Biden Administration preparations for talks with Iran
Feb 5, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
The new Biden Administration is gearing up for future talks with Iran based on its “return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal then improve it” policy – with Administration spokespeople stressing the next step is intense consultation with allies and the Administration controversially naming former JCPOA negotiator Robert Malley to head up its Iran policy, though with a promise he will have a team with diverse views. This Update offers some advice from various sources about how the Administration should approach any such negotiations.
We lead with American Jewish leader and public policy commentator Daniel Mariaschin – who notes that Iran is following a strategy of undertaking nuclear moves designed to make Western negotiators eager to quickly fulfil Teheran’s demands that sanctions be lifted. He goes on to argue that it is clear Teheran never intended to fully comply with the deal, and in any case, things have changed since 2015. He urges the Biden Administration to make its goal to be Teheran being permanently pushed out of the nuclear weapons business. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up is US foreign policy expert Ilan Berman, arguing that the Administration has more leverage over Iran than many think. Berman says that, despite its efforts to portray the opposite, Teheran is actually desperate for a new deal due to the disastrous economic situation in Iran. He cites some new research and statistics on the Iranian economy to make his case. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer a longer analysis from Israeli scientist and strategic thinker Dr. Uzi Rubin, who headed the project which produced Israel’s first missile defence system, the Arrow. Rubin discusses in particular the consequences of what he calls a “clean return” to the JCPOA nuclear deal – whereby Iran simply returns to compliance with it, and the Biden Administration then cancels all sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration on Iran. He says that this outcome would deprive the Biden Administration of any leverage over Iran to make changes to the deal or extend and expand it, and then explores at length the detrimental regional consequences of such a situation. He also takes on claims that the US must achieve a return to the JCPOA quickly before a new “hardline” Iranian President is elected in June. For all of Rubin’s important analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A report on the conviction yesterday of an Iranian diplomat who tried to bomb an opposition rally in Paris in 2020, with the Court finding he was acting as an “officer of Iran’s Intelligence and Security Ministry.”
- An excellent discussion of myths and facts about the supposed Iranian Fatwa (religious ruling) against nuclear weapons written by Washington Institute scholars Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji.
- Bahraini analyst Amjad Taha says the Biden Administration needs to understand the region has changed and the new Gulf state alliances with Israel provide new sources of leverage against Iran.
- A call to give human rights a central part of US Iran policy from human rights activist Karen Kramer. Plus, a letter to Biden from Iranian dissidents calling attention to the 27 people executed by Iran in January alone.
- Michael Rubin argues the economic dominance of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran is something the Biden Administration must take into account in its dealings with the regime.
- Seth Frantzman on the implications of the new Iranian “mega-missile” used to launch a satellite earlier this week.
- Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid discusses the problem with university attempts to impose Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel.
- French intellectual Bernard Henry Levy writes a letter to President Biden suggesting what he should do about the recent Pakistani court decision freeing the mastermind behind the murder of American reporter Daniel Pearl.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Ahron Shapiro on the latest news in the lead-up to Israel’s March 23 election, with the parties registering their final electoral lists yesterday.
- Judy Maynard’s report on how International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, sparked antisemitic comments on numerous Australian platforms.
- Oved Lobel on the dilemmas of the Biden Administration in dealing with the aggressive foreign policy of Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Put Iran out of the nuclear-weapons business for good
The question now is not if the United States will return to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but when. Notwithstanding reports that the Biden administration has too much on its plate right now to move up talks with Tehran as a priority, it certainly seems like that process is underway. That would send Washington back to the table for the first time since an agreement was concluded in 2015.
The Trump administration withdrew from the pact in May 2018, citing inherent weaknesses and loopholes on such issues as Iran’s ballistic-missile program, snap inspections of nuclear sites and sunset clauses, as well as its malign behavior in the region. In tandem with that decision, it imposed a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, including a series of sanctions on an array of Iranian political, quasi-military and commercial figures and front organizations.
The regime in Tehran has clearly been waiting for the day these policies will be reversed and has positioned itself steadily over the past few months by playing hard-to-get. Reverting to form and week by week, it has generated new developments designed to make Western negotiators (the “P-5+1” made up of the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, plus Germany) nervous.
First, it was increasing enrichment of nuclear fuel to the 20 percent level, followed by reports of the installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear installation. That was followed by reports that Iran had begun production of uranium metal, which can be used as a component in nuclear weapons.clartify
All of these developments are in breach of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement touted as keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but in fact only sidelining it because of sunset clauses that are getting near to expiration by the day.
