Biden's Diplomacy Train Is Headed Straight for Iran, With No Stop in Israel

Israel’s ability to influence Biden on Iran is limited, nor is the option of clashing openly with the U.S. administration truly feasible

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One
President Joe Biden walks on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One, this monthCredit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

If America lifts sanctions on Iran, “we will then immediately reverse all remedial measures. Simple,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Friday. The key word in that tweet is one that didn’t actually appear in it, despite being clearly implied – “if.”

Why Bibi could play ball with Biden over Iran. Listen to Alon Pinkas

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Over the past three days, U.S. officials have held feverish discussions about this issue, both among themselves and with their European partners in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated position is that sanctions won’t be removed until Iran ceases its violations of the deal and resumes full compliance. Iran, in contrast, insists that sanctions must be lifted before the sides can even start talking.

How much room for negotiations remains between these two adamant positions that mark the path of “careful diplomacy,” as Biden termed his planned return to the nuclear deal? The working assumption is that both sides want to revive the deal from which America withdrew in 2018.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, last yearCredit: Dalati Nohra / REUTERS

Biden announced this intention during his campaign, adding that it would be the first issue on his diplomatic agenda. And Iran has repeatedly demanded over the last two years that the agreement be upheld. It waited a year before starting to violate it, and even now, it insists that all it’s asking is for America to fulfill its obligations under the deal.

The timetable, however, is threateningly tight. Under Iranian law, Iran must stop letting UN inspectors visit most of its nuclear facilities as of Sunday. The only exceptions are Natanz and Fordo, where inspections will continue as usual as required by the agreement. Granted, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the inspectors won’t be expelled from Iran, but freezing their work would be a major violation of the agreement.

In an attempt to improve the chances for diplomacy, Biden decided to retract a demand by his predecessor, Donald Trump, that the UN Security Council respond to Iran’s violations by immediately reinstating all the international sanctions canceled by the deal. He also lifted some of the movement restrictions Trump imposed on members of Iran’s UN delegation.

Tehran, for its part, agreed to discuss a solution to the inspection problem with Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. These aren’t dramatic steps that would break the impasse, but they do attest to a mutual desire to create a positive atmosphere for talks.

It’s not clear what Grossi expected to achieve by visiting Tehran on Saturday. He spoke cautiously about his intent to “find a mutually agreeable solution compatible with Iranian law,” but it’s hard to see how this circle can be squared.

Either way, Iran has already made clear that it will freeze only what it termed its “voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This provision allowed snap inspections of nonnuclear military facilities. It was part of an additional protocol to the nuclear agreement that gave UN inspectors unprecedented access to suspect sites in Iran.

The most important diplomatic development was U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s promise to his French, German and British counterparts that America would accept any European mediation that would advance negotiations over the nuclear deal, with no preconditions. He thereby gave a public, official green light for jump-starting the talks.

The State Department declined to say whether direct talks between American and Iranian officials had already begun. But it’s widely thought that feelers have been put out, and the other parties are now waiting for an official Iranian response about its willingness to start negotiations.

A satellite shows Iran's Fordow nuclear site in November 2020Credit: AP

Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei hinted at the likely response when he said that Tehran “can confidently predict that diplomatic initiatives will work well [to achieve] the desired outcome,” adding that the “diplomatic back-and-forths” are “the natural prelude to the return of all sides to commitments including the lifting of all sanctions in the near future.” If his statements reflect Tehran’s official position, then Iran evidently doesn’t intent to await the results of its presidential election in June, but is willing to begin talks now to exploit the momentum Biden has created.

But Biden has already been harshly criticized by Republicans in Congress, who accused him of making unreciprocated concessions. In addition, 113 lawmakers sent him a letter demanding that he not return to the nuclear deal.

A senior State Department official retorted that Biden’s gestures were merely “concessions for common sense” that were meant to remove obstacles to the diplomatic effort. The critical question is how to ensure that neither side looks like it has caved first.

One proposal is for each side to take a series of interim steps simultaneously while talks are in progress. Another is to have both sides agree to resume full compliance at once. U.S. officials are expected to discuss these ideas with their European counterparts, who will act as intermediaries to Iran, over the next few days.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates aren’t party to these discussions. Despite their demands that they be involved, or at least kept fully informed, no agreement on this has yet been reached, mainly due to Iran’s opposition to involving countries that didn’t sign the original deal. America has promised to consult Israel and keep it informed, but it hasn’t promised to give Israel a veto over the content of the talks, much less the results.

A European diplomat said that at this stage, “the discussions are technical. They’re meant to pave the way for a meeting between Iranian representatives and those of the signatory countries – to reach agreement on the meeting’s place and time and the level of the participants.” Nevertheless, these “technical discussions” obviously couldn’t take place without preliminary understandings about the content of the talks.

“The European Union and the U.S. have no intention of undermining Israel’s interests or those of their friends in the Middle East,” the diplomat added. “But we believe the nuclear deal properly satisfies Israel’s requirements, and therefore, it ought to be interested in the success of the negotiations.”

This view obviously isn’t shared by Israel, which vehemently opposed the nuclear deal from the start, tried to thwart it before it was signed and was one of the most influential voices in persuading Trump to withdraw from it. But Israel’s ability to influence Biden is limited, nor is the option of clashing openly with the U.S. administration truly feasible. Israel’s working assumption should be that Biden won’t stop trying to revive the deal with Iran as long as the latter is interested in doing so.

Israel could perhaps derive some comfort from Biden’s statement that he sees returning to the nuclear deal as just the first stage in a series of agreements he hopes to sign with Iran that would address its ballistic missiles and support for terrorism. Granted, this promise doesn’t satisfy Jerusalem. But satisfying Israel evidently isn’t a top priority for the current occupant of the Oval Office.