FROM 'MAXIMUM PRESSURE' TO 'MINIMAL RESISTANCE'
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
The Biden administration has barely responded to Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program.
President Biden must recognize the fact that his Iran policy risks giving birth to an Iranian threshold nuclear capability. Washington should embrace pressure before it’s too late.
December 8, 2021 | VIA The Dispatch Behnam Ben Taleblu Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Andrea Stricker Research Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Last week marked the first time the Biden administration partook in indirect negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s new ultra-hardline government. Unsurprisingly, after days of discussion, no deal was clinched to revive the faltering 2015 nuclear accord. Iran made maximalist demands and upended initial agreements reached during previous rounds of talks. Washington now faces the uphill challenge of containing Tehran’s expanding nuclear program while recalibrating its Iran policy.
Tehran is increasingly comfortable with reducing international monitoring of its atomic activities and making irreversible nuclear advancements on the ground. The regime may even be inclined to push uranium enrichment to weapons grade. Tehran’s more recent boldness stems in great part from signals Washington sent throughout 2021 that the United States is unwilling to hold the regime accountable.
A close look at Iran’s nuclear advances over the past two and a half years shows Tehran’s most egregious nuclear violations occurred under Biden’s watch. The Trump administration’s May 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provided an avenue—and political argument—for Iranian escalation, yes. But withdrawal merely expedited the fait-accompli of Iran’s growing enrichment capacity. It didn’t create it. The 2015 accord had already allowed for significant Iranian nuclear expansion after 2026.
Tehran’s initial responses to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was to absorb what it hoped would be a short-lived attempt at unilateral sanctions. In May 2019, however, Iran embarked on a policy of graduated escalation in which it incrementally and overtly breached the JCPOA’s limits. The regime also embraced other forms of escalation—particularly in the maritime and regional domains—in hopes of generating sufficient fear and leverage to make the Trump administration end its mounting pressure policy.
Despite early fears that Tehran might use the withdrawal to dash to a weapon, at the start of 2020, even nonproliferation experts supportive of the JCPOA assessed that Iran was not expanding its nuclear program as quickly as it could. While Tehran touted the end of all nuclear-related restrictions and continued growing its uranium stockpile, its advances up until late 2020 paled in comparison to the nuclear risk-taking that followed.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, candidate Joe Biden sought a sharp contrast with the Trump administration’s Iran policy, which he critiqued as risky and war-prone. By pledging to restore the deal Trump left, which offered sanctions relief in exchange for temporary nuclear limitations, the Biden team implied that military force would not be on the table as a tool of counterproliferation.
Weeks after Biden’s election, Iran’s Guardian Council approved a new parliamentary law mandating a significant escalation of the country’s nuclear activities. Both events would foreshadow the conflicting sensibilities guiding Washington and Tehran in 2021: risk-aversion and restraint by the former and risk-tolerance and escalation by the latter.
Starting in January 2021, Iran resumed enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, a level technically considered highly enriched and an activity that Tehran had paused in 2014. Iran carried this out at Fordow, a highly fortified enrichment bunker that the West failed to shutter in previous rounds of nuclear talks. In February, the regime pulled out of an inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that gives greater insight into nuclear activities, and threatened to delete agency recordings and data at relevant Iranian sites.
In April, Iran began to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity, a historic first for the Islamic Republic, putting it a stone’s throw from 90 percent, the ideal level for atomic weapons. In 2021, Iran also began to phase-in hundreds of advanced centrifuges, machines that can more efficiently produce enriched uranium than older, JCPOA-permitted models. Advanced machines are essential for any Iranian attempt to “sneak out” of its nonproliferation commitments—read: Make a covert dash for a bomb.
In August, Iran reportedly produced 200 grams of uranium metal using 20 percent enriched uranium. Tehran has no immediate civilian need for the material, which can be used in the core of a nuclear weapon.
Iran also stepped up production of advanced centrifuge parts days ahead of the latest nuclear talks. On the third day of negotiations, Tehran started enriching uranium at Fordow using a cascade of advanced centrifuges known as the IR-6, which can enrich uranium at more than five times the speed of Iran’s first-generation machines. The totality of these moves have implications for a future nuclear weapons program and offer the Islamic Republic technical and engineering feats that