Less than two weeks ago, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on a list of seven conditions laid out by Tehran that must be met before it returns to a negotiating table. Among them, the demand that the United States lift all sanctions imposed against it; that there be no connection made between Iran’s nuclear program and other issues, such as its ballistic-missile program or its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; that it will not permit other regional actors to enter into the JCPOA discussions; and that it refuses to back a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Already, angst on the part of our P-5+1 partners is being felt. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Iran “is in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity,” due largely to the previous administration’s maximum pressure policy. He called for a quick resumption of the JCPOA talks.
That begs a question: If the original agreement, in which France was a participant, was as watertight as it was marketed at the time, why is Iran moving headlong into developing nuclear weapons?
American Jewish leader and commentator Daniel Mariaschin
The answer lies elsewhere, in plain view. As the treasure trove of documents on Iran’s nuclear program—ferreted out of Tehran by Israeli agents in 2018 show—the Iranian regime never had any intention of exiting the nuclear-weapons business to begin with. With stealth and a measure of patience unknown in the West, Iran has been willing to wait out “maximum pressure” while raising the temperatures of its threats and its international bullying, hoping that appearance of its headlong drive to produce a weapon will instill enough trepidation for the P5+1 to prematurely offer a basket of incentives, including the removal of sanctions, to return to the table.
The Biden administration has said that before there is any resumption of talks with Tehran, it must return to full compliance with its assurances on enrichment, the installation of centrifuges and the production of uranium metal, among other provisions.
But so brazen is Tehran in believing that the P5+1 is eager to have it back at the negotiating table that the leading Iranian nuclear official recently told the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) that in order to prevent “any misunderstanding,” it should avoid publishing “unnecessary details” of its nuclear program.
Much has been written of late about how much things have changed on the ground, and that lessons have been learned since the JCPOA agreement was announced five years ago.
Time passes quickly: Sunset clauses agreed to in 2015, after which Iran can proceed with its objective of producing nuclear weapons, are now five years closer to expiration. Iran continues to pursue a ballistic-missile program unfettered.
It also continues to build up Hezbollah’s arsenal with shipments of precision-guided missiles and to be present in Syria, where it has no business other than to expand it hegemonistic objectives. Its terrorist friends and proxies—Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen—are also beneficiaries of its cash and weapons. It is seeking to establish a naval presence in the Mediterranean. And the regime remains a serial abuser of the rights of women, LGBTI, juvenile offenders and, of course, its political opponents.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by that the Iranians are not making genocidal threats “to level Tel Aviv and Haifa,” and calling for the “Zionist cancer” to be excised. Policymakers in London, Paris and Berlin may pass this off as simply rhetoric for home consumption, but Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere take it seriously. If an Iranian bomb were to become a reality, these threats would dramatically affect the stability of the entire region.
Iran’s intentionally ratcheting up its threats and its nuclear program tells us precisely about its real intentions. If it feels pressure to agree to talks on an “improved JCPOA agreement,” in its mind it needs to be wired in such a way as to repeat what happened in 2015—gain advance concessions in exchange for talks, and then to prevaricate and obfuscate its way into another loophole-filled agreement that will be just enough to satisfy our nervous partners in Europe.
Iran has demonstrated—and not only in these past five years—that it cannot be trusted. Our objective should be to put it permanently out of the nuclear-weapons business. It is on that objective that our eagerness should be focused.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, he directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.
Iran’s Ayatollahs Want a New Deal
Make no mistake. Whatever they might proclaim publicly, Iran’s leaders are desperate for a new diplomatic agreement with the West.
Despite claims to the contrary from the regime, economic conditions within the Islamic Republic have deteriorated precipitously over the past three years. (License details, Creator: Diego Delso, Copyright: CC-BY-SA 4.0)
In recent weeks, Iranian officials have redoubled their efforts to convince the new administration in Washington that the policies of its predecessor were an abject failure—and that the Islamic Republic remains unbowed. Behind the scenes, however, a very different situation has unfolded.
As a new exposé from the Financial Times makes clear, economic conditions within the Islamic Republic have deteriorated precipitously since the start of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy in mid-2018. Over the past three years, the Times notes, the number of Iranians in extreme poverty has increased fivefold, with millions more joining the ranks of the impoverished in 2020 alone. That trend has been exacerbated by inflation, which now stands at nearly 50 percent. The cost of staple goods and foodstuffs has soared beyond the ability of ordinary Iranians to pay.
