The US and its allies have few ways to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, with the prospect of talks long gone, and tougher action against Tehran risks increasing tensions in the region, which are already running high over the Gaza war.
With U.S. elections next year limiting Washington’s room for maneuver, four current and three former diplomats painted a bleak picture of efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.N. nuclear watchdog reports continues to advance.
According to one of two confidential International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports seen by the news agency, Iran already has enough enriched uranium with a purity of up to 60% – close to weapons-grade and at a level that Western powers say has no civilian use. use – to make three bombs.
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Reports say the stockpile continues to grow, even though Iran has consistently denied it wants nuclear weapons.
After failing to revive the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that was abandoned by former US President Donald Trump in 2018, President Joe Biden is now unable to even consider a more informal “understanding” to limit Tehran’s nuclear work , while conflict is raging in the region and tensions are rising, Reuters also points out and quotes a high-ranking European diplomat who is categorical:
“There is a kind of paralysis, especially among Americans, because they don’t want to add fuel to the fire.”
Any talks to reach an “understanding” with Iran would mean Washington would offer concessions – such as easing its tough sanctions regime against Tehran – in exchange for restraint on nuclear development for military use.
Such a move now seems unthinkable after the Iran-backed Palestinian group Hamas carried out a devastating attack on US ally Israel on October 7. Since then, Iran’s regional proxy militias have carried out dozens of attacks against US and coalition troops in Iraq and Syria, according to the Pentagon.
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At home, the Biden administration is constrained by the US presidential election, which is just a year away. Trump, who currently seems the most likely opponent of Biden, could take advantage of any engagement with Tehran and portray it as weakness.
“In the current environment, it’s just not politically expedient to seek a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue,” said Robert Einhorn, a former US State Department official. “The political debate will not really be about negotiations with Iran, but about confrontation.”
Iran v. IAEA
Washington has sent two aircraft carriers to the region and warplanes to the eastern Mediterranean, partly as a warning to Tehran. But US officials also made it clear they did not want an escalation, calling on Iranian-backed militias to withdraw, the news agency said, adding:
“Washington and its allies – France, Britain and Germany – who were among the parties to the 2015 nuclear deal – will now focus on next week’s IAEA Board of Governors meeting.”
This week’s IAEA reports show that Iran is making steady progress in its nuclear activities and indicate that Tehran continues to block the agency from monitoring the country’s nuclear activities.
A deal struck in March to reinstall surveillance equipment, including cameras that were removed last year at Iran’s request, has only been partially followed.
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The “removal” of some of the agency’s most experienced inspectors from Tehran in September, a move that effectively barred them from working in Iran, also raised concerns for the IAEA.
In September, Western powers threatened to pass a binding resolution ordering Iran to change course, one of the strongest sanctions in the IAEA board’s arsenal. But four diplomats said a resolution was unlikely now because it was imperative to avoid a diplomatic and nuclear escalation with Iran while attention turned to Israel’s conflict with Hamas.
They say a less provocative move, such as a firm non-binding statement threatening tougher action at the next board meeting in March, is more likely for now.
“We cannot pass a resolution,” says a senior European diplomat. “If we accept one, we risk pushing the Iranians to 90% uranium enrichment.”
Uranium for military use must have a purity of about 90%.
Two other diplomats said the only thing that could be done in the coming months was to support efforts by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi to strengthen oversight of Iran’s nuclear program. It aims to send its inspectors back before the end of the year.
“It is too early to say whether Iran will become a nuclear state or remain a threshold state as it is now,” said a third diplomat. “But for now, Tehran will continue to enrich uranium.”