Biden’s Iran Dilemmas

Nov 20, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Image prepared by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University - sources: Shutterstock and Adam Schultz / Biden for President (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Image prepared by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University - sources: Shutterstock and Adam Schultz / Biden for President (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Update from AIJAC

11/20 #04

With the Biden team beginning its transition plans to take over the White House in January, this Update looks at some dilemmas President-elect Joe Biden and his administration will face in attempting to implement their articulated policy on Iran – namely, mutual return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal reached in 2015 followed by attempts to renegotiate and expand that deal to cover its shortcomings and limited scope.

First up is American security reporter and pundit Eli Lake, who looks at the implications of recent reporting alleging that Israeli agents killed al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in Teheran in August. Lake notes that this alleged killing highlights an extensive history of Iranian support for al-Qaeda – creating dilemmas about how to deter Iranian support for terrorism while seeking to entice Teheran to return to the JCPOA. Furthermore, Lake says Biden will also have to decide whether he wants Israel to continue its current highly-successful covert operations in Iran, something the Obama administration discouraged when it was involved in negotiating and implementing the JCPOA. For Lake’s discussion in more detail,  CLICK HERE.

Making some similar arguments about the implications of the al-Masri killing is former Canadian diplomat Vivian Bercovici. More on the Iran/al-Qaeda relationship comes from Yonah Jeremy Bob of the Jerusalem Post. 

Next up is Washington Institue for Near East Policy expert Simon Henderson discussing the concerning findings in the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran and their policy implications. He notes that not only are the findings on the extent of Iran’s nuclear activity “very worrying”, they are made even more so by Iran’s recent release of video of a tunnel network for apparently nuclear-capable missiles. Henderson suggests that, given these nuclear advances by Iran, any JCPOA type agreement would have to be quite different from the original. For Henderson’s expert analysis, CLICK HERE. More details on the latest IAEA findings on Iran are here.

Finally, thinktanker Allison Schwartz explores the tensions between the Biden team’s plans to rejoin the JCPOA, and its pledge to rebuild Washington’s alliances and global leadership. She notes that without America’s friends in the Middle East, especially the Sunni Arab states and Israel, deterring and containing Iran, as well as limiting Chinese and Russian influence in the region, will be extremely difficult. She notes the Obama administration was only able to secure the nuclear deal by excluding America’s allies, but suggests Biden cannot afford to do this, putting his administration in a potential dilemma. For her complete argument,  CLICK HERE. More on US allies, Biden and Iran policy from David Horovitz of the Times of Israel.

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Israel’s Success Against Iran Poses a Challenge for Biden


The president-elect needs to decide how much help he wants to accept from the Israelis.

By Eli Lake
Bloomberg, November 17, 2020, 3:00 AM EST
Wanted poster for Abu Muhammad al-Masri – real name Abdullarh Ahmed Abdullah –  al-Qaeda’s second in command, alleged shot dead in Teheran in August after living in Iran for many years. 

When President-elect Joe Biden finally starts getting intelligence briefings, he may want to pay special attention to Israel’s successful operation against Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s second in command.

The significance of that operation, which took place in August and saw al-Masri shot dead in the street, is its location: Iran. According to the center-left conventional wisdom, this sort of thing should be impossible. While many analysts acknowledge that senior al-Qaeda leaders fled to Iran after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have insisted that there was no significant relationship between the Shiite majority regime in Tehran and the Sunni-jihadist terrorist group.

In fact, al-Qaeda’s No. 2, who was wanted by the FBI for his role in planning the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, was living freely in an Iranian suburb. It should be obvious by now that Iran is willing to cooperate with al-Qaeda when their interests converge.

Iran and al-Qaeda have cooperated for decades against U.S. targets in the Middle East. “There is ample evidence going back to the 1990s that Iran is willing to work with al-Qaeda at times,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a founding editor of the Long War Journal. “Sometimes their interests are opposed and sometimes they converge.”