“More than 60 percent of Iranian society live [sic] in relative poverty because the workers’ wages are enough for about a third of their costs of living,” Faramarz Tofighi, the head of the wages committee of the Islamic Labour Council, tells the Times. “Half of those who live below the poverty line struggle with extreme poverty.”
This state of affairs has potentially far-reaching consequences for the Iranian regime’s hold on power. “After the pandemic, if the Islamic Republic cannot curb poverty, it could face political and social instability,” Iranian economist Saeed Laylaz lays out. This is especially true because the Iranian regime has consistently favored foreign adventurism over domestic prosperity—and those skewed priorities have become a major bone of contention between the country’s clerical elite and its captive population.
All of which helps explain the Iranian regime’s eagerness for renewed dialogue and negotiations with the Biden administration. After all, the original 2015 nuclear agreement (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) provided Tehran with a much-needed economic lifeline, as relaxed international sanctions and hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect relief helped stabilize the Islamic Republic’s ailing economy.
Washington-based foreign policy analyst Ilan Berman
But that money also did much more, setting Iran’s regime on a path of sustained strategic expansion. According to Pentagon estimates, between 2015 and 2018 Iranian defense spending rose from $19.5 billion (4.3 percent of GDP) to $27.3 billion (6.1 percent of GDP). Iran also broadened its already extensive network of proxies through the creation of a “Shi’ite Liberation Army” of militants from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, who were trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and deployed to foreign theaters such as Syria. The Islamic Republic’s involvement in other regional conflicts (such as Yemen’s protracted civil strife) likewise deepened.
In other words, Iran exploited the benefits of the nuclear deal to improve its regional position and strategic capabilities. At least, that was the case until “maximum pressure” helped reestablish Iran’s international isolation and limit its economic reach.
Now, Iran’s leaders are clearly hoping to recreate those earlier, more favorable conditions with the help of the new administration. And they may have a chance to do just that. Already, some have argued that preemptive concessions are a necessary show of good faith to bring Iran’s leaders back to the negotiating table. Iranian officials agree, and—through articles, editorials and media interviews—have tried to convince the Biden administration that the very best Washington can hope for in new talks would be a return to the arrangement of a half-decade ago. Moreover, they insist, even that modest goal will require massive sanctions relief and economic inducements on America’s part.
Tehran, however, doesn’t hold all of the cards. On the contrary, domestic indicators make clear that Iran’s ayatollahs actually need a new deal (and the economic dividends that will flow from it) much more than their American counterparts do. That should be something for the Biden administration to keep in mind as it contemplates reengagement with the Iranian regime. For, quite simply, it is President Biden—not Iran’s leaders—who has the upper hand.
Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
Will US Rejoining of the Iran Nuclear Deal be Harmful or Beneficial?
Dr. Uzi Rubin
A “Clean Return,” without ironclad new provisions that strengthen and lengthen the JCPOA, will diminish US clout and destabilize the Mideast.
Jerusalem Institute for Security Studies, 26.01.2021
Back to the Future?: What are the consequences of a so-called “clean return” to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal? (Wikimedia Commons | License details, Creator: Dragan TATIC, Copyright: Dragan TATIC)
Biden’s Election Promise
One of Joe Biden’s major election promises as candidate for the US presidency was US return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA), a multilaterally negotiated agreement which had been enthusiastically negotiated by former President Barak Obama; but from which his successor President Trump withdrew in 2018.
On September 20, 2020, candidate Biden wrote: “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiation. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.” Furthermore, he declared rejoining of the nuclear deal as a priority for his administration.
Simply put, Biden undertook to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal as is, with no preliminary negotiations on “extending and strengthening” it or on other issues of concern. All these will be put on the table only after the US rejoins the nuclear deal – namely, after lifting the Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran. All this, in return for Iran’s “rollback” of its violation of the deal’s provisions, such as enriching uranium beyond JCPOA-permitted levels.
Biden’s statement defines US return to the nuclear deal as a “starting point for follow on negotiations” but leaves open the question whether it will also be Iran’s “starting point.” Biden required no prior commitment from Iran for any “strengthening and extending” of the deal, or in fact any prior commitment to negotiate. What will President Biden do if Iran flatly refuses to consider any change in the deal or to negotiate other “issues of concern”? His statement remains mute on this question.
