Scenario: How Israel could be Left Alone to Face a "Bad Deal" with Iran


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | October 11, 2020


Trump; Biden; Ali Khamenei
Photos: Trump: GPA Photo Archive, USA; Khamenei: Ali Khamenei (CC BY 4.0); Biden: Gage Skidmore (CC BY SA 2.0)


The most dramatic impact on the evolving crisis with Iran, particularly in its nuclear aspect, can be attributed to an event that will take place outside the Middle East: the U.S. elections.


All parties involved in the crisis, particularly Tehran and Washington themselves, await the election outcomes. Both seek to avoid extreme, tiebreaking measures, although the tense reality they share, and the heavy pressure exerted on the Iranian regime, could lead them to unplanned escalation even before then.


Iran is frequently mentioned in the messages conveyed by both presidential candidates. President Trump repeatedly states that upon being elected for a second term, he will reach an agreement with Iran within "weeks". The logic behind this announcement is that Iran is hoping Biden will be elected, for it cannot endure four more years of the unprecedented internal pressure caused by the sanctions. Therefore, if President Trump will be re-elected, Iran would be forced to return to the negotiating table at some point (a prediction shared by most experts), under terms that will be better for Trump.


Biden, by contrast, has recently outlined his policy vis à vis Iran in a CNN op-ed. He declares that if Iran returns to strict compliance with the JCPOA, the US would rejoin it, implicitly indicating that sanctions would be lifted. Only then would his administration negotiate with Iran, and work with its allies to "strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions". At the same time, the US will continue to push back against Iran's destabilizing activities and the threat it poses to the region, while continuing to use targeted sanctions against Iran's human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.


Jake Sullivan, who was National Security Advisor to Joe Biden when the latter was Vice President (2013-2014), and is currently on his foreign policy team and stands to assume a senior position in his administration upon election, recently explained the logic behind Biden's plan. He also addressed the questions that it raises, particularly those pertaining to improving the JCPOA provisions after the sanctions had been lifted, effectively losing them as leverage. Sullivan noted that, following its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the U.S. surprised the world with its ability to unilaterally impose an unprecedentedly effective sanction regime. Sullivan implied that this stick will be produced by the Biden administration in the event that Iran, who is more than aware of it, will refuse to rectify the flaws of the JCPOA after re-committing itself to it.


And how is Iran expected to respond to the U.S. election outcomes if President Trump will be re-elected or Biden replace him at the White House?


Under the scenario that President Trump is re-elected, the Iranian regime would seek to avoid "crawling on all fours" back to the negotiating table looking weak and impressionable. It would more likely wish to strengthen its negotiating position. Thus, after a year in which it cautiously and gradually violated the nuclear deal, and avoided any callous steps, the Iranian regime may expand the scope and "quality" of its violations to collect some "bargaining chips" prior to the negotiations, while possibly employing means of escalation across the region.


Even if Biden wins, the Iranian regime is likely to place a price tag on its return to the negotiating table, such as sanctions relief, or a European credit line (in the spirit of Macron's initiative at the time). The parties will then enter negotiations over Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal, which ought to be challenging in light of Tehran's violations, having accumulated knowledge in advanced centrifuge R&D that would be difficult to "undo".


The timelines for starting official negotiations (as opposed to indirect or even direct contacts) under both scenarios are expected to "slip" well into the second half of 2021. The "chip collecting" process vis à vis Trump's administration will take time, and coincide with the launching of Iran's presidential election campaign in June 2021. A more conservative president than Rouhani is expected to be elected, with the latter unable to be a candidate, having completed two terms in office. Rouhani and his administration are under the conservative circles' political attack, rendering it unlikely that Khamenei would give him leeway to negotiate with the U.S. so close to the elections. These considerations and timeframe are just as valid under the scenario whereby Biden wins. The latter is expected to enter the White House on January 20 to begin the transition, replace and appoint senior officials in the federal bureaucracy– a process due to take months.


The policy of both presidential candidates could pose a difficult challenge for Israel.


