were barely avoided.

The lesson is that Iran won’t just sit there as its enemies exert excruciating pressure: It may hit back in violent, destabilizing ways.

Another risk involves spoilers. Russia, a signatory to the JCPOA, won’t help the US tighten the screws on Iran: A military crisis in the Gulf, with all its potential to distract Washington, may be Putin’s best hope of salvation.
Perhaps Russia will even strengthen Iran’s military capabilities in crucial ways. The delivery of lethal S-400 air defense systems, advanced SU-35 fighter aircraft, or perhaps even ballistic missile technology could serve as Moscow’s repayment for the support Iran has provided to Russia in its fight against Ukraine — and could make the use of force against Tehran more daunting.

Israel might attack anyway, hoping that its technological superiority will allow it to set back the Iranian program, and that its missile defenses and conventional superiority will allow it to weather any retaliation. But one way or another, the issue is reaching a breaking point.

Multiple American presidents have tried to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions while also avoiding a deadly war. This could be the year one of those objectives gives way.

Source » washingtonpost