Stripped of diplomatic verbiage, Biden’s election promise is very simple: The US will lift Trump’s sanctions in return for a rollback of Iran’s violations. It is reasonable to assume that the procedure envisaged by Biden’s team is straightforward. Once Iran rolls back the violations, and once the IAEA inspectors verify that it is back to full compliance with JCPOA provisions, President Biden will issue new presidential orders cancelling Trump’s presidential orders on Iran sanctions, and instruct the State Department to rejoin the P5+1 group of states monitoring the nuclear deal. In diplomatic parlance, this simple procedure is dubbed a “Clean Return”; a procedure that is not conditioned on anything that is outside of the language and stipulations of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Yet Biden’s statement contains some criticism of the original nuclear deal. Specifically, Biden hints about some weaknesses in the existing stipulations that need “strengthening.” He points out that the agreement needs to be “extended,” and that there are other “issues of concern” that need to be addressed. Some of the weaknesses of the original agreement were obvious even during its negotiation, and some became clear immediately after its conclusion and ever since.
In its December 5, 2020 issue, The Economist listed three reasons why US conservatives as well as Israel and the Gulf States are opposed to a US “Clean Return.” First, some of the limitations on Iran already have expired or are due to expire in the next few years. Second, the exclusion of Iran’s missile program from the nuclear deal. Third, Iran’s aggression across the region and in particular its support of armed proxy militias like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In short, critics believe that a new and improved nuclear deal is required, that will extend its duration, impose limitations on Iran’s missile programs, and require Iran to moderate its regional policies.
It goes without saying a “Clean Return” will deprive the Biden administration of any leverage over Iran regarding negotiations on, or implementation of, any changes in the existing nuclear deal. Nevertheless, immediately after the elections, speaking as president-elect, Biden did not change his position. In an interview with Tom Friedman in The New York Times on December 12, 2020 he said that “There are talks about missiles of various ranges and other matters that destabilize the region” but “that the best way to bring back a modicum of stability to the region” is “to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.” Thus, a return to the existing nuclear deal with no strings attached seems to be a cornerstone of Biden’s foreign policy.
Moreover, it stands to reason that Biden as well as his European allies will move towards Iran rapidly, under the gun of the June elections of the next Iranian president. Following the elections, Iran’s incumbent president Rouhani and his foreign minister Zarif (the team that led the nuclear deal negotiations to its conclusion in 2015) will step down. Both have a clear motivation to see the US rejoin the nuclear deal now, thereby restoring their prestige and public standing that was bruised by Trump’s withdrawal. While still in office, this duo is likely to speak softly and make some vague promises about future negotiations, as lip service to Biden’s election promise of returning to the nuclear deal as a “Starting Point.” This will provide the new US president with the moral justification for a “Clean Return,” against critics in the US, in Israel, and in the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia.
The deadline of June 2021 results from the fact that all five contenders for Iran’s presidency belong to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Hitherto there was some semblance of a balance of power between the so-called “hardliners” and the erroneously called “moderates” in Iran’s leadership. In reality, this was nothing more than a tenuous balance between the ideological-military establishment that is headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and the economic-diplomatic faction in Iran’s government that to-date has nominated all of Iran’s presidents. Many of these presidents have been considered as “moderate” by the West because they used more friendly language towards Western diplomats and civil society organizations. Some of them, most notably Rouhani, were willing to make some real concessions.
This tenuous balance will collapse once the ideological-military faction takes over the presidency. In somewhat simplistic media language, the “moderates” will be excluded – perhaps permanently – from Iran’s decision-making processes. It is not unlikely that an Iranian president who hails from the IRGC will flatly refuse to promise or even hint at any further negotiations once the US has lifted sanctions. This will make it harder for President Biden to justify a “clean return,” since it will not be a “starting point for follow on negotiations.”
It should be noted that this deadline is a self-imposed target. Once an IRGC President is in power, the likelihood is very low that he will honor any commitments from the Rouhani–Zarif era. In other words, the Biden administration is rushing to return to the nuclear deal while there is still a soft-spoken Iranian president to give the US cover for doing so; while there is still a chance to coax some vague and vacuous promises of follow-on negotiations from Rouhani and Zarif.
Dr. Uzi Rubin, father of Israel’s Arrow missile defence system.
In fact, this window of “opportunity” may be even narrower than previously envisaged. While violating some JCPOA provisions (ever since reimposition of US sanctions), the Iranians nevertheless have been careful to adhere to two key stipulations: no enrichment beyond 3.5% and permitting IAEA inspectors to visit their nuclear installations. But following the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist (Muhsin Fahrizadeh) in November 2020, the Iranian parliament (which essentially is an organ of the IRGC) legislated an increase in uranium enrichment levels to 20% and the barring of IAEA inspectors from some of their tasks. On January 2, 2021, Iran announced the resumption of 20% enrichment “as soon as possible.” A week later, on January 9, it threatened to expel all IAEA inspectors by February 21, 2021 unless sanctions are lifted by that time. Once these two measures – higher enrichment levels and the end of watchdog inspections – are implemented it will be much more difficult to roll back Iran’s transgressions.
