- The April 11 attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site was unusual in that Israel was fairly clear about its responsibility.
- Iran’s response to the attack, advertising its determination to create highly enriched uranium, represents a commitment to the negotiating track.
- While no quick resolution is likely, Iran is pursuing activities that take a long time to play out and can easily be rolled back.
When an attack destroyed centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility last weekend, some observers thought it would set back the Iranian nuclear program nine months or more. Israeli officials quickly asserted responsibility for the attack—albeit anonymously—to make it clear to Iranians and Americans alike that they had the power to disrupt what they see as wrong-headed negotiations. And yet, the attack did nothing to dissuade Americans and Iranians from pursuing the basic track they had been pursuing before the attack. Americans and Iranians remain committed to negotiating the lifting of US sanctions in exchange for renewed Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA.
The principal division between them is the issue of sequencing. Iran wants the US to lift all sanctions immediately, while the US wants assurance of full Iranian compliance before sanctions come off. In addition, Iran may seek some sort of external verification of US compliance with sanctions relief since Iranians widely believe they never received the promised economic relief from the JCPOA in 2015.
In response to the attack, the Iranian government said that it would now enrich uranium to 60%, an activity clearly barred by the JCPOA and bringing Iran much closer to having enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon. Yet, it will take Iran many months to have a significant amount of highly enriched uranium, and during that time, negotiations can take place. Iran may be counting on a later agreement to be compensated for turning its highly enriched uranium over to outside parties (as it was when its low-enriched uranium was exported to meet the JCPOA’s limits).
Rather than bolting to build a bomb, Iran instead seems committed to strategies to increase the urgency of Americans and Europeans to make a nuclear agreement with Iran. That has principally meant enriching more and putting additional constraints on IAEA inspectors, although it could conceivably mean increased physical attacks and cyberattacks with unclear attribution.
Up to now, the Biden team has been unwilling to rush toward reinstating the JCPOA. However, some members of the negotiating team reportedly favor unilaterally bringing the US back into compliance by immediately lifting sanctions that the Trump administration imposed. Whether the administration fears a political backlash from reaching out too fast to the Iranians, or perhaps because it just feels its legislative plate is full, US negotiators have been deliberate. Some Iranians caution, and some Europeans agree, that dragging the negotiations out too long will persuade the Iranian government that no agreement is achievable. Under that scenario, Iran would increase aggressive actions in the Middle East and beyond to force the rest of the world to sue for peace.
The Biden team is betting that Iran’s domestic situation is weak enough to push the Iranian government toward reaching a negotiated settlement rather than risking armed conflict. The Trump-era sanctions weakened the Iranian economy—partly by cutting Iran’s oil exports perhaps in half—and a miserable response to COVID-19 has harmed the economy still more. The IMF projects inflation to run 39% this year, with unemployment in the double digits.
With Iran’s presidential elections scheduled for June 18, and with the candidate list still undetermined, there is growing uncertainty about the political climate in the near term and who will be negotiating for Iran in the longer term. Yet, the decision to negotiate over the nuclear program is clearly the prerogative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and not whomever becomes president. Khamenei has given negotiations his clear blessing.
Less clear is what role outsiders can play. Israel has its own political drama playing out. While addressing the perceived threat from Iran is one of the few unifying issues in Israeli politics, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life after an inconclusive fourth round of elections and faces a corruption trial. With Netanyahu’s future in doubt and ties to Washington much cooler under the Biden administration, Israel’s role as a spoiler is much harder to play.
Meanwhile, there were reports over the weekend that senior Saudi and Iranian officials met to discuss mutual concerns. It is unclear whether this represents the Saudis’ preferred policy (there were reports that Saudi-Iranian meetings mooted after Iran’s 2019 attack on Saudi oil infrastructure were scuttled under Trump administration pressure), or rather are a Saudi effort to persuade the Biden administration that Saudi Arabia is a responsible regional actor. Regardless, they suggest that regional momentum is moving toward Biden’s desired direction, of US-Iranian negotiations and a broader regional security dialogue under US auspices.
Iran’s actions, while escalatory, do not suggest that the Iranian nuclear negotiations are on the brink of failure. Instead, Iran is seeking to strengthen its negotiating hand after an Israeli action intended to weaken it. Iran has done nothing to incite a military response, and it has done nothing irreversible. Iran seeks to alarm others, but it is doing so in a way that it considers deliberate and purposive.