Iran may acquire the ability to build nuclear weapons in the coming months. The failure to prevent this development by using, over two decades, diplomatic and economic pressure appears to be headed to a moment of decision in 2022. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken entered office rejecting the bluster of the Trump years and determined to stop Iran’s nuclear program with an agreement that, in the secretary’s words, would be “longer and stronger” than the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Yet to date Iran has shown no interest in entering such an agreement and instead has continued its steady progress toward the bomb. In the past several months, this sober recognition has expanded from the long-standing critics of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to include many whose initial support has given way to the reality of Iranian intransigence, and who are urging a change in American policy as a result.
In the first months of the administration, a large, bipartisan group of Senators expressed their concerned support for efforts to use diplomatic and economic pressures to convince Iran to change course. In their March 25, 2021, letter, forty Senators from the Foreign Relations Committee and across the Senate told the President,
We must confront the reality that Iran has accelerated its nuclear activity in alarming ways including increasing its centrifuge research and production and enriching uranium up to 20 percent. Iran should have no doubt about America’s policy. Democrats and Republicans may have tactical differences, but we are united on preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior.
They urged the President to “use the full force of our diplomatic and economic tools in concert with” regional and international allies in order to “prevent[t] Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons.” The “ever” was a clear shift away from the 2015 JCPOA, with its “sunset” provisions that would expire in the coming decade. Yet the statement also expressed support for the Biden administration’s hopes that diplomacy and economic sanctions would convince Iran to turn away from its nuclear ambitions.
Three months later, in June 2021, hardline Islamist cleric Ebrahim Raisi, best known for his leading role in the 1988 execution of an estimated five thousand leftist critics of the Iranian regime, became president of Iran through a rigged election. Since then, Iran’s intransigence in the negotiations in Vienna over a possible nuclear deal have diminished if not dashed hopes for a diplomatic solution.
According to one Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) report, Iran began to violate the terms of the JCPOA in May 2019. However, FDD researchers Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker note that since the election of President Biden, Tehran has been “enriching uranium to 20 and 60 percent purity, producing uranium metal, and operating advanced centrifuges,” which “provide Iran with irreversible knowledge relevant to atomic weapons production.” Their report concluded that as of November 2021, Iran appeared to be seeking “nuclear-threshold status, a position that may render other states unable or unwilling to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.” David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington (which has examined the Iran program for many years) concluded that by late November of 2021, Iran had enough enriched uranium “to produce enough weapon-grade uranium … for a single nuclear weapon in as little as three weeks.”
On December 2, 2021, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged Secretary Blinken to halt the Vienna talks in the face of what he called Iran’s “nuclear blackmail.” The following day, the New York Times quoted Blinken that, “In the very near future, the next day or so, we will be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith. I have to tell you, recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism.”
On December 14, 2021, the British, French, and German ambassadors to the United Nations sent a joint statement to the Security Council expressing their grave concerns. “For two years now, Iran has been taking unprecedented steps, and recently accelerated the pace of most sensitive violations” of the JCPOA. Iran had “curtailed monitoring” by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its nuclear program had “never been more advanced than it is today. This nuclear escalation is undermining international peace and security and the global non-proliferation system.” The three powers were “working tirelessly … with all partners” in Vienna to deliver a deal to save and restore the JCPOA. Yet Iran had
walked back hard-fought compromises reached after many weeks of challenging negotiations, while at the same time presenting additional maximalist demands. We are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear programme will have completely hollowed out the JCPOA. The diplomatic door is firmly open for Iran to do a deal now. Iran has to choose between the collapse of the JCPOA and a fair and comprehensive deal, for the benefit of the Iranian people and nation. Iran’s continued nuclear escalation means that we are rapidly reaching the end of the road.
In other words, the strongest original supporters of the JCPOA in Europe realized that the Iranian government was determined to acquire nuclear weapons and was using negotiations with the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to gain time to do so. The Vienna talks had become a farce whose only beneficiary was Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
Thus, by December 2021, the governments of the United States, France, Britain, and Germany had possibly recognized what the Israeli government understood long ago—namely, that more than twenty years of hoping that a diplomatic path could end Iran’s nuclear ambitions had instead created the illusion that diplomacy and economic sanctions alone could cause Iran to change its policy. Nothing in the twenty years of hard lines and soft lines, on-and-off negotiations, “maximum pressure” campaigns of economic sanctions, or diplomacy-heavy “longer and stronger” deals had convinced the Islamic Republic of Iran to abandon its determination to acquire nuclear weapons. As A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute have commented, in the Vienna talks the United States was “living in a fantasy” because, despite years of evidence to the contrary, “the U.S administration does not understand the fundamental political culture and ideology of the Iranian regime in its attitude towards the U.S.” For the Iranians the United States remains “the Great Satan.”