Thus, the latest Iranian threats are obviously meant to pressure Biden into rejoining the JCPOA “cleanly,” without delay.
Motivations and Obstacles on the Road towards Rejoining the Nuclear Deal
The eagerness of the new Democratic administration to rejoin the nuclear deal derives from a combination of contemporary liberal articles of faith and pragmatic considerations.
One typical article of faith among Western liberals is that nuclear weapons are the ultimate evil that dwarfs conventional threats. Therefore, curbing nuclear proliferation justifies “conventional” concessions. Another article of faith is that diplomacy and negotiations are the preferred tools for settling disputes, and that the lack thereof inevitably brings wars. The third article of faith is the essence of the US alliance with Europe. For the new US administration, rejoining the nuclear deal signifies a return to the liberal camp of nations that pursue policies based on values rather than interests.
Beyond ideology, the new Biden administration has several pragmatic reasons to rejoin the JCPOA. One of the original aims of the nuclear deal was to prevent the nuclearization of other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Another key aim of the architects of the nuclear deal was to craft something that was more than just another routine arms control agreement, but rather a deal that augurs “detente” between the West and Iran; a new path of moderation for Iran which transition from a “rogue” state to a peaceful and respectable member of the international community. President Obama, in his “Implementation Day” statement in January 2016, called on the Iranian people to take “the opportunity to begin building new ties with the world. We have a rare chance to pursue a new path – a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world. That’s the opportunity before the Iranian people. We need to take advantage of that.”
As several US analysts have pointed out, from Obama’s perspective, the details of the Iran nuclear deal did not matter. What mattered was the very existence of an agreement, however indirect, between the US and Iran; an agreement that its architects hoped would become the first step in the “reconstruction” of Iran and its reintegration into the global community, expecting that this would soften Tehran’s policies on other matters.
Taking Biden at his word, the rush to rejoin the nuclear deal stems from the desire to “return a measure of stability to the Middle East” – which probably means Biden’s concern over an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, and in the longer run over the nuclearization of more Middle Eastern countries. The fact that the US reversal of course may destabilize the Middle East apparently is not being considered by Biden administration officials.
Still, the “clean return” policy may hit some serious obstacles. The most significant obstacle may be Iran’s own policy. According to official Iranian media releases, the US walkout from the JCPOA was an illegal violation of a UN Security Council decision and an act of aggression against Iran. President Rouhani expects that “The US will bow to the Iranian nation.” The “bowing” will be expressed in procedure. According to Rouhani, “Iran will return to the nuclear deal within one hour of the US doing so,” this demanding that the US rejoin the deal – in other words, cancel sanctions – with no strings attached, and without a prior Iranian undertaking to roll back its violations and without IAEA verification. This version of a “super clean return” will probably meet some objections even within Biden’s administration.
Moreover, in his first speech of 2021, Supreme Leader Khamenei demanded that “The United States …. compensate Iran for the damages it has endured since President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.” A similar demand was voiced earlier by Foreign Minister Zarif. Yet the most significant obstacle to a “clean return” may be an Iranian demand for assurances that the US never again will leave the JCPOA.
Catherine Ashton, former EU foreign minister, recently revealed that the Iranians had worried even during the negotiations over the nuclear deal about a US walkout, as actually happened later. Remember that President Obama never sent the nuclear deal to Congress. He committed the US to join the agreement through a UN Security Council resolution and by lifting economic sanctions on Iran through Presidential Decrees. This allowed Trump to reimpose sanctions by issuing another set of Presidential Decrees. Consequently, Iran may demand that the US legally bind itself to the JCPOA by an act of Congress, as a precondition for “rolling back its violations.” Zarif hinted as much immediately after the US election, when he said that Iran may demand “assurances” before “it allows the US to rejoin the previous nuclear deal.” Even with its newly won parity in the Senate, the Biden administration may find it difficult to get formal congressional approval for such binding JCPOA commitments.
