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Ignoring Iranian Aggression, Biden Pushes to Seal Nuclear Deal

A new agreement would seemingly put Iran's nuke project in a better position than what it was in 2015. Nonetheless, it still looks to be the preferred alternative for Israel’s security

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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U.S. President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up while walking to board Air Force One at Charleston Air Force Base in North Charleston, South Carolina, on August 16, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up while walking to board Air Force One at Charleston Air Force Base in North Charleston, South Carolina, on August 16, 2022.Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the finest tradition, Iran’s response to the European proposal on renewing the nuclear agreement arrived on Monday night at the last moment, with a few small requests for changes and improvements. The negotiations between the sides are expected to continue longer and the world intelligence community, similar to the local one in Israel, is divided in its opinion: Will the long dialogue, which has been proceeding on and off for over a year, end in a new agreement – with the support of the United States and Iran?

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Most of the question marks focus on Tehran’s final position. As for Washington, not a lot of doubt exists. Since Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House, it has been clear that Biden intends on erasing his predecessor’s decisions and bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal. If the Iranians toss him a strong enough anchor to latch on to, then Biden will agree to the new deal.

Members of Iran's Revolutionary GuardCredit: AP

Over the past few months, the claim was raised that before the midterm elections for Congress in November and given the forecasts of a defeat for the Democratic Party – Biden would prefer to postpone the dispute over the nuclear agreement. When Biden accepted the Israeli recommendation and left the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the list of sanctioned bodies, it bolstered the assumptions that it would not be possible to reach an agreement before November. But over the past few months, Biden’s political situation has improved somewhat: Gasoline prices are going back down after the steep increase that came after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he is advancing a new round of legislation in Congress and the optimism in his party over the coming election is once again on the rise. This approach can also spill over into diplomatic considerations and strengthen his natural inclination to sign a deal – if only the Iranians will agree.

In its clear preference for an agreement, the Biden administration is willing to restrain itself in response to the aggression Iran has been displaying on other fronts. Just this last week, a Revolutionary Guards conspiracy to assassinate two very senior Trump administration officials, former National Security Adviser John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was exposed. True, the plot came in revenge for the Americans’ killing of Revolutionary Guards General Qasem Soleimani during Trump’s term in office. Also, an American Muslim from a Lebanese Shi’ite family stabbed and severely injured author Salman Rushdie – and in doing so carried out the death sentence decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 – and Iranian-backed militias are suspected of launching drone attacks against the American military base in Al-Tanf in eastern Syria. It is hard to ignore the dissonance in the U.S. approach toward the Iranians: Washington is focused on the nuclear deal, yet it seems that other Iranian expressions of aggression interest them less.

Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Georgetown University, described it in a very instructive way in an article in The New York Times on Saturday. Sadjadpour wrote that the United States does not give enough weight to the strong anti-American sentiments that guide the Iranian regime’s actions. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reflecting the generation of the Islamic revolution that has been ruling the country since 1979, acts “with the hyper-vigilance and brutality of a man who believes that much of his own society, and the world’s greatest superpower, aspire to unseat him.”

Sadjadpour writes that Iran, similarly to Russia, has scored successes in recent years in its battle with the United States, which Iran, like Russia, views as weakness. While a broad Shi’ite axis of influence is being established across the Middle East, and at the same time the United States beat a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, Tehran is convinced the United States is in “an inevitable decline” and that Iran will be able to extract concessions in the nuclear negotiations. “[T]he more committed the United States has been to diplomacy, the lesser Iran’s sense of urgency to compromise,” writes Sadjadpour.

Putin and Raisi in Tehran, this week.Credit: SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/AFP

The determination to stick to its nuclear program has cost Iran easily over $200 billion in lost oil revenues, notes Sadjadpour: “Even if the nuclear deal is revived, Tehran’s worldview will endure.” Tehran will continue its reservations about normalization with the United States, because any such change could seriously undermine the stability of “a theocratic government whose organizing principle has been premised on fighting American imperialism.”

Moreover, the revolutionary elite close to Khamenei have their own private mafias, which have been profiting from the corruption. Opening up to the West would not serve their interests. Sometimes, when the isolation is too harsh, Khamenei is willing to consider compromise. He is interested in selling oil all over the world without interference, but does not want his country to fully integrate into the global system, said Sadjadpour.

This is the heart of the problem. The United States “has sought to engage a regime that clearly doesn’t want to be engaged, and isolate a ruling regime that thrives in isolation.” This is how the long-term paradox works: The international community needs the sanctions to force the regime to compromise, but these sanctions are actually strengthening the regime’s hold on power. The Islamic republic tends to compromise only when it is under heavy pressure, but it is this same pressure that is keeping it alive and in power. This is a game that Khamenei has excelled at for decades, according to Sadjadpour.

The least bad alternative

From an Israeli perspective, another complex issue exists: The relations between Russia and Iran are growing even closer – as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entanglement in the war in Ukraine. The optimistic forecasts voiced at certain points by both the political and military leadership, that Israel by its operations in Syria could succeed in driving a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, were proven to be completely wrong. Russia needs Iran, receives drones from it that it needs to continue the war, and could very well wind up paying Iran back in diplomatic and economic currency – by supporting Iranian actions in the face of the international community in the nuclear deal. What is also worrying, from the Israeli point of view, is the possibility that Putin will intervene for the first time to make things more difficult for the Israel Air Force to attack in Syria, as part of the “war between the wars.”

Once again, it seems the balance between the forecasts concerning the nuclear agreement is swinging gradually in the direction of a new agreement being signed. As far as Israel is concerned, the agreement is riddled with holes and was not a very good one even when it was originally reached under the Obama administration in 2015. Nonetheless, at the time it looked like the least bad alternative among the choices – and the main path to stop Iran from getting closer to nuclear weapons.

Trump and Netanyahu, 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement in 2018, with the active encouragement of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been revealed to be a serious mistake. The Trump administration’s campaign of maximal pressure on Iran failed and the regime in Tehran, as Sadjadpour notes, did not really fold under the sanctions. In fact, the opposite happened: For over two years, the Iranians have returned to enriching uranium to high levels, and they are closer to their goal of producing a nuclear weapon than they ever were in the past, even though it seems that mounting a nuclear warhead on a missile will require almost another two years.

A new nuclear agreement, if it is signed in the end, will seemingly put the Iranian nuclear project in a much better position than what it was in 2015. Nonetheless, it still looks to be the preferred alternative for Israel’s security, in spite of all its misgivings.

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