As Biden seeks to revive Iran nuclear deal, Israel is trying out its own version of ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran

biden netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010.

  • Since taking office, President Joe Biden’s has tried to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal or craft a new one.
  • Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and Iran have escalated, with an undeclared naval war and continued Israeli strikes on Iran and its proxies.
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While tensions between Israel and Iran have been omnipresent in the Middle East for decades, the prospect of open military conflict between the two countries has never seemed closer than it does now.

Over the past few months, the two rivals have escalated an undeclared naval war featuring unclaimed attacks on Israeli- and Iranian-owned ships. At the same time, Israel has continued its air strikes on Iranian weapons shipments transiting across Syria, and a damaging explosion on April 11 at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was widely attributed to Israel.

All of this comes against the backdrop of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to hold talks with Iran in order to explore the possibility of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal or crafting a new agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

iran deal
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in 2016.

With a delegation of senior Israeli national security and intelligence officials in Washington this week for talks with the Biden administration on Iran, the spotlight is shining brightly on Israel’s current approach to countering Iran and whether or not its disagreements with the US on this issue can be managed.

The last time friction arose in the US-Israel alliance over Iran, it was in the leadup to the Obama administration’s eventually successful negotiations that led to the crafting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the multilateral nuclear deal is formally known.

Israeli officials’ concerns at the time were about both substance and process; they complained about being kept in the dark about the secret American overtures to Iran that preceded the formal negotiations, and the Israeli security establishment was almost uniformly of the view that the deal fell short in a number of critical areas.

Israel was concerned primarily about the JCPOA’s sunset clauses – which allowed some of the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and overall uranium stockpile to expire over a 15-year period and progressively loosened the inspection and verification measures between years 10 and 25 – as well as the lack of restrictions in the deal on Iranian research and development for key nuclear and ballistic missile technologies.

In the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers, the deal’s formula meant eventually assenting to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, not blocking it.

Netanyahu iran
Netanyahu with a graphic of a bomb during his address at the UN General Assembly, September 27, 2012.

The Israelis also believed that negotiating solely over Iran’s nuclear program was mistaken, as the deal did not address Iran’s non-nuclear regional aggression and support for terrorism, and that any deal that did not counter what they saw as Iranian belligerence writ large was inadequate.

Some in Israel, including Netanyahu, went even further, arguing that no deal with Iran was acceptable irrespective of its contours. Netanyahu made this point clear in his address to a joint session of the US Congress in March 2015, warning against the US entering the JCPOA.

With the advent of the Trump administration, the US and Israel were brought into alignment on Iran and the JCPOA. One of Donald Trump’s signature moves as president was to withdraw from the JCPOA and enact a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran in the form of increased sanctions, policies that were supported by Netanyahu.

But while the JCPOA commanded little support within the Israeli security establishment, once it was finalized, the predominant view was that Israel was better off with the US remaining in the deal than withdrawing from it.

The deal was panned as widely flawed and there was no confidence in complete Iranian compliance, but Israel still found that the temporary reprieve from worrying about an imminent Iranian breakout capability allowed it to focus to great effect on countering Iran’s non-nuclear activities.

The facts that Iran dramatically expanded its nuclear capability during the period after Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, and that the US maximum pressure policy did not cause the fall of the regime in Tehran, also gave some Israeli security officials pause.

As a result, the Israeli national security establishment is not as uniformly opposed to the US engaging in talks with Iran as it was when Obama embarked on a similar venture.

Israeli soldiers look out towards Syria from an observation next to the Syrian border on July 23, 2018 in Golan Hights, Israel. Russian planes bombed the Israeli-Syrian border as part of the continued fighting in Syria.
Israeli soldiers look towards Syria from an observation post in the Golan Hights, July 23, 2018.

One camp, led by Netanyahu, still views any deal with Iran as foolhardy and wants to do everything possible to arrest Iranian nuclear ambitions through direct action.

While most Israeli security experts view recent actions that have been attributed to Israel – such as the multiple explosions at Natanz and the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last November – as legitimate and necessary to roll back Iranian nuclear gains, for Netanyahu, they may have the concurrent benefit of raising the stakes for Iran in a way that makes it harder for the regime to negotiate with Washington.

Entering talks are more politically difficult for Iran’s leaders if they are seen as capitulation to pressure. This in turn leads Iran to make demands, such as removing all sanctions before it agrees to talks, that are designed to get a political win but are unlikely to be met by the US

Other Israeli security figures, such as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, appear to prefer working with the US and trying to improve any theoretical new deal while dissuading a return to the JCPOA.

This camp has been influenced by the benefits Israel felt during the JCPOA’s abbreviated tenure. As such, it is focusing on improving the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, specifically by urging the US to eliminate any sunset clauses and negotiate hard limits on Iranian nuclear research rather than focusing solely on enrichment levels and centrifuge deployment. (Of course, whether Iran would agree to such stringent terms is another matter.)

Their thinking is that the Israel government’s open confrontation with the US during the Obama era was a tactical mistake that did not end up benefiting Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Iran, and that if Biden is determined to negotiate a deal, Israel’s aim should be shoring up the cracks that characterized the last one.

israel iran missile battle syria
Missile fire seen from Damascus, Syria, May 10, 2018.