Ever since the September 2019 devastating attack by Iranian UAVs on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, the awareness has grown among many observers (including dovish analysts) that Iran’s threat to regional and global security is not limited to its nuclear ambitions. Therefore, what is needed is more than just limits on Iran’s military nuclear program, but limits on Iran’s conventional capabilities too, including its entire spectrum of destabilizing weapon programs like ballistic missiles and UAVs.
A “clear return” to the JCPOA that leaves Iran free to pursue its destabilizing non-nuclear threats may be hard to swallow within the US administration and Congress, as well as in Europe. Even French President Macron, who in September 2019 suggested opening a $15 billion credit line for Iranian economic recovery, has stipulated that first Iran would have to end its JCPOA violations; extend the duration of the agreement; and enter negotiations on “regional security.” Macron’s statement anticipated Biden’s own list of Iran deal “weaknesses” by one year. In other words, a “clean return” might be objected to by some of America’s European allies.
No such objections were voiced at the November 23, 2020 meeting of German, British and French foreign ministers. Reportedly, the foreign ministers did not discuss any “issues of concern” regarding Iran except the ways and means for paving American rejoining of the nuclear deal. One of the suggestions made was a “super-clean return,” meaning an Iranian rollback its violations in return for US lifting of sanctions, even without the US formally rejoining the JCPOA. These foreign ministers did voice concerns about prospective Iranian demands for “assurances and compensations.”
Finally, there are regional concerns to consider. Israel’s position in this matter may not count too much in an administration that is eager to expunge Trump’s legacies. But the position of other US allies in the region including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States may have greater weight in the Biden administration.
In any case, there is an obvious conflict, even a deadlock, between Biden’s minimum demand that Iran end its JCPOA violations first, and Iran’s minimum demand that the US end sanctions first. Another conflict concerns the guiding principle of US policy. Is a return to the JCPOA a “starting point for follow-on negotiations,” as per Biden; or is it the endpoint for “US violation of UN Security Council decisions,” as per Iran?
The overwhelming majority of analysts believe that a “clean return” process is destined to be much more difficult than envisaged. It has an inbuilt deficiency, namely that the ending of sanctions strips the US of leverage on Iran for follow-on negotiations. To work around this problem, some proposals have been floated (among other by the Economist and Financial Times) for a modified rejoining process that might be dubbed “Conditional Return.” This would have the Biden administration show good faith by unilaterally cancelling some of the sanctions ahead of any Iranian agreement to rollback its violations, while leaving the rest of the sanctions in place until Iran agrees to follow-on negotiations. Naturally, the two British newspapers that floated this idea also proposed that the “good faith” part of the plan will be the lifting of European sanctions on trade with Iran.
Israel and the Iran Nuclear Deal
Was Obama’s nuclear deal beneficial or detrimental to Israel’s security? Opinions differ among Israeli analysts and leaders. One school of thought is that the sole existential threat on Israel is a nuclear Iran, hence the deal improved Israel security. This is the view of Haaretz editors who have argued that “The Iran nuclear deal lifted the single existential threat on Israel, since only nuclear weapons constitute such an existential threat.” This view is apparently shared by the IDF High Command, as reflected in a recent statement by Lt. Gen. (res.) Gad Eisenkot, former IDF Chief of Staff. He wrote that “Iran is not an existential threat to Israel,” referring to a non-nuclear Iran.
Another (apparently minority) school of thought believes that Israel is facing an existential threat not only from Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but from Iran’s conventional weapons buildup too. Recent technological advances render small, densely populated nations like Israel susceptible to nuclear scale “unacceptable damage” from precise conventional weapons. Indeed, the intentional exclusion of missiles from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was perceived by the latter (and by others) as a “green light” for Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs and their aggressive use across the Middle East. Seen from this perspective, Obama’s nuclear deal did not reduce the existential threat to Israel, but rather shifted its main thrust. Since Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats are connected, US withdrawal from the nuclear deal (while motivating Iran to resume its drive towards nuclearization) diminished Iran’s capacity to enhance its threatening non-nuclear capabilities. Unless the “weaknesses” of the original nuclear deal are corrected, Biden’s return to the deal will not improve Israel’s security but rather shift the thrust of the Iranian threat to Israel from the nuclear to the non-nuclear domain.
Still, even those Israelis who see nuclear Iran as the sole existential threat to Israel hope for a revised deal that will correct the “weaknesses” pointed out in Biden’s September 2020 statement. By way of example, it is important to understand how just one of those “weaknesses” – the ignoring of Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs, including includes drones and UAVs – greatly threatens Israel.