It was in the context of this growing pessimism that on December 17, 2021, the centrist and Democratic-leaning Washington Institute for Near East Policy posted a “Statement on Improving the Potential for a Diplomatic Resolution to the Iran Nuclear Challenge.” The distinguished and highly respected authors of the report—most of whom have served in Democratic administrations—wrote:
Without convincing Iran it will suffer severe consequences if it stays on its current path, there is little reason to hope for the success of diplomacy. And given the speed with which Iran is moving forward with its nuclear program, such consequences cannot be limited to political isolation, condemnatory resolutions in international fora and additional economic sanctions.…
Therefore, for the sake of our diplomatic effort to resolve this crisis, we believe it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States. The challenge is how to restore U.S. credibility in the eyes of Iran’s leaders. Words—including formulations that are more pointed and direct than ‘all options are on the table’—are also necessary but not sufficient.
In that context, we believe it is important for the Biden administration to take steps that lead Iran to believe that persisting in its current behavior and rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will put to risk its entire nuclear infrastructure, one built painstakingly over the last three decades.
The statement reasserted a commonplace in international affairs: without a credible threat of force, diplomacy with an adversary has faint prospect of succeeding. The statement’s significance lay not only in what it said but who said it, namely, political figures and policymakers who were or have become identified with the Democratic Party. The authors are people who shared the Biden administration’s initial aim for a deal with Iran that was “longer and stronger,” yet they understood that the Iranians in Vienna were behaving as a power that had nothing to fear from its negotiating partners. If there were to be any chance at all for a deal, the Iranian government needed to have a rational fear of the consequences of pursuing the bomb—something it has lacked as of December 2021.
If Iranian intransigence persists, the issue may come to a head in the coming months. Either Israel, the United States, or perhaps some other permanent member of the Security Council will actually leverage a credible threat of force against the oft-repeated red line that Iran must not have nuclear weapons, or the Islamic Republic of Iran may acquire nuclear weapons. Doing so is the least bad of the available options. Allowing Iran to get the bomb when the United States has the air and naval resources to prevent it would be worse. Should the Biden administration resort to force, it must remind itself why U.S. policy is opposed to Iran’s possession of the bomb, and why force may be necessary not only to prevent catastrophe in the Middle East, but also to defend America’s national interests.
At the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, then-Vice President Mike Pence put part of the issue very clearly, saying,
One lesson of that dark chapter of human history [the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp] is that when authoritarian regimes breathe out vile anti-Semitic hatred and threats of violence, we must take them at their word. The Iranian regime openly advocates another Holocaust, and it seeks the means to achieve it. The Ayatollah Khamenei himself has said, ‘It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map.’
Pence may have been the last high-ranking American official to speak this truth in public.
Israelis have made a similar case. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of the Republican Party and Donald Trump demolished his ability to convince liberals to take his warnings with the seriousness they deserved, even though there is a broad consensus in Israel. Benny Morris, a leading Israeli historian, put it bluntly in the Jerusalem Post in 2007. Describing the possible details of a nuclear attack on Israel, he wrote, “The second Holocaust” will not be like the first … but it will be a Holocaust nonetheless.”
Despite its denials, Iran’s passion to destroy the Jewish state draws on a religiously inspired hatred of Jews, Judaism, and, therefore, the state of Israel. With few exceptions, however, the American discussion about Iran and U.S. negotiations with it have not focused on the Iranian regime’s ideological orientation or its radical antisemitism. Rather, it has been in Germany where some liberal intellectuals—writing in the postwar national tradition of confronting the crimes of the Nazi era—have taken a lead in raising the alarm about Iran and the bomb. In 2016 for instance, historian and political scientist Matthias Küntzel summarized the reasons why the Islamic Republic must not acquire nuclear weapons as follows:
It is not technology that makes the Iranian nuclear program so dangerous but the ideological context in which it arises: that mixture of a yearning for death and weapons-grade uranium, Holocaust denial and high-tech laboratories, antisemitism, and rocket science, Shiite Messianism and plutonium. Only in Iran is the Shiite fantasy of religious providence united with the physics of mass destruction. For the first time since the splitting of the atom we find the destructive force of the bomb linked to the fury of holy war.
