Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 6 March 2024


Whistling Past the Iranian Nuclear Program


In plainer English, the world is in the dark, raising the risk that Iran accumulates a secret stock of advanced centrifuges to pursue a quiet nuclear breakout.

The IAEA’s new quarterly report finds that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium continues to increase, though Iran tried to offset the bad press with a slight decrease in its level of uranium enriched up to 60%. The Institute for Science and International Security, which has followed Iran’s program for years, says Iran can enrich enough uranium for 13 nuclear weapons, seven in the first month of a breakout. “Iran is able to produce more weapon-grade uranium (WGU) and at a faster rate since the IAEA’s last report in November 2023,” it finds.

Tehran won’t allow key monitoring equipment into the country, and it has excluded some of the IAEA’s most experienced inspectors. Under such conditions, the world can hardly rely on the IAEA to detect diversion of nuclear materials to new and undeclared facilities.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions loom over the chaos in the Middle East today. What is President Biden willing to do about it? Not much. Instead of acting, the U.S. issued one more toothless warning. Reuters reports that three European powers, Britain, France and Germany, were pushing for a resolution of censure from the IAEA board, but “the United States did not want to risk further diplomatic escalation with Iran.”

This is what our friends at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have long feared: The more Iran escalates via its proxies across the Middle East, the more leeway it will receive on its nuclear program from a distracted Biden Administration.

When a mild move such as censure is considered a bridge too far, you know the incentive structure for Iran is all wrong. After its proxies have started a war against Israel, fired on and killed U.S. troops, and almost shut down an international waterway, Iran still seems to have little to fear.

Even its oil is still flowing. A March 1 report by United Against Nuclear Iran, which tracks tankers, found that under the Biden Administration, “Iran has managed to sell $90 billion worth of U.S.-sanctioned oil, setting new export records in the process.” The culprit? “Ongoing hesitance to enforce oil sanctions on Iran.”

Hesitance may come to define the Biden foreign policy, even as Iran grows bolder. The IAEA’s Mr. Grossi cited Feb. 12 remarks by Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of Iran’s nuclear agency, who said Iran has all the components needed to make nuclear weapons, and need only assemble them. Maybe it’s time someone made Iran fear escalation more than Mr. Biden does.

WSJ Opinion: The Unhappy State of Joe Biden’s Nation
Wonder Land: If you were an adversary looking at a U.S. uncertainty about its global leadership, what would you do? Answer: Up the ante—which is exactly what Iran, Russia and others are doing. Images: AP/AFP/Getty Images/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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