Biden’s Iran Dilemma: How to Reenter Nuclear Deal – and Keep Allies Like Israel Happy

Experts outline the challenges facing the new White House as it looks to reengage with Tehran without damaging relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, left, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, left, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.Credit: Joshua Roberts, Reuters / Khameini.IR, AFP / Fabrice Coffrini, AFP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – While U.S. President Joe Biden may not be expected to reenter the Iran nuclear deal in the first days of his administration, experts tell Haaretz that his team will likely begin reengaging and laying the groundwork through direct, bilateral diplomacy – and to expect it sooner rather than later.

Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program, believes the new administration should begin to de-escalate tensions with Iran as they have tough sledding ahead of them. “Getting locked into an intensely complicated negotiation with Iran, one that’s going to be very polarizing both in the region and at home, is not exactly the way any administration would really choose to begin its foreign policy,” she says.

She anticipates the Biden administration establishing direct engagement, albeit not at the highest level, to see what kind of mutual confidence-building measures might be feasible to set up.

“Most of those people are going to be consumed with other priorities,” Maloney tells Haaretz, noting that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who was the original deal’s primary negotiator, “are going to have a very full plate. They cannot carve out the time, like the former secretary of state [John Kerry] did back during some periods of the negotiations, essentially living in a hotel in Geneva and sitting across the table from [Mohammad] Javad Zarif,” she says, referring to the Iranian foreign minister who headed Tehran’s team six years ago.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, expects talks to begin imminently, with both Iran and European countries participating. “Jake Sullivan or others may begin to reach out to Iranian ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi – a former deputy foreign minister who was one of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s chief negotiators,” she says, referring to the nuclear deal by its formal name. They will see what the Europeans have accomplished in the Joint Commission, which monitors the deal’s implementation, she adds.

“They will then set about making a proposal for a timetable for a mutual return to compliance, which ideally should happen before the Iranian New Year [in March] or certainly before the Iranian presidential election campaign [in June],” Slavin tells Haaretz, noting that this timetable is important for both Biden’s overall Mideast policy but also for Iranian domestic politics.

“Some people are already pushing the idea of Javad Zarif as a [presidential] candidate, and he’s only viable if Iran and the U.S. are back in the deal – since this is the big achievement of [President Hassan] Rohani’s foreign policy,” she says.

Maloney, however, cautions that the Iranian elections should not have any meaningful impact on the possibilities for diplomacy. Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “will set the agenda for any deal, not the president,” she explains. “There is a time urgency due to his health, but we’ve become so ingrained with this obsession with Iranian domestic politics that both sides will use elections as a trigger point. Nobody wants to give Rohani any kind of credit for a breakthrough; they’re just as likely to be obstructionist as they are to press the issue.”

Protesters burning pictures of then-President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Tehran, November 28, 2020.Credit: WANA/REUTERS

Six-month window

Maloney believes the next six months provide a window to explore the possibility of an interim deal that would bring Iran closer to compliance with its obligations. “In exchange, the U.S. would revert to some, if not all, of the sanctions relief provided under the original deal. And there would be still a process of diplomacy, which would permit a conversation that goes beyond the JCPOA and the specific provisions within it,” she says.

The Biden administration will act proactively and with intention, according to Slavin, due to the short window. She also observes that recent “horrible and upsetting” moves by Tehran, such as increased uranium enrichment and the arrest of a U.S. businessman, are not unexpected.

“It’s partly to amass more bargaining chips and to make sure the U.S. is interested in coming back; partly it’s spoilers in the Iranian system who want to show how troublesome they can be and ensuring that nobody gets any ideas about U.S.-Iran relations suddenly blossoming,” Slavin explains. “There’s still a consensus in Iran around a straight return to the old JCPOA. It’s when you try to go beyond that that things get a little sticky, because there isn’t a consensus and it may be very difficult to build that consensus.”

Maloney warns that “the Iranians are continuing to use, I think, provocation to try to drive their interests up the ladder of priorities for [Biden]. We’re all essentially somewhat captive to the whims and demands of the Iranian leadership. So that’s not ideal.”

She believes the Biden administration would be best advised to offer an early humanitarian gesture to Tehran. “One could open up a new channel for access to humanitarian goods: pharmaceuticals, medical devices, food,” she says. “This has been a long-standing complaint among many that predated the departure from the deal, but obviously was exacerbated considerably by [former President Donald] Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign. Ideally, that would help drive a process of working level diplomacy.”

Trump called the JCPOA a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever,” but Slavin notes that the deal contained flaws from both the U.S. and Iranian perspectives.

