Iran announced this week that the severe economic sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump will force it to close the long-running Bushehr nuclear power plant, which produces electricity. The official explanation noted U.S. banking restrictions, which have made it difficult for Iran to transfer money and procure necessary equipment from Russian suppliers.
Under normal circumstances, this announcement, which is essentially Tehran’s first public admission of the efficacy of U.S. sanctions, should have made officials in Washington happy. Indeed, if the Iranians are at the point of admitting their struggles, it shouldn’t be long before they return to the negotiating table to sign a new and improved nuclear deal.
The truth, however, is the opposite. Although the past three years have been the most economically difficult since the war with Iraq in the 1980s, contrary to most of the expectations in the West, the Iranian economy hasn’t completely collapsed under the weight of sanctions and Tehran has not waved a white flag.
It seems the Iranians have found ways to bypass the sanctions and since the beginning of the year have even shown impressive signs of expanding oil exports due to China’s direct and indirect purchases of crude oil. China, as we learned this week, has also signed a long-term strategic deal with Tehran.
The result: Instead of rushing to grab U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposals with two hands, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now signaling that Iran is in absolutely no hurry. “There are times that the risks outweigh the benefits,” he said, adding, “When we signed the nuclear deal we acted hastily. Now we have patience. If the United States accepts our conditions, that’s good, and if not, we can hold on.”
The issue is that Biden, too, who is under competing pressures from senior administration officials about how to handle the Iranians and is troubled by even bigger domestic problems, is not projecting a sense of urgency or willingness to meet Tehran’s demands and remove the sanctions first. Iran must first stop violating the nuclear deal, “and then we’ll see,” he has said.
Both sides hunkering down in their own positions has led to a dead end. At present, they haven’t even agreed to a preliminary sit-down. The main problem is that time is mostly on Iran’s side, which lowers the odds for a resolution.
First, because Iran is continuing, in the meantime, to brazenly violate the nuclear deal. It is enriching uranium to 20 percent purity and hasn’t stopped testing its new and faster centrifuges.
Second, because in less than two months the deal between Iran and the International Energy Agency will expire, which prevents Iran from restricting IAEA inspectors’ freedom of movement and access to nuclear sites. Third, because in three months Iran will hold presidential elections, which appear increasingly likely to produce a winner from the hardline camp that opposed the nuclear deal from the outset and will likely oppose any more compromises with the West.
Fourth, because the ongoing stalemate brings Iran closer to the expiration date of the original deal signed in 2015, after which it can enrich uranium to its heart’s content and build a manufacture a nuclear bomb unimpeded.
And fifth, because every day that passes allows the Iranians to advance and improve their ballistic missile program and simultaneously intensify their regional subversion, from supplying precision weapons to Hezbollah to aiding the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In this context, it is important to note the expansion of the Israeli-Iranian shadow war to the maritime front and the recent attacks on two Israeli-owned cargo vessels attributed to Iran. Recent satellite photos have revealed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is building three new warships, perhaps to compensate for their obvious inferiority at sea.
Among Biden’s advisers are those who believe that instead of bickering over who makes the first move, and to unlock the stalemate, Washington should propose that Iran only cease enriching uranium in exchange for the partial removal of sanctions. If the Iranians refuse, the nuclear hourglass will continue running out.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.