Analysis

How Iran Could Get Israel to Take Sides in the 2020 U.S. Election

Of the six main candidates, most expressed a nuanced position: Reenter the nuke deal but negotiate new clauses on issues like Iran’s ballistic missiles and Mideast activity

File photo: Women walking in Tehran past a banner of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack, January 9, 2020.
Vahid Salemi,AP

WASHINGTON – Ten months ago, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, gave a speech at the annual AIPAC conference that didn’t generate many headlines but could prove to be important in the U.S. presidential election campaign this year. Dermer focused on Iran and provided a polite but clear warning to American politicians on the Iranian issue: If you adopt certain positions during the campaign, Israel will contradict you publicly.

Dermer said the Israeli government finds the idea that the United States would reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal “totally unacceptable.” Around the time of his speech, several Democratic presidential hopefuls criticized President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the agreement, and they promised that if elected, they would recommit to the nuclear deal, which was signed by the Obama administration.

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“There are leaders who are calling to return to that deal. And that is something that has to be seen as totally unacceptable,” Dermer said. “You know, in 2015 when we were having this debate there were a lot of question marks. What would happen? Would this moderate Iran? Is this a good thing? Is this going to make war less likely?”

Dermer added that “now in 2019 there’s exclamation points. It made Iran more dangerous. It made war much more likely. So anyone who is saying that they’re going to return to the deal is basically saying that they’re going to give hundreds of billions of dollars to people who are committed to Israel’s destruction and our Arab neighbors’ destruction and giving them a clear path to nuclear weapons.”

The ambassador’s speech made clear that Israel will speak up against reentering the Iran deal, even if that means a direct clash with the eventual Democratic presidential nominee. The primaries were still months away when Dermer spoke at AIPAC, one reason his words didn’t receive much attention from the media.

But now, with the voting over in Iowa and New Hampshire, the possibility of Israel clashing with a Democratic presidential nominee looks more relevant than ever – especially if that nominee is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has promised to rejoin the deal on the first day of his presidency.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 11, 2020.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP

It’s almost certain that Israel – especially if Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister – will confront Sanders on his promise to reenter the Iran deal on “day one,” but there is less clarity about how Israel will respond to the positions of other Democratic contenders. Several of them have said they would return to the Iran deal but demand changes to address key issues that the 2015 agreement didn’t resolve.

When the Israeli government under Netanyahu opposed the Iran deal in 2015, its official position wasn’t opposition to any agreement but rather a demand for “a better deal” than the one eventually signed. What will Israel do, then, if the Democratic nominee offers a new version of that argument by calling for changes to the agreement that address the concerns Israel raised five years ago? Would that also be considered “unacceptable”?

One senior Israeli official told Haaretz that the idea of returning to the nuclear deal and then trying to negotiate with Iran over issues the existing deal doesn’t cover – such as Iran’s ballistic missiles and support for terrorism – is “a farce.” The official said that once the United States returned to the deal and sanctions were lifted, Iran would no longer be under pressure to make further concessions.

Candidates on the record

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg campaigning in Houston, February 13, 2020.
Go Nakamura / Reuters

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Israel will express such a position publicly, certainly as long as the Democratic primaries are still underway.

Israeli officials who deal with U.S. policy know that during the primaries the presidential contenders focus on attracting support from within their own party, and this often means taking sharper partisan positions. The main question is what the eventual nominee will express during the general-election campaign.

The Democratic race currently includes six candidates with something of a chance to win the nomination: Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has the most delegates after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Of the six, most have expressed a nuanced position: Reenter the deal but negotiate new clauses on issues like Iran’s ballistic missiles and militant activity in the Middle East. All the candidates harshly criticized Trump for withdrawing from the 2015 agreement.

Klobuchar said during a Democratic debate in early January that “because of Donald Trump” Iran was once again enriching uranium and the Middle East was experiencing a “dangerous escalation.” She added that she would “start negotiations again” with Iran, with the goal of altering the nuclear deal on issues like its termination date and inspection levels at Iran’s nuclear sites. The improvements that Klobuchar suggested correspond closely with some of the criticisms against the deal made back in 2015 by AIPAC.

Buttigieg expressed a similar view last year in a written statement to the Council on Foreign Relations. “If Iran resumes implementing its commitments, then I would rejoin. But I would take the agreement as a floor, not a ceiling,” he wrote. Buttigieg added that he “would want to pursue follow-on agreements that extend the time frame of certain nuclear restrictions, cover Iran’s missile program, and address its role in regional conflicts, all in return for targeted sanctions relief.”

