During the 2020 campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to reverse the Trump withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, along with the lifting of sanction, causing great concerns among many experts and allies such as Israel.
Since taking office, however, key members of the Biden administration, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, have tried to allay these concerns, stating that there would be no rapid reset to the 2015 JCPOA, and any new agreement would place serious limits on the Iranian nuclear program, as well as ballistic missiles and their support to terrorism.
Just a few weeks ago key members of the Biden team met with their Israeli counterparts on a secure teleconference and by all reports seemed to have a good understanding of not only the intelligence related to Iran, but how the negotiation process might move ahead meeting Israel’s concerns as well as those of other regional states.
Most recently this seemingly productive path has taken a potentially disastrous turn for the worse. Left unchecked it portends a rapid path to an Iranian nuclear weapon and other threats to regional peace.
In response to urging from the European allies, indirect talks with Iran began in Vienna, with the only thing apparently on the table was a quick return to the 2015 JCPOA, with a corresponding end to U.S. sanctions on Iran. Lost in this diplomatic shuffle was any notion that technically Iran cannot return to the 2015 status quo — way too much uranium has been enriched.
Also lost is any concept of what nuclear facilities Iran actually has or how a renewed agreement might be verified, particular what is now known about Iranian violations of the 2015 accord and their unabashed willingness to simply lie about everything. So far the Iranians are unwilling to even discuss their ballistic missile program or support to terrorists and proxy forces killing Americans.
This quick change in U.S. policy comes, in part, from pressure by the European nations, including France and Germany, for any agreement that gets the sanctions lifted on Iran. Their interests are purely economic, and they have no serious concern over a nuclear armed Iran, or what takes place in the Middle East. They don’t see this as their problem. For their part, China largely ignores the sanctions — lying about it when asked — and has no interest in the Middle East either.
Another major factor is the U.S. negotiating team, led by Robert Malley, whose appointment as the U.S. envoy on Iran provoked considerable controversy at the time. As a member of President Obama’s National Security Council, Mr. Malley helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian deal and along with others in the delegation has more than a vested interest in restoring it. Mr. Malley is also known as a great supporter of “diplomacy” over sanctions, force or military action.
So just what has diplomacy achieved since 2015? Iran has not only not called off proxies like Hezbollah and the Houthis; increasing uranium enrichment; and, restricting access to U.N. weapons inspectors. Their ballistic missile program continues unabated, as have attacks on U.S. forces and allies in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
On the other side of the issue Israel, apparently allied with the Arab states, strongly opposes any simple return to the 2015 accord — which they opposed at the time and were simply ignored by Mr. Obama and his team. Much has happened since then that gives cause for concern.
Apart from the voluminous evidence Israel has put forward — taken from Tehran — that the Iranians have been lying about their nuclear program all along, Israel is now engaged in a two-faceted war with Iran. At sea, the two nations are regularly attacking commercial ships in a campaign that is escalating.
According to reports, Israel is also attacking the Iranian nuclear program itself, with cyber weapons and other covert operations. Most recently an Israeli attack on the power supply to the Natanz nuclear facility appears to have set the Iranian nuclear program back some nine months. In response, Iran announced further enrichment of uranium to the 60% level which could serve to exacerbate the nuclear weapons problem.
By some accounts, these attacks have also set negotiations with Iran back as well, which Israeli’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees as a “win win” proposition. Now embroiled in a domestic political battle to retain his office, as well as an ongoing criminal trial, some see Mr. Netanyahu as stepping up the war with Iran as a means to deal with his own problems. In any event, his new “allies” in the Arab world are only too happy to support his efforts against Iran on their behalf.
It is still too early to say how things might evolve. President Biden himself has made noises on Iran that hearten the hard-liners, although nobody is sure who is writing the scripts that he reads. At one point, he insisted that he would not lift sanctions until Iran stops enriching uranium; pledged to strengthen the deal and lengthen its terms — set to expire in four years, and promised to consult with Israel and Gulf allies before acting. It is also unclear that Mr. Malley has gotten the message, or that Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Blinken have any control over him and his team in Vienna.
There are two very different scenarios of what it would mean to “build on” the 2015 nuclear deal. One concept is that Iran will only respond to the threat of further punishment, and demand that they stop uranium enrichment as well as development of long-range missiles and their support to terrorist proxies, without offering anything in exchange beyond phased-in sanctions relief.
A second scenario, which Mr. Malley has suggested, is to place the nuclear negotiations within a broader set of discussions involving the Gulf countries in the hope of reducing regional tensions. In short, repeat a diplomatic path that has failed in the past and is guaranteed to fail once again — once more leaving Israel and the Arab states in the peril of a nuclear-armed Iran.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is the author of the forthcoming book “Israel and the Search for Peace.”
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