INTERVIEW: Big Bang, Theoretically

By Reuvain Borchardt

This photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, discusses a report in The Wall Street Journal that the Biden administration is pressing allies, including the U.K. and France, not to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its nuclear activities.

Stricker, an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation and illicit procurement networks, is deputy director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program. 

She previously worked at the Institute for Science and International Security. She has co-authored several books on nuclear proliferation.

It does have teeth. Censure documents lay out demands from the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors, essentially saying that the board requires Iran to come into compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, cooperate with the IAEA on various matters, and stop certain nuclear activities. 

Censures are primarily used for political pressure to get Iran to come back into compliance. But they really serve to change the regime’s behavior when it is in noncompliance. And that has worked successfully in the past. 

The teeth of the resolution come into effect when the board decides to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions. And they could still do that. However, today, they’d have China’s and Russia’s vetoes to contend with. A way around is to reinstate prior U.N. sanctions against Iran that remain lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal. So we would essentially be looking at the U.N. Security Council reinstating all the prior Iran sanctions, if they chose to move an IAEA censure to the council.

It’s not required. The Security Council could impose what’s called the “snapback” of U.N. sanctions on Iran without any involvement of the IAEA Board. The remaining JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal) participants — France, the U.K. or Germany — would have to send a notification to the Security Council of Iran’s significant nonperformance under the deal, which it hasn’t been observing for several years. And then within 30 days, the council would reinstate all of the sanctions. The way the JCPOA parties structured the resolution, Russia’s and China’s vetoes would not work. The snapback could only be avoided if the five permanent members of the Security Council voted unanimously to continue lifting the sanctions. 

President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House July 14, 2015, after the Iran nuclear deal was reached. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Iran enjoys having the latitude to advance its nuclear program penalty-free, and Iran appreciates the Biden administration’s approach of not pushing for censure. Iran resents the political pressure of a united West — and in the past, Russia and China as well — pushing back against the regime’s nuclear advances. Iran takes the censures seriously, and that’s exactly why they are needed to protect the non-proliferation regime, and all of the safeguards that the IAEA implements and everything the IAEA stands for.

The U.K. and France are fed up with the approach of the Biden administration, which is to seek de-escalation of tensions, but in effect is letting Iran advance its nuclear program. Iran has made some token reductions in its stock of highly enriched uranium, after indirect U.S. talks, for example, and it also hasn’t started up some of its more advanced centrifuges. On the former, these token reductions do not amount to much in terms of restricting Iran’s ability to make weapons-grade uranium for multiple nuclear weapons. The U.K. and France are seeing the erosion of the non-proliferation regime with regard to Iran over the last three years plus, and feel the West must push back. So, they are apparently prepared to go ahead with a resolution at the IAEA even without Washington, but with hopes of bringing America along.

You need two-thirds of the board’s 35 members to vote in favor of a resolution. The board membership is tight right now, and so it may be tricky to pass it — but passing it would send an important message of nations’ willingness to hold Iran to account.

I think it’s both. 

They are concerned about another regional conflict, escalation, or crisis breaking out prior to the election. We have wars in Ukraine and Gaza, arguably a vacuum of U.S. leadership in both cases has made those crises worse, certainly the withdrawal from Afghanistan as well. The Biden administration believes that de-escalation is the best policy. And they think that they can continue that approach all the way through election season, and that the American people won’t notice that Iran is growing its breakout capability and getting closer to nuclear weapons. Their approach is allowing Iran’s nuclear threat to gather and grow such that the West might not be able to stop Tehran if it moved for nuclear weapons.

FILE – President Donald Trump delivers a statement saying the U.S. is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, May 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

I’m not sure whether they believe they can get a new nuclear deal, perhaps more reciprocal steps that sound like de-escalation but allow the regime’s nuclear program to move forward anyway. There are indications from officials that they are starting to recognize that U.S. Iran policy is a failure, and that they may need to reverse course in a second term. But the ideology of many of the members of the team is such that they believe they can cooperate with Iran and balance Tehran off the other major actors in the region. So, it remains to be seen whether they will, in fact, change course.

Yes, but the Biden administration has failed to enforce existing U.S. sanctions, particularly on Iran’s oil exports. It is exporting record quantities to China and other countries. That has been the regime’s primary revenue source, and we estimate that it could have earned around $100 billion from the non-enforcement of the sanctions. 

The Biden administration has also unfrozen Iranian assets held abroad during Trump’s term. That gives the regime the sense that they can spend money that they might not otherwise be able to use, launching attacks against Israel, the United States, and global shipping, advancing their nuclear program, and augmenting their drone and ballistic-missile programs.

The interesting thing is that even though Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran did not advance its nuclear program to the level that it has under Biden. That suggests the regime was deterred from doing so. That is likely because of Trump’s decision to assassinate Iran Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, but they were also facing a major economic crisis under Trump and did not want to incur additional penalties. They had a major balance-of-payments crisis coming. So, if Trump had remained in office a second term, I think the regime would have been in real trouble, they probably would have had to sacrifice potentially the nuclear program and make a real deal, a meaningful deal that would restrain their program for the long term. They also would have had to consider changing their malign regional behavior in return for sanctions relief. 

If Biden is reelected, he is going to face a decision point on whether to restore a pressure campaign against Iran, which was effective under the Trump administration, but which his administration has never believed in. Or he is going to stand aside as Iran’s nuclear capability continues to advance, and Iran likely reaches a point where they have enough enriched uranium that they could quickly break out and make nuclear weapons before Biden could stop them. His only choice would be to take military action, which seems unlikely on his part.

If Trump is elected, I think he would likely restore the maximum-pressure campaign. We could see the regime potentially have to make a deal. Biden has let the situation get quite out of control to where the regime is holding a lot of leverage. It is going to take quite a bit of diplomatic capital to restore transatlantic pressure on Iran. Another dynamic is that the Iranian people are fed up with this regime and want it gone, so anything that we can do to help support them means targeting the root of most woes in the region: the Islamic Republic remaining in power.

We estimate that they could make their first amount of weapons-grade uranium within a week, and that they could make enough weapons-grade uranium for 13 weapons in four months. That’s according to the latest IAEA reporting. Iran would require an additional six months, at least, to weaponize that fuel for nuclear devices — likely a crude device. It could take longer if they want to make a more perfected design.

I believe the great power dynamics and competition with the United States has made Iran a valuable ally to China and Russia, and that they’d be willing to stand aside if Iran decided to sprint for nuclear weapons. This may increase the power of their trilateral partnership with Iran. Now, they may view a nuclear Iran as not such a bad thing.

It depends on who is in office in the United States. Israel is likely not going to act on its own, because it would likely need America’s help to finish the nuclear program off. It would take a sustained bombing campaign over days or weeks to irreparably damage the facilities and capabilities. There is certainly a reason why no one has done this yet — because it is difficult, and it may not succeed in totally destroying the program. Also, it could provoke the breakout we are trying to avoid. There would be tough decisions involved.

The key point is that we do not want military action to be our only fallback. We would be far better off confronting Iranian advances and using pressure and penalties before we are faced with that kind of decision. But if Iran is dashing for nuclear weapons and there is a chance to stop them, America’s commander-in-chief must act. A nuclear-armed Iran would totally upend security in the region and give Tehran cover to pursue aggression against the U.S. military presence, Israel, and other states. We cannot let that happen.

This interview originally appeared in Hamodia Prime magazine.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!