Less than a week before world powers resume negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East says his forces stand ready with a potential military option should talks fail.
“Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, tells TIME. “The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.”
Negotiators from Iran are scheduled to meet their European, Russian, and Chinese counterparts in Vienna Nov. 29 in order to explore the possibility to reduce the program in exchange to easing international sanctions. The U.S. will not take part in the talks at Iran’s request, and American officials have repeatedly warned that time is running out to restore the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
President Joe Biden has made clear that the U.S. has no desire to engage in yet another destabilizing war in the Middle East, but officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department have worked to develop so-called “Plan B” options should diplomacy fail and Iran opt to build the bomb, ranging from additional sanctions to military action.
Iran has made great strides in developing its nuclear weapons programme. It now produces uranium that is enriched up to 60% and is closer to 90% of the material required for weapons production, according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N. watchdog. McKenzie believes Tehran has not made the decision to press ahead with manufacturing an actual warhead, but he shares concerns with America’s Middle East allies about the progress Iran has made.
“They’re very close this time,” McKenzie says. “I think they like the idea of being able to breakout.”
The Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit think tank that specializes in nuclear weapons analysis, issued a report in September that found Iran could produce enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon in a month under a “worst-case breakout estimate.” After breakout begins, Iran could produce a second weapon in less than three months, then a third in less than five months.
Iran has stone-walled IAEA inspectors’ access to its facilities for months. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the agency’s director general, said Tuesday his team has been unable to access surveillance footage inside nuclear facilities and subjected to “excessively invasive physical searches.”
Even if Tehran decides to amass enough fuel for a bomb, McKenzie says, the nation hasn’t yet standardized a design for a warhead that’s small enough to be affixed atop any of its arsenal of 3,000 ballistic missiles. Iran has not shown it is capable of building a vehicle that can withstand the heat, pressure, and vibrations of returning from space to Earth. “We haven’t seen any of that,” McKenzie says. “That’s what’s going to take a little time for them to build.” He estimates it would take Iran more than a year to develop this capability with a robust testing program.
McKenzie claims that Iran has shown that its missiles can strike precise targets. Iran fired more than twelve Qiam-1, Fateh-313 and Fateh-313 missiles at launch sites located at three bases in west Iran. These missiles hit Al Asad (Iraq) and Erbil (Iraq). Buildings, living quarters and aircraft were destroyed by the missiles. The blasts did not kill anyone, though most people had managed to hide in underground trenches and bunkers. However, 109 American soldiers were injured by the blasts.
“Those missiles hit within tens of meters of their targets,” McKenzie says. “The one thing the Iranians have done over the last three-to-five years is they built a very capable ballistic missile platform.”
It has not been formalized. international negotiations with Tehran since June, a month before Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran’s president. This new leader, a hardliner, has sought to improve the terms of the nuclear deal. He insists on lifting all sanctions that harm the economy in exchange for Iran stopping its nuclear activities. He maintains the nation’s nuclear program is peaceful and accuses U.S.-ally Israel of carrying out unprovoked military strikes, including assassinating Iranian scientists and attacking facilities. The IAEA cameras at this location were destroyed in one such attack.
Israel denies or confirmed these claims, however it has been vocal about its disappointment with the JCPOA. “Even with the return to an agreement, Israel is of course not part of the agreement. Israel is not bound by it,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday. “We will maintain our freedom to act.”
Trump’s administration made the international financial system a weapon against Tehran when he abrogated 2015’s nuclear agreement. His “maximum-pressure campaign” resulted in more than 1,500 sanctions against Iran along with companies and individuals who did business there, including the nation’s central bank, national oil company and other vital sectors of its economy. This triggered a mass exodus among financial institutions and corporations that preferred to abandon Iran investments than face sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department. Iran’s economy-sustaining oil exports plunged to historic lows.
While the Biden administration has been open to rolling back penalties, the possibility of lifting terrorism-related restrictions is problematic politically. The President will likely be accused of being soft-spoken if he removes them. “There is no legal barrier to how far the President can go in undoing Trump’s sanctions, but the political cost in certain areas is prohibitive,” says Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. “A narrow path remains open, but the odds of a diplomatic breakthrough are not looking promising at all.”
Republicans, Israel and Gulf nations have all pressured the White House to address what they say are Iran’s “malign activities.” Tehran is involved in every serious conflict in the Middle East, almost always on the side of America’s enemies. U.S. officials claim that Iranian-linked terrorists carried out a drone strike against an American military base in al-Tanf, eastern Syria on October 20th. Although there were no U.S. casualties in the attack, buildings were damaged. “We had a little bit of luck,” McKenzie says. “We’re in the middle of a battle drill. No one died because we had personnel out in positions. But that is solely due to our action and not the action of the enemy, who was clearly trying to kill Americans.”
Nine days following the al-Tanf terrorist attacks, U.S. Treasury Department issued an announcement NeueSanctions against two members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and two associated companies, for providing lethal drones to insurgent groups operating in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Biden officials agree that Iran has a history of bad actors intent to increase its presence in the Middle East. Now the question is, how much will the Biden Administration tolerate for the restoration of the nuclear deal.
At the moment, Iran is refusing to lift all U.S. sanctions. In response to Iran’s insistence that all U.S. sanctions be lifted, Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly questioned Iran’s willingness to pursue diplomacy and implied an ultimatum if Iran chooses not to “engage in a meaningful way and get back into compliance.” The U.S. and other JCPOA signatories—Russia, China, Germany, Britain, and France—will consider “all of the options necessary to deal with this problem,” Blinken told CNN on Oct. 31.
Henry Rome is an Iran specialist at Eurasia Group. He says there aren’t many great choices. “In theory, there are four options: Iran getting a bomb, Iran getting bombed, Iran restraining its program through diplomacy, or Iran hovering on the edge of those three at the same time,” he says. “At this point in time, we’re in that uncomfortable position where diplomacy is not working and the bomb/be bombed options are unacceptable. It’s not a sustainable position, but it’s where we are right now.”
Even before Trump took office, the U.S. was responding to Iran’s regional expansion with military, intelligence and diplomatic countermeasures. Trump’s decision to unilaterally walk away from the nuclear deal accelerated the confrontation, but the willingness for talks indicates the two nations see some value in de-escalating tensions.
McKenzie believes it’s best to take a multilateral approach. “We have made a conscious decision to work this through diplomatic channels, he says. “And I would just tell you, it’s better to approach it from a collective perspective, rather than as a single problem, as we did for awhile.”