Indeed, there is a fundamental gap in perception of the Iranian threat that places Israel and other Middle Eastern states on one side of argument, and the US and Europe on the other. For the latter, the only prospective threat from Iran is a future nuclear arsenal capable of hitting European and US targets. For this threat to materialize, the Iranians need both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to deliver them. Since Iran’s conventional missiles have not been perceived as threats, the architects of Obama’s nuclear deal did not see any need to put any limitations on them. For Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states the Iranian threat is far more complex, consisting of three components: The threat from nuclear missiles, the threat from non-nuclear missiles, and the threat from missiles in the hand of Iran’s proxies. From Israel’s perspective, Obama’s nuclear deal reduced potential threats on Europe and the US at the cost of increasing the Iranian threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states.
Israel has never objected to an agreement that would stop Iran’s military nuclear program. Rather, it has objected to the specific agreement crafted by the Obama administration, which Israel’s Prime Minister called “a bad deal.” One of Israel’s main objections was to the exclusion of Iran’s missiles – most of which are nuclear-capable – from the nuclear deal, as well as the complete disregard of Iranian transference of missiles and technologies to its regional proxies. A “Clean Return,” even if accompanied by vague promises for “further negotiations,” will practically stamp a seal of approval on Iran’s missile programs and regional belligerency. It stands to reason that Israel will voice its reservations about this to the Biden administration.
How will the new US administration react to Israel’s reservations? As noted above, the Biden administration is robustly motivated towards “Clean Return.” Its motivations derive from ideological and pragmatic considerations, but also from the fact that many senior Biden administration officials were directly involved in negotiating the Obama nuclear deal; they have a personal stake in its revival. The desire to expunge Trump’s key policies from the US ledger also will play a major role in future policy. If the “Clean Return” process proceeds smoothly – and this depends on a large degree on Iran’s response – it is reasonable to assume that Israel’s objections will be politely rebuffed. At most, Israel will receive some “compensation,” perhaps in the form of US-led regional diplomatic initiatives. If, on the other hand, the “Clean Return” process hits the anticipated obstacles, the administration may move to a policy of “Conditioned Return.” If the “sweetener” lifting of some sanctions is symbolic rather than substantial, Biden will still retain leverage on Iran for demanding follow-on negotiations. In such a situation, the administration might be better attuned to the concern of its Middle Eastern allies – their insistence on curbs not only for Iran’s nuclear programs but its missile programs too.
The limitations Israel and other Middle Eastern countries wish to impose in Iran’s missiles are of two kinds: General limitations and-range related limitations. In the first category, (general limitations not associated with range), Israel and Saudi Arabia may demand the limitation of missile and technology transfer from Iran to its proxies. Another request may be revision of the single paragraph in the Obama nuclear deal which relates to missiles. This JCPOA paragraph calls for Iran to refrain from developing and testing “missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” In other words, the agreement mentions only such missiles that are specifically designed to carry nuclear warheads.
Each time the West has protested Iranian ballistic missile and space launch tests, the Iranians respond with two defenses. First, that the nuclear deal “calls to refrain” rather than “forbids” Iran from developing and testing missiles. Second, that the tested missies are not specifically or deliberately designed to carry nuclear warheads. The Iranian response is formally accurate. In fact, the wording of the Obama agreement permits the Iranians to develop ICBMs, as long as they are not deliberately designed to carry nuclear warheads. The ambiguous language in the nuclear deal was not accidental but rather was a sophisticated ruse employed by US negotiators to waive Iran’s missiles out of the deal without appearing to do so to non-expert readers.
It will be reasonable for Israel to request that the phrasing is simplified and tightened to “missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads,” dropping the words “designed to be.” The internationally accepted norm for a nuclear-capable missile is a payload of 500 kg. and above, regardless of what that payload consists of. Most of Iran’s ballistic and cruise missiles fall into this category.
As for range limitations, it stands to reason that this will be quite controversial. The US is about 7,000 km. away from the nearest point in Iran. The distance between Iran’s western border and the nearest EU member (Bulgaria) is 1,450 km. The Iranian leadership has announced a self-imposed limitation of 2,000 km. on the range of all their missiles, whether ballistic or cruise. The EU never has protested this, although it puts some EU territory in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania within Iran’s missile range.
In discussion of this issue with Israeli analysts, former senior officials of the Obama administration have voiced their opinion that the range limitations on Iran’s missiles should be 2,000 km. “because the Iranians will never agree to anything else.” It seems likely that this will be the position of the Biden administration.
