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Personal Opinion | Prof. Boaz Ganor, Founder and Executive Director, The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Reichman University
January 20, 2021

Joh Biden and Iran Nuclear
Photo: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 | Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0


To all appearances, it seems that Iran is going for the nuclear bomb. The Islamic Republic does not even try to hide it. Some will say that it merely threatens the West - first and foremost President Biden - to force them to return to the nuclear agreement abandoned by the US during the Trump administration, possibly under better terms for Iran. Either or, now is the time, at the beginning of 2021 and change of the administrations in Washington to look back and see how we ended up where we are and more than that – where do we go from here?


It seems that the three main strategies aimed to prevent Iran from “nuclearizing” have failed: neither Obama’s strategy (negotiation, compromise, and agreement), nor Trump’s (sanctions and deterrence) nor Netanyahu’s (operational and military activity against Iran) gained the desired outcome. What is there left to do that late in the game? Striving to arrive at a new nuclear agreement accompanied by American and international enforcement measures and deterrence.


Starting with the Obama strategy. The latter led the approach that strived to arrive at an international agreement in a manner that limits the Iranian nuclear program in return for lifting the economic sanctions on Iran. Such an agreement was indeed executed among Iran, the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany in July 2015. Within this agreement Iran undertook not to develop a nuclear weapon and provide constant and free access to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors. Further, Iran undertook to reduce the number of its uranium enriching centrifuges from approx. 19,000 to 5,000 and store the decommissioned centrifuges under IAEA supervision, not enrich uranium over 3.67% for a period of 15 years and to sell, get out of Iran or dilute the medium enriched uranium it possessed. On its face, this seemed like an important agreement that if implemented, it would have prevented Iran’s race to the nuclear bomb for 15 years. However, the agreement’s execution was mired with deep skepticism by multiple countries, first and foremost Israel, as to the real intentions of the Iranian regime, well known as a shrewd and manipulative actor that does not disguise its desires to increase its a regional and global hegemony (in order to "export the Iranian revolution") and wipe Israel off the face of the earth. The above skepticism was coupled with concerns (that were not proved until the US exited the agreement) about an Iranian fraudulent scheme to continue developing its nuclear capabilities while enjoying the benefits of the agreement. Indeed, the execution of the agreement brought about within a short time frame a significant improvement to the Iranian economy, after the latter was again allowed to trade oil and transact with various elements, the EU in particular. The economic improvement enabled Iran and IRGC to continue and even expand the assistance it provided to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and destabilize its neighbors.


President Trump’s decisions to exit the agreement marked the end Obama’s agreement doctrine. However, Trump’s alternative doctrine – imposing sanctions and deterrence measures on Iran failed as well. Trump’s doctrine (enthusiastically championed by the Israeli government) stemmed from total lack of trust in Iran’s motives and intentions and highlighted the nuclear agreement’s shortcomings in the nuclear field as well as its ramifications on the Iranian regional policy and its economic and military recovery and buildup. The rationale behind Trump’s doctrine was that applying increasing pressure on the Iranian regime and its leaders through strict sanctions will significantly hurt the Iranian economy (which did materialize) and will spark protests which will destabilize the regime (such protests did take place but were ruthlessly oppressed by the Iranian regime) and at the end of the day will bring its downfall (which has not happened). Trump did not hesitate to deploy the American economic power and pressured other friendly countries to abide by the sanctions however he refrained from taking a pinpoint military action that will signal the Iranian that the US was determined to make Iran accept its terms, deter it from enriching uranium and progress towards the bomb. On the contrary, through most of his term, Trump showed reluctance to engage in a military action against Iran, even in the face of constant Iranian provocations. He did not retaliate militarily against the maritime attack perpetrated by Iran in the straits of Hurmuz and sat idly by when Iran shot down an American UAV and attacked the strategic oil facilities of ARAMCO in KSA. The exception was of course the elimination of Qassim Soleimani but even that has happened only after Americans were hurt by Iranian proxies and the American embassy in Bagdad was attacked. The elimination of Soleimani proved to be too little and too late and did not generate the crucial deterrence factor against Iran. Parallelly to the strict sanctions Trump broadcasted to the Iranian regime his wishes to return the negotiation table and even pressured to do so. The paradox was (as a friend of mine, senior member of the Japanese security community, put it out to me) that even though both parties (Iran and the US) strived to achieve the same goal (new nuclear agreement) each actor played a different game. The Iranian played chess (a long-term strategic game filled with calculated moves) whereas the US played poker (a game based on manipulation, subterfuge, and gamble). Even though the economic situation in Iran escalated and was intensified by severe Covid-19 crisis, it does not seem that the Trump doctrine posed a real threat to the continuation of the Ayatollahs regime; but on the flip side it caused the Iranian to take retaliatory measures the gist of which was breaching the commitments they took upon themselves in the JCPOA. Within this framework, Iran announced that it would advance its research on uranium metal production (a crucial component for a nuclear weapon) and enrich uranium to a 20% level.