“Iran truly did not anticipate the ease with which Trump pulled out of the deal while they were in compliance. They will want guarantees that a future administration can’t just walk out of it again as easily as Trump did,” she says, adding that “perhaps Biden in return may try to see if there’s any appetite for pushing out the sunset clauses, so that key elements of the deal don’t expire as quickly as they otherwise would. But the first step is to get back into the old deal.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, August 14, 2020. Credit: DALATI NOHRA/REUTERS

United regional front

Maloney and Slavin both believe the JCPOA negotiators in the Biden administration understand the original deal wasn’t perfect. “It’s notable that most of Washington is in agreement – as we were not in 2015 – that the deal, whether you liked it or not, is simply not sufficient to address the wider range of concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or the other issues at stake,” Maloney says.

Slavin anticipates a good faith effort to go beyond that agreement. The P5+1 – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany – is the “appropriate venue if you want to go beyond what was in the original JCPOA to talk about nuclear issues,” she suggests. “If you’re going to talk about regional issues, then you need to bring the region into it – which means you’re going to need a process of consultation with Israel and Iran’s Arab state rivals,” she says.

“That’s going to take longer, and I wouldn’t anticipate anything like that beginning until after the Iranian elections,” she continues. “So that gives Biden time to get his team fully in place, and to see whether it’s possible to restore the original JCPOA.”

Last week, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank hosted Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s ambassadors to the United States to reflect on the diplomatic developments over the past four years. Mark Dubowitz, the foundation’s CEO, tells Haaretz the event showcased a united regional front against U.S. reentry into the deal.

“Israel, the UAE, Bahrain [and Saudi Arabia] are all on the same page: They stand in full opposition to the Biden administration’s plan to return to the JCPOA,” Dubowitz says. “The new administration should listen to those countries in Iranian missile range that are most threatened by Tehran. Whereas Israel stood alone in 2015, at least publicly, now Jerusalem stands together with its Arab allies.”

Slavin disagrees with this assessment, arguing that the Abraham Accords – the normalization agreements signed by Israel, Bahrain and the UAE last summer – do not actually provide anyone with more clout to determine U.S. policy toward Iran.

“These views were known before. It’s nice for Israel that they’re overt now, but it doesn’t really change the picture,” she says. “Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief rival, is frankly weaker because of its economic problems and the horrible mismanagement and human rights abuses by [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman. He’s not exactly in a position to tell Biden what to do,” Slavin adds.

This handout satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of Iran's Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), northeast of the Iranian city of Qom, January 8, 2020.Credit: AFP

“Same thing with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. He’s burned a lot of bridges with Democrats, he’s not going to be in a position to tell Biden what to do. He’s going to have to behave himself for a little while to see how things go,” she notes, before adding that she expects Israel to launch a campaign against the deal consisting of “nasty columns and leaked disinformation.”

Israel has long argued that any deal must address Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support of terror groups in the Middle East, and Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki have indicated that the United States would consult Israel before acting on Iran.

Maloney calls Israeli opposition a major factor in U.S. diplomacy. “This is a major security partner in the real sense, not just rhetorically. It’s the United States’ most important ally in the region, and to the extent that they’re such diametrically opposed positions, that has to be a priority for any administration to try to manage,” she explains.

“Closer, more formal relationships between Israel and the Gulf states is a source of confidence-building. The Abraham Accords may not have really changed the dynamics with respect to U.S. policy, but the goal is, as it’s always been, to keep Iran as far away as possible from nuclear weapons capability,” she adds.

‘Incredibly contentious’

Biden faces undeniable complexities over reentering the deal. “The sequencing issues – who does what, when, in return for what – that’s the really complicated stuff,” Slavin says. “In 2015, Iran had to do everything before it got anything. This time, the Iranians will want to see steps up front.”

She notes that there has been a significant amount of trust lost, which will make it difficult for Iran to agree to other concessions. “Iran will not unilaterally disarm, but if Saudi Arabia and the Emirates want to talk about some confidence-building measures, I think the Iranians would be willing to do that,” she says. Slavin adds that Biden will be significantly more proactive in engaging in some of these low-hanging fruits than his predecessor.

Slavin highlights initial steps the United States could take, including guaranteeing that it won’t block the International Monetary Fund’s $5 billion loan to Iran for COVID-19 relief that Trump had blocked; making it easier for Iran to use channels and banks established for trade; permitting South Korea to release $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets; and introducing currency into the Iranian economy for humanitarian purposes.

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency showing Iranian President Hassan Rohani chairing a cabinet meeting in TehranCredit: AFP

In return, Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and halt enrichment at its Fordo site. This process would culminate with the United States returning to the deal, blessed by the relevant European partners.

Maloney believes Iran would like to get back to the deal – albeit giving as little as possible while gaining as much as possible. “The Biden administration recognizes that the first meaningful restrictions on the deal begin to expire in 2023,” she says. “That’s during Biden’s first term. He will want to begin to open a process that leaves room for conversations about extending some of those provisions, as well as dealing with issues like missiles that were not included in the original deal.

“Everybody understands that’s going to be incredibly contentious. That can’t be the hurdle to any kind of diplomacy, but it also can’t be off the table entirely,” Maloney adds.

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