All of this is relevant to Biden as he navigates how to achieve his own stated goal of rejoining the Iran nuclear bargain from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. If Biden proceeds with his current plan of lifting nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange its return to compliance with the nuclear agreement, what will his administration do to deter Iran from supporting terrorism? The current administration has sanctioned Iran’s central bank and military for sponsoring terror. Will Biden keep those sanctions in place?

This came to the public’s attention in 2017, after the CIA released a batch of documents recovered at the compound of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. One of those documents is a 19-page memo laying out the quarter-century history of al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran. It says Iranian intelligence offered al-Qaeda money, arms and training and facilitated the travel of some operatives, while providing safe haven for others. Indeed, after the fall of the Taliban, the wives and children of bin Laden and his deputy fled to Iran.

Documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan (above) after he was killed in 2011 prove extensive Iranian aid to al-Qaeda. 

Another question for Biden is whether he will encourage Israel to continue its daring intelligence operations inside Iran. When Biden was vice president, the U.S. discouraged Israel from assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, particularly as it conducted the diplomacy that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. In the past four years, however, Israeli operations have been successful. The killing of al-Masri occurred during a summer in which a number of strategic sites inside Iran exploded as a result of what appears to be Israeli sabotage. Will Biden urge Israel to cool its jets?

Ten years ago, it was understandable that America would want to restrain Israel while it negotiated with Iran. The Obama administration tried but failed to reach a much stronger and more durable deal that restricted Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Now Biden should consider whether pursuit of that flawed deal is worth the effort. In the next two months, he and his transition team will have to decide whether constraining Israel helps or hinders the goal of containing Iran.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

Latest Iran Nuclear Inspection Report Reveals Multiple Concerns

Simon Henderson

Policywatch, November 16, 2020

Headlines about increased stockpiles of enriched uranium are only half the story.

Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. (Photographer: ATTA KENARE/AFP)

President-elect Joe Biden’s team has indicated that he wants to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its numerous restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities once he takes office, but the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that Tehran’s program is moving ahead anyway. Even if the next administration does manage to reinstitute the JCPOA in some form, it will likely be a rather different accord.

A range of troubling issues surfaced in the latest quarterly report by the IAEA inspectors who monitor Iran’s adherence to the 2015 JCPOA. These issues are partly a consequence of Tehran’s 2019 decision to stop complying with certain limitations on its activities after the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the accord.

Two issues stand out given the concerns they raise about potential nuclear weapons development: increased uranium enrichment and purification of plutonium from spent fuel. On the former, the report reveals that Iran’s overall stockpile of enriched uranium is now 2,442.9 kilograms, almost twelve times the amount agreed to under the JCPOA. Worse, most of this stockpile has been enriched to 4.5 percent of the fissile isotope U-235—a significant step up from unenriched uranium along the path to possible weapons-grade material, and above the JCPOA limit of 3.67 percent. (For more on the technical significance of enrichment levels and isotope types, see The Washington Institute’s Iran Nuclear Glossary.)

The report does not mention the mysterious explosion that devastated Iran’s Natanz centrifuge assembly plant in July. The incident, widely attributed to an Israeli attack, is thought to have disrupted Iran’s assembly of advanced IR-2m centrifuges, which would allow it to enrich uranium even more quickly and efficiently. The absence of public information on the matter—the explosion was not mentioned in the September IAEA report either—indicates that Iran considers the incident to be security-related and therefore classified. It is unclear whether inspectors visited the damaged building.

Iran’s known centrifuge facilities are the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), both at Natanz, and the Fordow plant buried deep inside a mountain. The regime has been transferring more advanced centrifuges to the FEP, though it still adheres to the JCPOA limit of 5,060 first-generation centrifuges (IR-1s) actually in use. Tehran also originally committed to the following JCPOA restriction: “For 15 years, the Natanz enrichment site will be the sole location for all of Iran’s uranium enrichment-related activities including safeguarded R&D.” Last year, however, it dropped plans to convert Fordow to non-nuclear use and has been enriching uranium there ever since.