And what about the military doctrine (Netanyahu’s doctrine)? Netanyahu, argued for years that there was a need to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities and he refrained from doing so only because of the objection of the heads of the Israeli security agencies. De facto, Netanyahu refrained from bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities as an outcome of rational cost/benefit calculation rather than the mere objection of the heads of the Israeli security agencies during his tenure. In 2009, I was invited to the White House by a senior US official who has asked for my opinion on the possibility of an Israeli air strike in Iran. The question was how in my opinion Israel should act if given a “yellow light” regarding the bombing of Iran nuclear facilities. After I made clear (even though it was clear to my host to begin with) that I neither represented nor could speak on behalf of Israel, I told my host that even if the US would give Israel a green light to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel should refrain from doing so. My host was astonished, and I explained that in my opinion an aerial attack against the Iranian nuclear facilities was complex. It requires a simultaneous attack of multiple targets, most of which are underground and fortified and an Israeli attack may damage them, perhaps significantly, but will not destroy Iran’s capabilities. On the other hand, Iran’s “conventional” response may cause a strategic damage in Israel and create unprecedented damage to the Israeli home front. Moreover, immediately after an Israeli attack Iran will race to the bomb claiming it had to gain such capabilities because it was being attacked by Israel. Finally, I argued that the Iranian nuclear threat is not limited to Israel but rather poses an existential threat to its neighboring countries, the entire middle east and well beyond. A nuclear Iran will also intensify its involvement in terrorism and subversion activities all over the world. I emphasized that any such aerial attack should be conducted by a US led international coalition, perhaps with Israeli participation but in any case this should not be a purely Israeli operation. Netanyahu’s abstinence to carry out such an attack during his 15 years tenure as prime minister is in my opinion an outcome of the above insights that were true 11 years ago and are even more valid today.


What needs to be now, at the end of the Trump administration and the beginning of the Biden one? Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president did not hide, during his campaign, that he wished to return to the nuclear agreement. His recent appoint of Wendy Sherman, (who was in charge of the negotiations with the Iranians and brought the JCPOA to its signing), as Under Secretary at the State Department, clearly attests to Biden’s foreign policy priorities . The urgency of the matter is clear, and that is exactly the message, the Iranian who are outstanding negotiators want to deliver to the US and the rest of the world.


As aforementioned, since President Trump unilaterally abandoned the nuclear agreement, the Iranians has been systematically and gradually escalating their violations of JCPOA. Now they will give their American negotiation counterparts a hard time and they will try to collect a price for the desire of the new American administration to return to the negotiations table. Most probably they won't agree to undertake more commitments than they undertook in the previous agreement and more likely strive to reduce some of the limitations they agreed to in the past. In the Persian bazar when the buyer shows enthusiasm the price of the merchandize rises. That said, when there is no US led international coalition military operation on the table (which in the post Trump days may be viewed as science fiction), a new nuclear agreement remains the only relevant option. The US negotiators must strive for the best possible agreement, one that will halt the Iranian efforts to achieve military nuclear capability for a long time and might even reverse their progress. An agreement that will also limit and reduce the Iranian conventional military buildup and activity, reduce their subversive activity in the middle east and elsewhere, and curb the assistance it provides to terrorist organizations.


The above won’t be achieved just by sweet talking. He who wants peace must prepare for war. The US must prepare a real military option, one that would hold for many years and serve as Damocles sword over the Iranians’ head to make sure Iran keeps its future obligations and deter it from harming its neighbors and destabilizing the region.


A year prior to the execution of the nuclear agreement, I met with a senior American official well in the midst of the negotiations with the Iranians. After having heard about the difficulties in the negotiations and after having been asked to opine; I said that I believed that the agreement would be executed despite the real or manipulative difficulties because the Iranian need the agreement more than the US needs it. But, I argued, the agreement would not hold if the US would not form immediately (even prior to the execution of the agreement) a new military alliance, a NATO 2.0 if you will, to deter Iran. A wide alliance that will include the moderate Sunni Arab countries, the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, KSA, Israel, the US European countries and possibly Australia or other countries. This alliance will provide a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors if and when Iran will move towards achieving military nuclear capabilities, and by providing said umbrella will also prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. The alliance will maintain a joint and independent intelligence apparatus to monitor Iran and its activities be it nuclear, conventional military buildup, political subversion, assistance to terrorism and so forth. If need be the alliance will act against Iran.


It is clear that the formation of NATO 2.0 does not require any Iranian consent. Prima Facie it is disconnected from the new nuclear agreement if and when such agreement is to be execute




Prof. Boaz Ganor, Founder and Executive Director, The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Reichman University



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