How should the Biden Administration be approached on the Iranian issue? Questions and Answers

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | February 12, 2021

Joh Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu
Photos: Avi Ohayon - GPO


The Biden Administration's approach to Iran is emerging as the Archimedean point that will define U.S. Middle Eastern policy in general, and shape its relations with its local allies, certainly with Israel. These days, Israel is reportedly preparing for starting a dialogue with the incoming administration on Iran. The following document seeks to lay the relevant knowledge foundation in this area, based on which a list of recommendations will be provided for conduct vis a vis the new U.S. administration in an effort to improve the chances of impacting its policy, and aligning it with Israel's interests.


The document will discuss the following questions, among others: What are the Biden administration's policy guidelines with respect to Iran? How high is this issue prioritized? What interests, motivations, and logics underlie this policy? Which factors are expected to impact the chances of successful implementation of Biden's declared intention to return to the JCPOA (the most important being the policy adopted by the regime in Tehran)? What are the timelines? What are the gaps and tensions between Israel and the U.S. administration, and how does Washington perceive Israel's views and conduct to date?



What is the logic behind the Biden Administration's policy on Iran?


At first glance, the guidelines published by President Biden and his team on Iran, declaratively and in written form, seem incoherent. They state their intention to return to the JCPOA, thereby lifting the severe sanctions imposed by President Trump on Iran. Next, after having lost the sanction leverage against the regime in Tehran, the Biden Administration intends to demand far-reaching concessions of it in the form of "strengthening and extending" the nuclear deal's provisions as part of follow-up agreements designed to address the missile problem as well. Biden has declared that, if Iran should refuse – and Tehran has indeed made it very clear that it will vehemently object to any deviation from the terms of the agreement or negotiations over its missile array – he will once again use the sanction leverage, and, in effect, reinstate Trump's policy, which he had been against from the start.


Does that make no sense? Well, actually, it does, if we assume that, at this point, the administration is primarily seeking to "set aside" the Iranian issue – or "put Iran back into the box", as Biden's newly appointed National Security Adviser has put it – in order to deal with more pressing matters.


The return to the JCPOA will roll the Iranian nuclear project back to within a year from breaking out to fissile material for a bomb. This will be true for six or seven years before the limitations set in the agreement will gradually begin to expire. This leaves plenty of time for diplomacy with Iran, discussions on follow-up agreements, that do not constitute a pre-condition to returning to the JCPOA, and the establishment of communication channels with Tehran on regional issues together with the Gulf States.


In the time "bought", the U.S. administration will be able to address its top priorities, among which the Middle East is not, such as domestic socio-economic issues – particularly the severe implications of the pandemic – looking eastwards to the great power competition with China, reinstating U.S. leadership and the liberal agenda in the global theater, countering cybersecurity threats, and North Korea.


Containing the Iranian challenge goes hand in hand with the administration's declared intent to reduce U.S. presence in the Middle East and, in its own words, rebalance Washington's level of commitment to regional stability, freedom, and security, and its need to refrain from being entrenched in unwinnable conflicts that impede its strength.


Iran understands these priorities, and is determined to force the incoming administration to engage it, return to the JCPOA, and prevent it from being on hold under the pressure of sanctions, that are tearing its economy down. With this aim, and in order to pile up some "chips" and leverage against the U.S. administration, the Iranian regime has recently taken the nuclear deal violations a step further, going as far as anchoring them in a law passed by parliament. Iran has started to enrich uranium to 20% purity, and has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its intention to set up a production line for metallic uranium. According to this law, the next pressure steps will include reducing Iran's commitment to the "additional protocol" (late February), which gives the IAEA increased oversight power in its nuclear sites, and the installment of one thousand advanced centrifuges (within three months).



Which factors will impact the chances and timelines of returning to the JCPOA?


The return to the JCPOA may encounter a host of difficulties, and could go wrong.


First, Iran's series of military exercises in the Gulf, designed to showcase its power, and support its political demands, as well as its threats to avenge the assassinations of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, could deteriorate into unplanned military incidents on the ground, or be interpreted by its local proxies, particularly the Shiite militias in Iraq, as a green light for attacking U.S. interests.


Second, Washington and Tehran already seem to be in dispute over the sequence of actions leading to their return to the nuclear deal. The U.S. is demanding that Iran comply with its provisions before it lifts the sanctions, whereas the Iranian regime is demanding the opposite.