There is yet another group within Israel’s security establishment that is alarmed at Iran’s shortened breakout time since the US exited the JCPOA, and thus advocates reviving the deal immediately in order to address an imminent crisis.

This camp, which includes former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, favors following up the JCPOA with a new, stronger agreement that has a longer time horizon. This approach is motivated not only in wanting to put Iran’s nuclear program back into a box – even if it is a rickety one – as quickly as possible, but also in wanting to stay in America’s good graces and work with the US rather than against it.

So far, the US and Israeli governments have worked hard to avoid the type of fallout between the two allies that occurred in 2015. The Biden administration has made a concerted effort to keep Israeli officials in the loop and to improve regular coordination and consultation at high levels, despite its grumbling about Israeli military action that is raising the temperature in the region.

Israel, meanwhile, has made a concerted effort to cut off public criticism of the Biden administration’s approach and its desire to explore a deal, despite Israel’s disappointment that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has been abandoned and its clear skepticism about what it views as the Biden administration’s naivete.

Whether the two sides can continue to manage their differences is an open question; what is certain is that the US and Israeli approaches will remain misaligned. That means Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear program are likely to continue, no matter the status of US-Iranian negotiations.

Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.

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The US is prepared to lift sanctions on Iran that are ‘inconsistent’ with the 2015 nuclear deal

Iran Rouhani capitol
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Western Democracy “fragile.”

  • The US is prepared to lift sanctions on Iran “inconsistent” with the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • The State Department did not offer specifics on what sanctions might be lifted.
  • The US and Iran are involved in indirect talks in Vienna as part of an effort to revive the deal.
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The State Department on Wednesday said that the US is willing to lift sanctions on Iran that are “inconsistent” with the 2015 nuclear deal.

“We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, per Reuters. Prince was employing the acronym for the formal name of the 2015 pact – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The White House did not offer comment and deferred to the State Department when contacted by Insider.

Price’s comments came as US and Iranian officials are participating in indirect talks in Vienna – communicating through European intermediaries – as part of an effort to revive the nuclear pact.

In Vienna, the US and Iran agreed to establish working groups with the goal of bringing both parties back into compliance with the deal in a synchronized fashion. This agreement was viewed by experts as a sign of progress in terms of restoring the deal, albeit incremental.

“This is an important positive step but it’s not going to be easy to get back into the JCPOA,” Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East Security Director at the Center for New American Security in Washington, DC, said of the news via Twitter. “It’s going to take time and tough negotiations and it would be better if the US & Iran can talk directly. But still. Important progress.”

“Good news,” Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, tweeted in response to the development.

The 2015 nuclear deal was designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Critics of the deal said it did not go far enough to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power, and also contended the pact was weak in terms of addressing Iran’s regional behavior and missile program.

Then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran and setting off a series of events that raised tensions between Washington and Tehran to historic heights – sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East. The Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to squeeze Iran into negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 deal via harsh economic sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.

Before Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon was roughly a year, but US officials now say it’s closer to a few months. Iran remained in compliance with the pact for nearly a year after the US pulled out, but gradually took steps away from the agreement before effectively abandoning it altogether after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed the country’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020.

President Joe Biden on the campaign trail pledged to revive the deal. But Iran has maintained it would not return to compliance until the US lifts sanctions. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has insisted Iran prove it’s complying with the pact before the US moves forward with sanctions relief. The Vienna talks are the first substantive effort in the Biden era at breaking the impasse.

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US and Iran to hold indirect talks on the nuclear deal in Vienna, a first step toward a major goal for Biden

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gestures upon his arrival at the airport in New Delhi, India, January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrives in New Delhi

  • The US and Iran will participate in talks in Vienna about the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • But US and Iranian officials will not hold direct talks.
  • Regardless, this is a major step toward restoring the deal – a top priority for Biden.
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The US and Iran will send officials to Vienna next week to participate in talks aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but they will not communicate directly.

“Iran and the US will be in the same town, but not the same room,” a European diplomatic source told Reuters.

The Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the 2015 nuclear deal, held a virtual meeting on Friday and agreed that all parties would participate in talks in Vienna next week “in order to clearly identify sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures,” according to an EU statement.

“In this context, the coordinator will also intensify separate contacts in Vienna with all JCPOA participants and the United States,” the statement added.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a statement provided to Insider confirmed the US had agreed to participate in talks to “identify the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA with Iran.”

“These remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward,” Price added. “These talks will be structured around working groups that the EU is going to form with the remaining participants in the JCPOA, including Iran.”

Price said the primary issues to be discussed will be steps Iran would need to take to return to compliance with the deal, and sanctions relief steps the US would also need to take to return to compliance.

“We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them,” Price said.

Iran’s top diplomat, Javad Zarif, in a tweet also said there would be no US-Iran meeting. “Unnecessary,” Zarif said.

Regardless, this marks a major step toward one of President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy goals. Though the US and Iran will not meet directly, the talks will mark the first significant discussions on reviving the deal since Biden took office. The Obama era deal was designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Against the wishes of US allies, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. The move saw tensions between the US and Iran escalate to historic heights, sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East – particularly after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general in January 2020.

