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Finally, the Biden administration is starting to admit reality: there is likely no return to a nuclear agreement with Iran. Such a realization, which seems very shocking to everyone except the many observers who have been shouting it for a long time, is coming even from figures such as Robert Malley who recently warned that the world should brace itself for the possibility of a nuclear Iran. But as talk of a plan B proliferates, it becomes clear that there was no plan B, and Iran knew it. Biden’s “diplomacy first” was really diplomacy only. 

Since the summer, the Biden administration has been steadily signaling its frustration with Tehran’s behavior. In July, Secretary Blinken said that the United States’ patience was not “infinite.” As time went by, it seemed to have started to dawn on the administration that it got played by Iran.   

This much and more was admitted by Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special representative for Iran, at a recent event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At the event, Malley talked about how far the administration was willing to go with Iran, such as offering “to remove all of the sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration…” Such a generous offer with met with an abject refusal to have direct contact or direct meetings. Iran insisted on only talking through European intermediaries. Malley continued, “Every day that goes by, we’re getting a piece of Iran’s answer.. and so, of course, we have to prepare for a world … where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program.” 

Such an unceremonious end to the once very hopeful diplomatic efforts must be so disappointing for the Biden administration. After all, the administration offered all that it could to Iran. It willingly turned a blind eye to Iran raising uranium enrichment levels to more than 60%, building more centrifuges, supporting Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities and conducting low-intensity naval warfare against Israel. Washington didn’t just ignore such behavior, it went as far as attempting to relieve Iran from some of the economic pressure caused by the maximum pressure campaign. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department repealed sanctions on former senior National Iranian Oil Co. officials and several companies involved in shipping and trading petrochemical products. None of such actions was able to persuade Iran to change course. 

But during all such efforts, the administration refused to entertain any options outside of Biden’s “diplomacy first.” Only in the last weeks, and following the meeting between Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel and the UAE, American officials are starting to openly talk about other options. The implication is clear: the Biden administration did not have an alternative course of action and they put all of their eggs in the basket of the negotiations that stalled. Iranian stalling and buying more time was not just vintage Islamic Republic, it was based on an Iranian official successfully receiving the American signals that they completely and solely relied on negotiations.  

If American officials are regretfully and hesitantly admitting negotiations with Iran are a dead end and that they need to start working on alternatives, the case of the European officials is even worse. Last week, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell opposed the new American direction by unapologetically stating that the EU is not thinking about a plan B with Iran and that every option is not on the table. Meaning, the EU is even more candid; there was never a plan B, there will not be a plan B and negotiation is the only thing the West is willing to do.  With such a candid strategy of many carrots but no sticks, is it any surprise that the Vienna talks are ending with a whimper and no bang? 

Israel remains the only reassuring factor. Even if the US and the EU lack a plan B, it is almost certain that Israel doesn’t. Such a reassurance becomes increasingly important as unnamed American officials revealed to the New York Times that they do believe that Iran has the capability to produce the fuel needed for a single nuclear warhead in a few months. In other words, Iran has never been this close to military nuclear capabilities and Iran did not come all this way just to be content being a threshold state. This increasingly raises the importance of Israeli capabilities in taking out Iranian nuclear facilities which makes it not just an Israeli plan B, but the entire world’s. 

Given the critical juncture caused by misguided policies and irresponsible lack of strategic thinking, the United States needs to ensure Israel is provided with all military support and capabilities it needs for a Hail Mary to ensure she will prevail against Iran. The United States  should be keen on upgrading and reinforcing the IDF aerial arsenal by providing more advancing refueling tanks, strike jets and larger bunker-buster bombs to penetrate underground Iranian facilities. An outbreak of an open Israeli-Iranian military conflict means that Israel will also have to face immediate threats from Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north. The United States needs to make sure that this time it puts her eggs in the right basket. 

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Hussein Aboubakr Mansour

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