President Trump is eager to reach an agreement with Iran quickly, but may encounter a defiant Iranian regime demanding compensation for its willingness to return to the negotiating table, perhaps even increasing tension in the region. Under such circumstances, knowing Trump, he could ultimately choose to compromise on the updated nuclear deal's terms. To prove to the world (and the Nobel Prize committee?) that he can deliver on his election promise and close a deal with Iran quickly, President Trump may end up making a "bad deal" from an Israeli point of view. The deal would nevertheless be publicized as a "dramatic" improvement compared to the agreement reached by President Obama, even if it will not, in effect, address the grievous flaws of the JCPOA: the expiration of restrictions ("sunset" clauses), advanced centrifuge R&D, and authority to oversee the weapons program.


On the other hand Biden's strategy could lead the U.S. administration back to the original deal, with its provisions nearing their expiration dates, and leave it "stuck" there in the absence of leverage over Iran after Biden will, at least partly, concede the sanction lever. Moreover, Biden is striving for as much collaboration with Europe as possible in an effort to avoid the isolation Trump had endured, and is therefore expected to be more easily swayed by their unequivocal support of the original JCPOA.


At the same time, both Trump and Biden may be reluctant to pose a credible military threat to Iran during negotiations. Both seek to extract the US from the "never-ending" wars in the Middle East, and expedite troop drawdown from the region – two items on the U.S. agenda that enjoy a rare consensus among its divided public.


An agreement between Iran and the US containing terms that Israel views as insufficient is not the only possible scenario, nor is it predestined; however, under the current circumstances, it is certainly an option for which we must prepare. Israel will find it extremely hard to publicly object to any agreement with Iran that receives President Trump's blessing, as well as international support; certainly not in view of the U.S. president's relocation of his embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israel's sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and contribution to the normalization accords signed with the Arab states. For his part, Biden is expected to be highly sensitive to any Israeli interference in this matter, since, while he was Vice President, Prime Minister Netanyahu had blatantly intervened in American politics (his speech to Congress in March 2015) in an attempt to thwart the nuclear deal reached by Obama.


An analysis of the timelines for the renewed negotiations between the U.S. and Iran reveals that Israel has a narrow window of opportunity in which to influence U.S. stances. As the past has proven, once the parties begin negotiating (even clandestinely), Israel has very little effect on the course of the negotiations. Israel is therefore required to upgrade momentarily its current channels of coordination on Iran with both the Trump administration and Biden's foreign policy team.


Israel must focus its efforts on reaching an understanding over the ToR of negotiations with Iran in advance, to ensure that the U.S. will insist on rectifying the weaknesses inherent to the JCPOA, and not leave Israel alone with this problem. Israel must consider a public and detailed reiteration of the nuclear deal's flaws, and the amendments it requires, to avoid the dynamics that could lead to a "bad deal" between Iran and the international community.


As part of its dialog with the U.S. administration (and the international community in general) on this topic, Israel may be caught up in the familiar dilemma between the need to present maximal, uncompromising positions while risking becoming irrelevant, and an approach that includes areas of flexibility alongside "red lines".


Under the circumstances created, whereby both Trump and Biden seem to consider compromises that will lead to an agreement with Tehran, Israel must also think beyond its maximal and unrealistic "zero Iranian enrichment" stance. Overall, a more complex view – consisting of priorities, a combination of "sticks" and "carrots", and interim arrangements that would improve the strategic balance vis à vis Iran – stands a greater chance of impacting the US administration, which is also in the process of forming its policy positions.


Israel must also decide which is the "deal" with which it is willing to live: will it insist upon a "grand bargain" that addresses both regional and nuclear components, requiring time-consuming haggling while the nuclear program expands? Or will it content itself with a strictly nuclear deal that does not adequately respond to Iran's malign policy in this region?


Finally, Israel will also have to decide further down the road how far it would be willing to go, and which steps it would be willing to take, in order to thwart a "bad deal" with Iran, if such a deal would indeed emerge.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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