The threat of nuclear retaliation would not necessarily deter Iran from achieving its goal of annihilating the Jewish state and its citizens. The assumptions of rationality and the desire to survive might not apply to a regime inflamed with such religious passion. If so, a policy of containment and deterrence that succeeded when applied to the Soviet Union during the Cold War would not be applicable to an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons. Such a “reactionary modernist” state, one that combined rejection of modern liberal culture and politics with an embrace of nuclear weapons, would pose grave dangers not only to Israel, but also to the United States and Europe. Should Iran “extend” nuclear deterrence over to Hamas and Hezbollah, both described by the United States as terrorist organizations, an Iranian bomb would pose severe problems for Israel’s exercise of self-defense in response to conventional attacks by these enemies with their Iranian-funded and -supplied missile arsenals.
If Israel had been at the negotiating table in recent years with Iran, the issue of its ideological orientation, its antisemitism, and its threats to destroy the Jewish state would have been a key topic of discussion. But neither Israel nor the Arab states most directly threatened by Iran have been allowed to participate. The exclusion of Israel at the talks, then and now, alone represents Iran’s success in isolating the primary target of its hatred. What diplomatic solution can be achieved if the parties most directly affected are absent from the negotiations? One wonders if that exclusion is an after-effect of decades of false accusations made by Iran and others against Israel in numerous international forums.
In fact, the United States has devoted too little attention to Iran’s combination of a multipronged, state-sponsored antisemitic hatred combined with its push for nuclear weapons, even though this is a crucial feature of the entire issue.1 Iran’s antisemitic interpretation of world politics implicates the United States in the alleged crimes not only of Israel’s policies, but of its mere existence. The radical antisemitism of the Iranian government is not only an expression of hatred; it serves as a conspiratorial interpretation of world politics. If, as the mullahs claim, Israel is evil, then in Iran’s view the United States, as Israel’s ally, is complicit in this evil, and it too must be punished. Iran is not the first antisemitic regime that linked its hatred of the Jews to hatred of the United States and secular liberal democracy—an issue American policymakers should consider when they define our national interest in this matter.
Seven years ago, in my article “Taking Iran's Antisemitism Seriously,” I noted that then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told the U.S. Senate that “years of obfuscation, delay, and endless negotiation” had “brought the Iranians to the point of having—according to the director of national intelligence—the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The JCPOA of the following year postponed but did not resolve the issue.
Iran, I wrote, had “not invested billions of dollars and weathered years of international isolation only to change course and stop pursuing nuclear weapons.” If the plan of the Security Council’s permanent members was “to contain and deter a nuclear Iran rather than to prevent it from getting the bomb in the first place,” then their refusal to make Iran’s ideology a central aspect of the talks made “a certain sense.” Yet such a policy rested “on a willful ignorance of the regime’s core beliefs.”
President Biden and Secretary Blinken came into office seemingly sobered by Iran’s determination to pursue the bomb, aware of the shortcomings of the 2015 agreement in the Obama years and determined to avoid the Trump administration’s diplomatic failures. Iran’s behavior since the beginning of the Biden administration has not differed from its actions of the past two decades. It has pursued, at varying rates of speed, the policy of becoming a nuclear weapons power. The Biden administration cannot, as its predecessors could, avoid the moment of truth with hopes that the issue could be postponed into the indefinite future. All the available evidence indicates that the issue of whether Iran does or does not get the bomb will be decided in the coming year or two—that is, during the Biden administration.
Let us take the leaders of Iran seriously. Let us not dismiss their words and beliefs as empty rhetoric or cynical propaganda. Let us assume that when they bellow “death to America” or declare their determination to eliminate or liquidate the Jewish state, they mean exactly what they are saying. When and if the leaders in Tehran believe that American threats to use force are credible, then—and only then—might they turn away from the catastrophic course on which they are clearly headed. Yet they may not abandon a policy they have pursued for these many years.
If so, the United States, in defense of our national security and, yes, to prevent a second Holocaust, should say to the leaders in Iran: Because you believe so deeply in these despicable hatreds and embrace this mad policy, we will use all the means at our disposal to prevent you from acquiring the absolute weapon.
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland, College Park. His book Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949 is forthcoming in March 2022.
1On Holocaust denial and antisemitism in the Islamic Republic of Iran, also see Meir Litvak, “Iranian Antisemitism and the Holocaust,” in Anthony McElligott and Jeffrey Herf, eds., Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust: Altered Contexts and Recent Perspectives (London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2017), p. 207.
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