Third, the technological baseline to which Iran will be required to return remains unclear. IAEA Director General, Grossi, has underscored that it cannot go back to "square one" of the JCPOA, as it is no longer there, and argued that an agreed protocol will have to be established by and between the parties to define how Iran's breaches are to be reversed. Complex issues in this context are expected to be the know-how gained during Iran's breaches in R&D, the underground plant at Natanz for the installation of advanced centrifuges, and more. Even after understandings will be reached, it would take many weeks to implement them, for instance to dilute or remove the enriched uranium Iran accumulated in excess of the amount permitted in the agreement (approximately 3600kg versus 300kg respectively). Secretary of State Blinken clearly stated in this regard that "we are a long ways from that point" in which Iran could be said to be in full compliance.


Fourth, with presidential elections coming up this June in Iran, internal political tensions are high within the regime, as conservative circles are attempting to stop Rouhani and his supporters from claiming to have successfully brought about the lifting of sanctions. In this context, the closer we are to the elections, the more Iran may become strict in its views. Its starting position is already stringent (although on some issues it will probable to concede), with its demands for compensation for the financial damage caused by the sanctions, the lifting of sanctions beyond those specified in the JCPOA (supporting terror, human rights violations), guarantees that the U.S. will not breach the agreement again, and so on.


The Biden administration is also expected to run into difficulties raising support in the return to the nuclear deal – domestically, against the backdrop of broad opposition in Congress, including that of Democratic Congressmen, and externally, due to the objection of its Middle Eastern allies, among which Israel is already quite prominent.


Nevertheless, two significant aspects increase the odds of returning to the nuclear deal. The first is the profound interest in doing so shared by both Washington and Tehran. The new U.S. administration seeks to implement its strategic priorities, whereas Iran is eager to be relieved of the heavy sanctions imposed on it, the detrimental effect of which has worsened in light of the COVID-19 crisis, and return to the agreement that had given it substantial advantages from the outset.


The second is the expected international support, almost across the board, for this move, from its European allies – who have been urging the U.S. to save the deal since the latter pulled out of it – as well as its adversaries, Russia and China.



What are the gaps between Israel and the Biden administration?


Israel is against the nuclear deal for several fundamental reasons:


  • In its view, the JCPOA "mortgages" the future in exchange for delaying the Iranian nuclear program (which, in itself, is indeed important) in effect paving the way for Iran – starting 6 or 7 years from now, when the limitations on the program will gradually begin to expire – to reach the status of a nuclear threshold state with full international legitimization.

  • The deal also allows Iran to carry out advanced centrifuge R&D, the constraints on which are also gradually expiring, making it easier for it to reach minimal breakout time and obtain fissile material for a bomb rapidly once the limitations will be removed.

  • The deal does not grant the IAEA sufficient oversight capabilities over the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

  • The JCPOA only focuses on the nuclear challenge, while ignoring Iran's malign policy in the region, and the threatening missile array it is building. The agreement lifts the effective sanctions imposed on Iran in finance and energy, and neutralizes the ability to use them to pressure it into desisting from its destabilizing activity in the region, as well as the threats it poses to its neighbors.


Israel's policy on Iran is viewed by the Biden administration as defiant. Its conduct vis à vis Washington includes public statements (by the Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff) urging the new administration to refrain from returning to the "flawed" agreement, and use of the media, to which impractical Israeli "demands" are being leaked, such as forbidding any Iranian uranium enrichment, and ending Iranian presence in regional theaters. Moreover, Israel seems to be signaling to the Biden administration that its return to the JCPOA may lead the former to reconsider military options.


The Israeli policy had caused outrage in Washington before President Biden even entered the White House, as illustrated in a particularly blatant op-ed by longtime commentator Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post. Associates of the new president went as far as to argue in the media that the assassination of nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, attributed to Israel, was designed to stop Biden from returning to the path of diplomacy with Iran.



Recommendations for Israel


As part of its dialogue with the U.S. (and the international community at large) on Iran, israel is expected to 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".


This dilemma will be highlighted by the power transition in the United States and President Biden's Iranian policy. Israel's chances of stopping the new administration from returning to the JCPOA, certainly by confrontation, are low. Biden and his team view it as a profound strategic U.S. interest that will enable them to implement their national priorities. Particularly at a time when the U.S. is knee-deep in a multidimensional crisis domestically, and its powerful global image has suffered a blow, and will need to recover.


