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The China challenge, the Iran impasse and the Ukraine conundrum

Expectations and speculation about the US response if the Vienna negotiations fail to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Plan of Action, are rampant these days. Experts and pundits are voicing their belief that the Biden administration will continue to impose sanctions on Iran if the seventh round fails to reach a common understanding to return to the agreement.

Others believe that Washington has no choice but to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Some Western analysts go so far as to say that the White House might agree to an emergency military strike against Iran.

Most US intelligence estimates indicate that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are on the verge of a “critical point,” meaning that Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon. One factor fueling the prospect of a military strike is declining US optimism about the possibility of a “deal” with Iran’s new negotiating delegation.

Media reports indicate that it holds very different views than the previous delegation under Hassan Rouhani. It wants “all” or “nothing” in terms of a full lifting of US sanctions, including the release of Iranian funds frozen in the US in exchange for a full return to compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

This demand is a major loss for the Biden administration, which believes Iran’s nuclear capabilities are well beyond the point where former President Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018. It needs Iran’s acceptance of the old agreement and new verification mechanisms to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program returns to normal before US withdrawal.

This is very difficult, both in terms of implementation and getting Iran to agree. Beyond the war scenarios and the proposals that each team sees as supporting its position, there is the time factor that prevents the Biden administration from even considering the option of war with Iran.

Many discuss this scenario detached from the international environment, which seems to be more important to US policymakers. It is true that the US will not “stand idly by” if Iran insists on continuing its nuclear program and does not take what Britain called its “last chance” at the Vienna negotiations.

But that does not mean, in my view, that the US response will be limited to the military option, for several reasons and considerations. First, the decision to go to war in the Middle East does not appear to be acceptable to the American public right now.
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Also, economic conditions and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic do not make this decision an affordable one for the White House, especially given the difficulty of achieving the objective (reducing Iran’s nuclear capabilities) with a military surgical attack, and most important in my view is the growing Chinese strategic challenge to American influence in East Asia.

In Taiwan, opportunities for Chinese military intervention are emerging. Washington takes the threat of war seriously. The Pentagon, which considers China a “major adversary of the US,” is seriously considering scenarios to defend Taiwan.

President Biden has pledged that his country will not allow an invasion of the island nation, which China is seeking to annex. China, for its part, has warned through its state media that US forces would be attacked if they tried to assist Taiwan in a Chinese attack.

The specter of war is escalating to the point that Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has expressed hope that Taiwan will not trigger a third world war. The US strategic dilemma is not limited to East Asia, but also to the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Biden has warned of the consequences of a Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory.

US intelligence agencies believe Moscow is planning for this scenario in early 2022, and European powers have called on NATO to prepare for war with Russia. But the US position on this issue is clear. Washington simply declares its readiness to help Ukraine defend its territory and stresses that military action (against Russia) is out of the question.

The ceiling of US support for Ukraine seems to be new sanctions against Russia. US actions are focused on responding to a Russian invasion with sanctions and military backup for the Ukrainian army. Three hot issues converge on President Joe Biden’s desk: the Iranian nuclear dossier, China’s threat to Taiwan, and Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine.

They are all complex and critical issues for US strategic interests, notably the situation in East Asia with respect to the future of US global influence. Given this complexity of issues, the calculus of US interests will certainly have the last word. Here, in my view, the possibility of a US military escalation against Iran becomes increasingly unlikely.

Washington may even be inclined to prevent the Israeli ally from launching a military operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities because of the complex circumstances that prevent Tel Aviv from receiving US military support in the event of a renewed attack by Iran and its military arms stationed in Israel’s neighboring countries.

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