Buttigieg made sure to criticize Trump, calling the president’s withdrawal from the existing agreement “a strategic mistake” and stating that “we didn’t develop the deal as a favor to Iran; we did it because it was in our national security interest.”

Bloomberg opposed the Iran deal back in 2015 when he was an independent ex-mayor whose main political involvement was advancing legislation to curb gun violence. His current position is that the United States should require a few key changes to the deal.

As he put it last year, “After rejoining, in order for any new arrangement to be sustainable, we must also be ready to address other inadequacies in the deal, which include the need to extend fast-approaching sunset clauses, curtail Iran’s ballistic missiles, end its destabilizing regional activities and institute more intrusive monitoring.”

Bloomberg added that “the agreement was not perfect – it did not address Iran’s ballistic-missile program, and it gave the regime political cover to step up its aggression in the region – but the U.S. had an obligation to keep its word once the agreement was in place.”

Warren told the Council on Foreign Relations last year: “If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, the United States should return as well.” But, she added, the 2015 agreement “is only the beginning. We will need to negotiate a follow-on to the agreement that continues to constrain Iran’s nuclear program past the “sunset” of some of its original terms. We also need to address serious concerns about Iran’s policies beyond its nuclear program, including its ballistic missile program and support for destabilizing regional proxies.”

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren addressing crowds at a campaign event in Arlington, Virginia, February 13, 2020.
LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

Biden, who was part of the Obama administration that negotiated the original agreement, said: “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the agreement as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints .... I would also leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy – and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy – to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”

Bernie, Amy and everything in between

Sanders is the only candidate who said explicitly that “I would reenter the agreement on day one of my presidency.” But he added that he would “then work with allies to build upon it with additional measures to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.”

Sanders’ position is probably the likeliest to draw a denunciation from Israel – mostly because of the promise to reenter the 2015 deal on day one of his presidency without any conditions or requirements from the Iranians. Klobuchar’s position – starting new negotiations with Iran – will be very difficult for any Israeli official to come out against because it’s not very different from Trump’s stated intent of seeking a new deal with Tehran.

Regarding the positions of all the other candidates, it’s harder to anticipate what the Israeli government will do – not only because of what the candidates said, but also because it’s not clear who will be prime minister after the March 2 election and which parties will be in the governing coalition. If Netanyahu remains prime minister, any comment he makes on the subject will be examined through a political prism because of the extraordinary support he has received from Trump during Israel’s three election cycles of the past year.

Netanyahu’s favorite approach is that of the Trump administration, which insists the United States shouldn’t revisit the 2015 deal and a totally new agreement must be negotiated. But that doesn’t mean Israel and the Trump administration have always seen eye to eye on Iran. Last fall, when Trump was expressing strong interest in launching direct negotiations with Iran, Israel argued that this would be a mistake and automatically ease the pressure on Tehran.

Even after the targeted killing last month of the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, Trump continued to express interest in negotiations with Iran. Opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans oppose new military interventions in the Middle East and are concerned about a new war with Iran. The Democratic Party’s eventual nominee will probably warn voters before November that if Trump wins another term, a war with Iran will become more likely.

Prof. Dov Waxman, chairman of the Israel studies program at UCLA, told Haaretz that any Israeli comments on sensitive foreign policy subjects during the election year could have a “serious impact” on Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party and the U.S. Jewish community.

“This kind of thing will raise alarm bells, no question,” Waxman said. “Israel would face a lot of criticism if it were seen as taking a side in the election. Netanyahu already involved himself in internal American politics during the Obama years. If Netanyahu attacks the Democratic Party’s nominee during the upcoming election, it will be seen as an escalation of long-standing interference by him.”

Waxman added that “Israeli criticism could actually be more effective if it came from unnamed security officials, because if the criticism is made directly by Netanyahu or Dermer, it will be seen as part of the prime minister’s ongoing relationship with Trump. People will say he’s just returning the favor to Trump. But either way, Israel will further drive Democrats away if it takes such action.”

Dan Shapiro, the previous U.S. ambassador to Israel, told Haaretz that in his view, returning to the deal but demanding changes and updates is the right strategy for the next administration.

“Time has passed since 2015, and the circumstances in which the deal was signed are no longer the circumstances of the day,” Shapiro said. “But the goal of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons has not changed. That would suggest that returning to the deal as it was in 2015 is less realistic than updating, strengthening and extending the deal.”

Shapiro added that “most Democratic candidates recognize the advantages of the deal, but they also have to remember that Iran responded to Trump’s withdrawal by resuming nuclear activities. The next president will have to respond to a new reality. It’s good that candidates are describing a strategy that strengthens and extends the benefits of the deal, rather than simply returning to it as it was.”