Iran’s nuclear ambitions are again looming over a new American administration. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to resuscitate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that President Trump unilaterally discarded. But after four years of enduring sanctions and targeted assassinations, the Islamic Republic may no longer be listening. Some experts fear that Iran’s pragmatists—led by President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear agreement—have been discredited and that Iran’s hard-liners are too suspicious of the West to reengage with another American leader.
As usual, the debate in Washington misreads the realities in Tehran. For the past five decades, under two very different regimes, Iran has pursued essentially the same nuclear strategy. While many Westerners fret over the tussling between Iran’s moderates and hard-liners, the most striking aspect of Iran’s nuclear-arms policy over the decades is its consistency. Mr. Biden is trying to return to diplomacy at the precise time when significant arms-control breakthroughs are all but impossible.
Iran’s nuclear program ramped up in earnest during the 1970s, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi concluded that his ambitions to dominate the region might require the ultimate weapon. In 1975, the shah told the New York Times that while he wasn’t seeking the bomb, “if 20 or 30 ridiculous little countries are going to develop nuclear weapons, then I may have to revise my policies.” In his chatty way, the shah was hinting at a nuclear hedging strategy: Iran would build a sophisticated nuclear infrastructure but defer assembling a bomb, depending on events in its dangerous neighborhood.
In 1979, Islamist revolutionaries overthrew the shah. The new theocracy destroyed much of the old order but proved protective of its nuclear inheritance. The Middle East was still a disorderly region, and the revolutionaries were as much Persian chauvinists as the monarch they overthrew.
Iran’s new clerical oligarchs never made nuclear ambitions a matter of factional dispute. The reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) was as committed to the nuclear program as his reactionary successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13). Under the watchful eye of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nuclear program didn’t fall prey to Iran’s poisonous domestic politics.
The Islamic Republic’s nuclear achievements are impressive. The shah entered the atomic age standing on the shoulders of others. He obtained limited technical assistance under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program established by President Dwight Eisenhower, but only after the rush of oil wealth in the 1970s could the shah afford his nuclear ambitions. Rather than patiently building his own country’s scientific capacity and training specialists, he relied on technologies and expertise from abroad. That left his program vulnerable to the moods of the outside world. In the 1970s, when Congress grew apprehensive about nuclear proliferation in the developing world, the shah couldn’t obtain needed technologies from the U.S. and had to shop around Europe.
The mullahs, on the other hand, built their nuclear program by training scientists, building laboratories and emphasizing homegrown technologies. They received some support from Russia and various illicit sources but largely depended on themselves. Of course, the international community was far too wary of Iran’s revolutionary zeal to enable its atomic aspirations. Far from getting assistance from abroad, Iran has confronted concerted efforts to undermine its nuclear program, from denial of technology to sabotage and even the assassination of its scientists. Iran’s development of an elaborate enrichment capability using advanced centrifuges is an indication of its leaders’ determination and its scientists’ acumen.
Iran has paid a steep price for these achievements. By the time Mr. Rouhani was inaugurated in 2013, sanctions had pushed the economy to the verge of collapse. But even that predicament didn’t impel Tehran to abandon its essential nuclear assets.
The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aimed to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran’s program was delayed but not derailed. The shah would probably have been proud of this agreement, which recognized Iran’s right to enrich nuclear fuel—something he could never get the U.S. to accept.
Yet Mr. Rouhani overpromised about the likely financial dividends of the deal, hoping that foreign investors would replenish Iran’s coffers. The wall of sanctions cracked in 2015, but it didn’t crumble. Iran sold more oil, but it proved too risky a destination for a massive re-entry of global commerce. Bankers tend to be skeptical of regimes that support terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and meddle in other people’s civil wars. Even before President Trump tore up the deal and reimposed U.S. sanctions, many Iranians were already disillusioned with Mr. Rouhani. His government’s mismanagement of the pandemic only weakened his rule.
Even under duress, Iran didn’t renounce the 2015 deal, because it didn’t unduly shift its decades-old nuclear trajectory. With “sunset clauses” built into some of its tougher provisions, the deal was never a secure barrier to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and its utility is dwindling by the day.
The Biden administration may succeed in reinstating some or all of the nuclear deal. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s choice for national security adviser, said Monday at The Journal’s CEO Council Summit that the incoming administration hoped to put Iran “back into the box” by rejoining the 2015 deal and forcing Tehran to comply with its terms, thereby laying the groundwork for a “follow-on negotiation” on broader issues.
But any U.S. hopes for wider progress with Iran are likely to be frustrated. Mr. Biden wants to extend the provisions of the 2015 agreement, cap Iran’s missile capability and curtail its malign activities across the region. No political faction in Iran is willing to sign up for that deal. Even Western diplomats’ favorite Iranian functionary, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, says that the deal “will never be renegotiated. Period.” Nor is the Islamic Republic willing to sever ties with the militias and proxies that do its bidding across the Middle East.
“ After Trump’s chaotic tenure, Iran’s top leader has little confidence in America’s pledges. ”
Trust is a perishable commodity in international affairs, and after Mr. Trump’s chaotic tenure, Iran’s top leader has little confidence in America’s pledges. The lesson that Mr. Khamenei has learned from the renewed U.S. sanctions is to try to immunize Iran’s economy from the pain. He hopes to lessen Iran’s dependence on oil, develop internal markets and rely on trading partners such as China. Self-sufficiency and self-reliance are the new buzzwords in Tehran, and that leaves little room for accommodating Americans bearing carrots and sticks.
The Islamic Republic thinks that the region is conspiring against it, with Gulf Arab sheikhdoms embracing an Israel that is taking the fight to Iran. The mullahs are pursuing their own hedge strategy, building up their nuclear apparatus and waiting for the right moment to exercise their breakout option and become a nuclear-arms power. After all, the shah relentlessly pursued nuclear capability, sought to dominate his neighborhood and hectored the U.S. to keep its armada out of the Persian Gulf. His Islamist successors will hardly settle for less.
—Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Collapse of the Pahlavi Dynasty.”