On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to restore the deal. But making good on this pledge has proved complicated, with US and Iran at a diplomatic impasse over reviving the pact.

Tehran has called on Washington to lift sanctions before it makes a move, insisting that since the US initially pulled out of the deal it should be the first to return to compliance. Meanwhile the US, has said Iran should return to full compliance with the nuclear restrictions under the agreement before it receives any sanctions relief. Iran remained in compliance with the deal for roughly a year after Trump withdrew from it, but has effectively abandoned the pact in the time since.

The Biden administration has expressed a willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but Iranian leaders have rebuffed these offers. That said, the agreement to hold talks in the Austrian capital – albeit indirectly – is a sign of progress.

The talks in Vienna are set to begin on Tuesday, and top officials from all participants in the 2015 agreement – Iran, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China, the US, and the European Union – will be involved.

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Biden’s approach to Iran is better than Biden makes it sound

Iran missile launch
A missile is launched in a drill in Iran, January 16, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden’s comments in his first weeks in office have raised concern about whether he’ll pursue the diplomacy with Iran he promised during his campaign.
  • But posturing is to be expected, and Biden’s more substantive moves, and the personnel he picks, that merit attention, writes Defense Priorities fellow Shahed Ghoreishi.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In a recent interview, President Joe Biden said the US will not return to the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, until Iran stops enriching uranium first. A “US senior official” clarified the remarks, repeating a campaign line that Iran has to “stop enriching beyond the limits of the JCPOA” – not “all” enrichment.

Understandably, diplomacy advocates were concerned by Biden’s initial remarks, but there are good reasons to remain hopeful. The public posturing is par for the course. President Barack Obama did the same, before approving secret talks in Oman in 2013 that laid the groundwork for the deal.

While public announcements remain important, the real scrutiny should be directed at substantive moves – some of which are happening behind the scenes. In this regard, Biden has made a number of positive moves signaling his desire to de-escalate away from the crisis the Trump administration created with Iran, return to the Iran deal, and ultimately avoid another endless war in the Middle East.

First, Biden quickly moved an aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, out of the Persian Gulf in an early signal to Iran that he desires lower tensions.

Iran Biden Trump protest
Protesters burn pictures of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, November 28, 2020.

In mid-January, Iran conducted its fifth military drill in two weeks, while the Trump administration sent the USS Nimitz, along with multiple B-52 flights, to the region as a threat to Iran. Between the Trump administration’s military threats and Iran’s increasing stockpile of uranium, tensions were high and speculation that Trump might order a strike on Iran churned until his last days in office.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East” and therefore didn’t need to send any provocative signals to Iran.

The merits of having a “robust presence” in the region deserve their own scrutiny, but in this case avoiding dramatic displays is meaningful, even if more routine military activity in the Persian Gulf continues.

Second, the Biden administration suspended offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reversed the decision to place Houthis on the official terrorism designation list. The suspension came in the context of Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling out Saudi Arabia for “contributing” to the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”

While these actions were done in the context of the Biden administration ending US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, they do send a signal the US is hoping to have a more balanced approach to the region.

After all, it was the Trump administration that spent four years following our authoritarian partners’ lead in the region, even after the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

It was Obama who originally said Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to “share the region,” instead of embracing regional competition.

In fact, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail. This is the first step in giving the US a more balanced approach to the region and greater strategic flexibility – rather than taking the Gulf States’ side in their regional rivalry with Iran.

Third, Biden has already signaled his intentions with his personnel choices by bringing on a number of experienced, pro-diplomacy advocates that know how to engage Iran.

This includes the Biden administration’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal; national security advisor Jake Sullivan, who met with the Iranians in Oman prior to the JCPOA negotiations; and nominee for CIA Director William Burns, a veteran diplomat. Since the Biden administration has stated its intention to expand diplomacy with Iran even after returning to the JCPOA, these veterans will be that much more critical.

Lastly, there is a lot that we still do not know. The preliminary talks in Oman during the Obama administration became public nearly a year after they took place, when higher level negotiations were underway.

FILE PHOTO: (L-R) Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry listen as President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki address reporters after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 1, 2013.     REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
Biden, then vice president, and Antony Blinken, then deputy national security advisor, in the Oval Office, November 1, 2013.

The Biden administration has to deal with congressional hawks, advocacy organizations that prefer continued animosity, lobbyist firms, and regional partners that benefit from the status quo of a heavily sanctioned Iran.

Israel has already threatened to strike Iran if the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA. The current team in the White House has not forgotten the lessons of the Obama administration and understands the public-relations sphere.

It goes to show the real progress diplomacy has had when expectations for diplomacy are as high as they are. The Biden administration’s move to review US sanctions policy and how it undermines COVID-19 response in various countries, including Iran, was praised, but has been quickly forgotten since. These important moves should not be taken lightly.

Yes, the window of diplomatic opportunity with Iran will not remain open forever, but important gestures have been made. The path toward a balanced approach to the region and avoiding another endless war is still very much before us.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi

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