 IAEA inspectors at an Iranian nuclear site in Natanz in 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

On the more challenging plutonium route to nuclear explosive material, the IAEA report states that Iran is not currently pursuing the original design construction of its heavy-water research reactor or reprocessing spent fuel at any declared facility. Yet it is still producing heavy water.

The report is littered with other concerns as well, in disturbing amounts that belie the almost anodyne manner in which the agency presents them. For example:

  • “Iran has also continued to conduct certain enrichment activities that are not in line with its long-term enrichment and R&D enrichment plan…”
  • “The Agency considered Iran’s response to be unsatisfactory…”
  • “The Agency informed Iran that it continues to consider Iran’s response to be not technically credible…”
  • “The composition of these isotopically altered particles [is] similar to particles found in Iran in the past, originating from imported centrifuge components…” (On this point, the report cites a past IAEA document revealing that the centrifuge components in question came from Pakistan, the source of Iran’s IR-1 model and the provider of design information on which the IR-2m model is based.)

In sum, the report is very worrisome, especially because it came out two weeks after Iran revealed video of an elaborate tunnel network for missiles that are probably capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Such missiles are not covered by the JCPOA, nor are Iran’s numerous regional military involvements. The task facing the next administration in reaching an effectual new agreement with Tehran cannot be underestimated.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute.

Fixing the Iran mess without alienating allies is going to take more than talk

Allison Schwartz

AEIdeas, November 12, 2020

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry,  Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other US and Iranian officials wait to start a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne March 29, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool

President-elect Joe Biden is eager to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. He also claims that the Biden administration will restore US global leadership and respect alliances. The two are not exactly compatible.

First, the deal: The JCPOA placed weak restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, paving a path to a nuclear weapon in as little as 10 years. If the US plans to re-join the agreement, it must address the deal’s most crucial flaws — its sunset clauses, which will automatically lift existing restrictions on Iran’s military and nuclear programs. The deal also allocated the Iranian regime $150 billion in sanctions relief. Rather than use the money to help their crippling economy, Tehran used the funding to enhance its regional aggression, bolstering its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ inter-continental ballistic missile program. If that happens again, that will be bad news for everyone.

Second, alliances: US partnerships in the Middle East have been invaluable, serving as launching points for conflicts as far afield as Afghanistan, not to speak of interventions against al Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Absent those friendships, with admittedly flawed friends, the task of deterring an increasingly reckless and dangerous Iran would be close to impossible. And if a Biden administration hopes to keep US rivals China and Russia out of the Middle East (insofar as possible after Team Obama invited Russia in), Israel and the Sunni Arabs will be imperative allies. Should a new phase of the Iran deal afford Iran the latitude to attack its neighbors directly or via proxies, the odds of Israel and the Gulf embracing a more dangerous unilateral or Russia/China allied policy will rear its ugly head.

If the Obama administration’s treatment of allies is any guide, the future looks rocky for US alliances. The Obama-Biden administration covertly brokered the JCPOA with President Rouhani, deliberately excluding Israel and the Gulf states. Obama had hoped the deal would have been a bridge to a more balanced and stable Middle East. Unfortunately, his high-risk political gamble failed. As a result of the deal, first the Obama and then the Trump administration had to take unwise steps to rebalance the region, including throwing US weight into Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen. Iran has already sworn not to allow a renegotiation of the JCPOA, and it has demanded reparations for monies “lost” during the Trump term. This bodes ill for a successful reopening of the US-Iran bromance.

Biden has attempted to draw a sharp distinction between his own and Trump’s style. But style is little more than changed rhetoric. Actual commitment to alliances demands securing at once a better deal from Tehran and preserving the partnerships in the Middle East that serve American interests. And on that front, there is little reason for optimism.

Allison Schwartz is the communications assistant for AEI’s Foreign and Defense Policy department.


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