If formalized in a new nuclear agreement, this range limitation will put an international seal of approval on all Iranian missiles with ranges below 2,000 km. In other words, acceptance of all Iranian missiles that threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states. From Israel’s perspective, it is better not to specify any range limitation rather than specify a limitation that enhances the security of Europe and the US at the cost of reducing Israel’s security.
Israel would do well to coordinate its position on Iran’s missile range limitations with Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, even if in the end this position is rebuffed by the Biden administration. Such coordination will build additional confidence between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries threatened by Iran’s missiles.
A return of the US to the Iran nuclear deal will decisively shape the future of the Middle East and Israel’s security environment, for better or worse. A “Clean Return” is apt to diminish US clout and destabilize the Middle East. If the US administration “bows to the Iranian Nation” by rushing back into the Obama nuclear deal with no substantial correction of its “weaknesses,” the Ayatollahs will justifiably regard this as a historic victory. Iranian prestige and standing in the region will be enhanced immensely, and Iranian coffers will overflow with income from oil exports and renewal of international trade.
Iran after a “Clean Return” will be stronger and more dangerous, posing a growing existential threat to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries – even if its nuclear program is delayed for a while. It is reasonable to assume that a “Clean Return” that amounts to an Iranian victory also will discourage Arab states from further normalizing their relations with Israel.
If on the other hand, the Biden administration negotiates a revised nuclear deal that fixes the obvious weaknesses of the JCPOA; if the duration of nuclear limitations will be extended; if Iran’s missile programs are restricted; and if its missile transfers to its proxies are ended – the Middle East will become significantly more stable. The security of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states will be enhanced. This will allow the US to further disengage from Middle East with lower prospects of being drawn back-in once more (as happened following the rise of ISIS). Only a “Conditioned Return” that does not leave Iran as a regional hegemon may improve global security.
 Biden, J.: There is a Smarter Way to be Tough on Iran, CNN Opinion, September 13, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html
 Statement of the President on Iran, US State Dept. January 17, 2016. https://td.usembassy.gov/statement-president-iran/
 See for example Hamid, S. Was the Iranian Deal Worth It? The Atlantic, July 16, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/iran-nuclear-deal-consequences-obama/398780/
 Next US Administration Will Bow to The Iranian Nation: Rouhani, Tanzim News Agency, December 17, 2020. https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2020/12/17/2412411/next-us-admin-will-bow-to-iranian-nation-rouhani
 Wintour, P. Iran Says it Will Rejoin Nuclear Deal Within an Hour of US Doing So, Guardian, December 14, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/14/iran-says-rejoin-nuclear-deal-within-hour-us
 Carmi, M., Khamenei First Speech of 2021: Reemphasizing US Weakness, Iranian Self Reliance, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 8, 2021. Khamenei’s First Speech of 2021: Reemphasizing U.S. Weakness, Iranian Self-Reliance | The Washington Institute
 McElroy, D. Iran’s Zarif Demands US Compensations Before Any New Talk, The National, September 21, 2020. https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/iran-s-zarif-demands-us-compensation-before-any-new-talks-1.1081226
 Ashton, C. I helped Negotiate the Iran Nuclear Deal. Here’s How Joe Biden Could Revive It” Time, November 21, 2020. https://time.com/5914237/joe-biden-iran-nuclear-deal/
 Kishor, N.: Biden Faces an Iranian Dilemma, The Sunday Guardian Live, November 28, 2020. https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/biden-faces-iran-dilemma
 Irish, J. and Hafezi P., Iran Pushes 15 Billion Credit Line Plan for Iran, If US Allows it, Reuters, September 3, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-usa-france-idUSKCN1VO1AF
 Leader: Towards A Better Nuclear Deal, The Economist, December 5, 2020.
 Manso, K, Bozorgmer, N. and Peel, M., Biden Team Considers Options on Iran Nuclear Deal, Financial Times, November 10, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/c6a3136d-804b-477a-953f-442645935ba2
 Meir, S. The Killing of Fahrizadeh Complicated Biden’s Iran Policy” Haaretz, December 27, 2020. https://www.haaretz.co.il/blogs/shemuelmeir/BLOG-1.9400235
 Eisenkot, G. “Syria Lebanon and Iran are not existential threat, but the political crisis in Israel is,” YNET, December 31, 2020. https://www.ynet.co.il/news/article/SyP6A6c6P#autoplay
Dr. Uzi Rubin was founder and first director (1991-1999) of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Israel Ministry of Defense, which developed, produced and deployed the country’s first national defense shield – the Arrow missile.