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The White House's Delusional Approach Towards Stopping Iran From Getting the Bomb

Shaya Gedzelman

Around two decades after the start of Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran is less than a year away from acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon. Last month, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said Iran has enough enriched uranium to build five bombs. Gallant's concerning estimate of Iran's progress towards the bomb has been shared by others observing Iran's nuclear program. 

Earlier this year in January, Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), estimated that Iran had acquired enough material for at least three bombs. 

The following month after Grossi’s warning, the third highest ranking member of the US Defense Department for policy, Colin Kahl, warned that Iran could compile enough material for a bomb in under two weeks. Although exact estimates of Iran’s breakout time have differed slightly, there seems to be a general consensus that Iran already has amassed the sufficient amount of refined uranium necessary to create a nuclear weapon. 

However, producing the necessary amount of weapons grade (uranium-235 refined to 90% purity and above) uranium is only one of the two important technological steps required for a country to acquire nukes. A country also needs to be able to take this material and load it on to a means of delivery that can effectively detonate and reach its intended target. Although Iran has not yet reached the second technological milestone at this point in time, the Islamic Republic is considered to be quite close to mastering this final step. 

In March of this year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, testified at a Congressional committee hearing that it would only take several months for Iran to acquire a usable nuclear weapon. This appraisal by General Milley is yet another reminder that Iran is closer than ever towards joining the list of states that possess nuclear weapons.

There was once a time when the White House was committed (at least rhetorically) to doing whatever it takes to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. During Biden's visit to Israel in July of 2022, he gave an illuminating interview on Channel 12 news. When asked if the US would be willing to use force to prevent a nuclear Iran, Biden answered “as a last resort, yes”. Still, his foreign policy record to date has been a story of retreat and surrender in the face of Iranian aggression. The United States Institute for Peace estimated that between Biden’s entry into office in early 2021 and March 2023, there have been around 80 instances of Iranian-affiliated forces in Iraq and Syria attacking American forces stationed there. During this same time period, there have only been 4 US airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed forces. 

The White House’s rhetoric on Iran has also changed drastically since the president pledged to use force as a last resort. Last month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor gave an interesting speech that presented the Biden Administration’s flawed outlook for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Sullivan stated that: “It is a genuine danger to regional security and to global security, and, indeed, to the United States of America. And we are going to continue to take action to, yes, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and then to seek a diplomatic solution that puts this on a long-term pathway of stability.” Sullivan’s focus on using a “diplomatic solution” to stymie Iran’s nuclear program is another verbal clue that suggests the Biden Administration has not seriously considered employing military options to prevent Iran from having the bomb. 

In late May, Axios reported that US diplomats had reached out to Omani officials for help mediating negotiations with Iran. Axios also spoke to several Israeli officials who were concerned that the Americans would agree to an interim agreement with Iran that would temporarily freeze some sanctions in exchange for a short-term halt to Iran’s ongoing enrichment. These recent diplomatic efforts are particularly delusional because attempts by the US to coax Iran into a mutual return to the 'Iran Deal' have already been rejected by Tehran. 

Even if Iran was willing to re-enter the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action), any agreement would have to be approved by Congress, a prospect that is unlikely, given that any deal struck is almost certain to be inferior to the Iran Deal or merely the same agreement with far less time remaining for enforcement. 

Moreover, while sanctions are a somewhat effective method of coercing Iran into giving up its pursuit of the bomb, their impact is eroded when Iran is still trading with many non-Western nations such as China and Russia. This is because Iran can use its ample reserves of natural gas and other national resources to bring in the necessary resources (primarily, but not limited to, money) to diminish the impact of the sanctions. 

It is understandable that the current administration would want to exhaust all diplomatic options before deciding to use force against Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Any airstrike against these enrichment sites would be quite challenging because Iran’s nuclear sites are scattered across the country and some of them are extremely deep underground. It could also lead to a massive regional conflict and prompt large-scale attacks on US forces and its allies throughout the Middle East. 

Yet, fears of an overwhelming Iranian response to any strike may be overblown. When former President Trump killed Iranian general Qassem Solemani, the Iranian response was mild in comparison to the retaliation that was expected for killing such a senior member of the military leadership. Israel has been bombing Iran and its proxies in Syria for more than a decade, with negligible retaliation from Iran. The most recent strike reported was a suspected Israeli air strike this past March, which killed an advisor for Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Israel's Chief of staff at the time, Aviv Kochavi, said Israel had struck 500 Iranian-affiliated targets in 2020 alone and credited the IDF for slowing Iranian efforts to entrench themselves in Syria. 

Perhaps if the US adopted the same strategy towards Iran and its proxies, the mullahs would be convinced that the US would use force as a last resort. Eager to avoid a war that would remove themselves from power, they would back down and agree to a deal that would be to the benefit of the West. Instead, the strategic modus operandi of the Biden White House can be summed up with four words: desperate and delusional diplomacy.

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