Upon taking office, President-elect Joe Biden will be greeted with a Middle East very different from the one he may recall from his days in the White House. Nowhere are these changes more apparent and more important than in the effort to curb Iran’s regional ambitions.
But to be successful in this context, Biden must acknowledge the current reality in the region and make use of the leverage afforded him.
Discussions about reengagement with Iran must acknowledge the historic realignment in the Middle East as enshrined in the Abraham Accords, and as such, any agreement with Iran must take into consideration the viewpoint of regional allies who unanimously opposed the original deal. A return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in its present form is thus a non-starter.
And despite elements of then candidate Biden’s September op-ed on the subject, the President-elect and his camp seem to recognize this.
Likewise, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for National Security Advisor noted that a Biden administration would seek, "to negotiate a follow-on agreement that does materially advance the security of the United States, of Israel and of our other regional partners as well." Even Biden in the aforementioned op-ed noted that the current agreement would be "a starting point for follow-on negotiations."
These statements implicitly acknowledge that the JCPOA was flawed.
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The deal’s sunset provisions were tied to arbitrary timelines rather than concrete steps towards reform; the verification system ensuring Iranian compliance was absurdly weak; Iran has never come clean about its past nuclear activities; and non-nuclear handouts such as the recent expiration of the UN arms embargo against Tehran were based on the incorrect assumption that Iran would react to American good will by quickly rejoining the community of nations.
Looking forward, these issues must be addressed. And any future engagement with the regime must be predicated on truly comprehensive, verifiable and permanent changes to Tehran’s activities.
The Islamic Republic’s human rights abuses, support for terror, and missile programs must all be addressed in potential discussions with Iran. Contrary to Biden’s premise that the current JCPOA is a starting point for "follow-on" agreements, the nuclear issue cannot be compartmentalized, even at the outset of engagement. Such a path would enable Tehran to drag its heels on all other issues. If the nuclear issue is compartmentalized, the regime would undoubtedly continue its blood-soaked domestic and foreign policies.
Both Iran and the Biden team would seek an agreement not easily scuttled in the future. The only way to do so is by stating at the outset that the end goal must be a treaty to be submitted for approval by two-thirds of the Senate.
This approach has the added benefit of strengthening Washington’s hand by enabling Biden’s team to demand the Iranians satisfy the administration’s right flank: Senate Republicans. This is the diplomatic equivalent of good-cop, bad-cop. And it also restores the Iran issue to its rightful place of bipartisan consensus, which had been undermined by Obama choosing to make his signature foreign policy achievement an executive agreement.
The Biden team is in a very strong position to negotiate with Iran if it is willing to use the leverage that has been built up in recent years.
Iran’s economy has been significantly impacted by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The rial has hit historic lows against the dollar. The Islamic Republic is exporting a fraction of the oil it was prior to Trump’s policy shift. Iran’s banks have been cutoff from the world. Global businesses have abandoned the Iranian market.
Biden mustn’t want a deal more than he wants to see a specific, comprehensive outcome. And his team must be willing to walk away from the negotiating table.
Biden’s desire to see a durable agreement with Iran and an end to the Islamic Republic’s perennial status as a pariah state is laudable. But success won’t be realized without speaking the one language Iran’s rulers understand: strength.
Ari Morgenstern is the senior director of policy and communications for Christians United for Israel. Twitter: @AriMorgenstern