Biden and his team took part in drafting the nuclear deal; they believe in it, and were deeply agitated by Israel's attempt to thwart it back when President Obama was in office. Thus, should the new administration feel that Israel is once again bringing a conflictual approach to the table, a defiant discourse outside the "closed rooms", and unrealistic views – it may altogether "shut the door" on its attempts to impact its policy.


Moreover, the administration is likely to estimate that it will be able to control Israel's moves, for several reasons: the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress; Israel's dependence on the U.S. in a series of political and security-related issues; the international consensus it enjoys on the return to the JCPOA; and the futility of an Israeli military alternative, at present, for it will have to be coordinated with the U.S., and in light of the fact that a return to the nuclear deal will anyway keep the Iranian nuclear program a reasonable way away from breakout to nuclear weapons in upcoming years.


Israel is an important U.S. ally, and has the capability, access, and channels to impact U.S. policy, certainly on Iran, as the latter poses a direct threat to its security. In addition, in view of their complexity, the negotiations between the United States and Iran are expected to run into difficulties, and take several months at the very least. Therefore, a window of opportunity may open for profound dialogue between Jerusalem and Washington, during which the new administration's policies in this area will continue to be shaped, and will perhaps even evolve.


To maintain its ability to potentially impact the administration, Israel must keep a low profile, and refrain from public, defiant diplomacy vis à vis the U.S., whereby its views are presented in advance by the media. Instead, it is advised to pursue quiet, intimate dialogue based on a shared view that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, while relying on the existing robust cooperation in areas such as intelligence, defense, and operations between the two countries. In order to build trust with the incoming administration that will enable it to impact U.S. policy, Israel must display constructive, practical views, and avoid threatening to opt for the military alternative, which is not relevant at this time anyway, and will undoubtedly fail to achieve its objectives in the absence of ongoing U.S. activity after the fact.


Israel is also advised to avoid seeking to create a shared regional front with the moderate Arab states against the U.S. administration's policy on Iran (as opposed to an anti-Iranian front). Such a move may be perceived by Washington as defiant, and will be short-lived in any event, as the Arab states are expected to align themselves with the Biden administration in light of their security's profound dependence upon American guarantees.


Both Biden and his administration have personally clarified that they intend to prioritize addressing the Iranian nuclear problem over the threats it poses in the region, in which they will engage separately and simultaneously. This set of priorities serves Israel's interests, and it must stop demanding "a grand bargain" that will address every component of the Iranian threat. Iran's nuclearization could be a fundamental game-changer in the Middle East, and Israel's tools for thwarting it at a low price are less effective. By contrast, it is far more capable of addressing the threat of precision missiles, and Iran's entrenchment efforts on our borders, which are severe in and of themselves. Moreover, even if an agreement for restraining Iran's regional policy is reached, the ability to enforce it will be highly limited, and even if proof be found for Iranian terror violations, it is highly unlikely that the international community, or even Israel, will see it as sufficient grounds for sabotaging a future agreement if the latter provides a reasonable solution for the nuclear challenge.


As part of its dialogue with the U.S. administration on the nuclear issue itself, Israel must think beyond it unrealistic "zero Iranian enrichment" stance, and rise above its "all or nothing" approach, or the equations that cannot be solved under the current circumstances, such as "maximum pressure in exchange for maximum gains". Instead, it must strive to convince the Biden administration of the advantages of a gradual, cautious approach to Iran, setting benchmarks and maintaining leverages vis à vis the regime in Tehran.


Overall, a more complex stance – consisting of priorities, a combination of "sticks" and "carrots", as well as partial or temporary agreements that could improve the overall strategic balance with Iran – stand a better chance of impacting the U.S. administration. For instance, any interim agreement that rollback the Iranian program – even in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, but not as part of an agreement with a final expiration date that legitimizes the Iranian nuclear program – could serve Israeli interests.


The bottom line is: Israel must avoid going head-to-head with the Biden administration over the Iranian issue, as it could jeopardize its essential dialogue with the U.S., or even its status as a bipartisan consensus, which is being eroded as it is. Israel has no substitute for America's support, and choosing to enter a high-profile conflict with the new administration would be a strategic mistake, the implications of which on Israel's security, status, and strength may be detrimental.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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