Israel and its new Gulf allies are growing increasingly concerned that the incoming Biden administration intends to re-enter negotiations with Iran with the aim of returning to the deeply flawed 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal yielded wide sanctions relief and other concessions to Iran but never blocked the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism from a direct path to a nuclear arsenal in short time.
Should the Biden team re-enter the deal, the fallout could be far greater. The Iranians have made progress in the nuclear realm since 2015. Thus, the United States, Israel, and their regional allies have great challenges ahead. But there are four concrete steps they should take to avert a full-blown crisis.
First, Israel should demonstrate internal political unity. This is no simple task given the political tumult in Israel, which is heading for its fourth round of elections in a span of just two years. Still, political figures in the current government should maintain discipline in speaking with the press.
Even if some politicians in Israel’s current government think they have a better policy dealing with Iran, they should demonstrate restraint and not present their policy as Israel’s, particularly if it differs from the official directive issued by the prime minister. When it comes to apolitical civil servants in Israel’s military, intelligence community, and foreign ministry, it should be discouraged. This was the way the Israeli team of experts worked with the six world powers involved in the prior negotiations. The team spoke in one voice, explained to the negotiators Israel’s grave concerns, and worked to mitigate the JCPOA’s fatal flaws. Unfortunately, the current situation in Israel is more chaotic. Some officials, politicians, and even civil servants are granting interviews, mostly off the record, breaking rank, and offering their personal views. This is not wise and only sends confusing messages.
Second, Israel must build a broad international coalition to include its new peace partners in the Middle East. Those countries harbor similar and often stronger concerns about Iranian nuclear threats. The United States ignored the concerns of these regional partners during last round. It will be harder to ignore them now, especially if they speak with one voice alongside Israel.
Third, Israel and its Gulf allies must join hands with both Democrats and Republicans that oppose up-front concessions to Iran. For Israel and its new regional allies, it is important to avoid making this a partisan issue. Still, it is important to convince banks and businesses worldwide that re-entering Iran would be risky. Iran is still engaged in a wide range of illicit conduct, and no political agreement can erase that. It is also worth noting that future U.S. Congresses, not to mention future presidents, may still seek to exit a faulty deal with Iran, much the way President Donald Trump did in 2018.
Fourth, Israel and its regional allies must work with the United States to retain a credible military threat against Iran’s nuclear program. This should not be a means to encourage war. Iran simply will not negotiate a new reasonable deal unless Tehran is certain its nuclear facilities are under threat of destruction. Similarly, the regime itself should know that its survival is far from certain if it does not relinquish its entire nuclear program this time.
Convincing the new administration to adopt this doctrine will not be easy. Israel and its partners must stress that Iran’s malign nuclear activities have not ceased. The regime has engaged in nuclear blackmail, enriching uranium up to 20 percent at its Fordo facility, continuing research and development (R&D), installing new advanced centrifuges in underground facilities, and taking other dangerous steps in the nuclear arena.
The International Atomic Energy Agency director general recently declared that a new agreement is required to revive the deal. At the same time, the agency published reports demonstrating that Iran has violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear safeguards agreement, and the nuclear deal itself. These reports are backed by site visits in Iran and by documents Israel captured from a secret Iranian atomic archive.
So far, the international community has failed to take decisive action. Multilateral decisions are not easy in the most ideal circumstances. Under pandemic conditions and amidst political changes, it has been ever more difficult. The Iranians, playing their cards very wisely, waited for the U.S. election, hoping Trump would lose – and he did. Israel and its partners must now work together with the incoming administration to ensure Iran does not avoid accountability for its nuclear violations.
Israel and its regional allies are not opposed to a new agreement. However, the next deal must permanently block Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. The last one failed to do that. The next deal must fully prevent Iran from maintaining a “civilian nuclear program” in underground facilities. It should also address all three elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear program: fissile materials, weaponization, and means of delivery.
The United States and its allies must also adjust to some new realities. Iran’s strategy has changed. The regime no longer seeks to “break out,” but rather to “sneak out” with the help of advanced centrifuges, advanced R&D, and underground or clandestine facilities. A future agreement cannot allow underground facilities, open Possible Military Dimensions questions, or regime-backed organizations dedicated to weaponization, such as Iran’s Organization for Defensive Innovation and Research, or SPND.
Some have advised the incoming Biden administration that Washington should focus on finding a compromise, like requiring Iran to reduce low-enriched uranium stocks (to a number larger than that allowed under the JCOPA) or dismantle some advanced cascades, and now they can add to the list to stop or reduce the 20 percent enrichment, in exchange for sanction relief. This would be a huge mistake. It was exactly this logic that allowed Iran, under the previous deal, to enrich uranium with more than 5,000 centrifuges. Remarkably, the Iranians were rewarded for cutting their centrifuge numbers down from 10,000, even though unanimous UN Security Council resolutions called for that number to be zero.
Those that seek a rapid new deal with Iran posit that such tough demands will only lead to conflict with the Islamic Republic. This is the wrong mindset for starting a negotiation with Iran. The new administration should not rush to the negotiating table, and it should reject any assertion by Iran’s leaders that the United States should atone for Trump’s policy. Iran leaders should pay for their violations, both past and present.
There are, of course, other Iranian activities that will require the attention of the incoming Biden administration and its allies in the Middle East. They include supporting terrorism, precision guided munitions, and more. But the United States, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states must differentiate between dealing with the nuclear program and other concerns. It would be an error to include Iran’s terror support or malign actions in Syria and Lebanon in the nuclear negotiations. These concerns can be tackled in parallel tracks or after the nuclear problem is resolved. Merging these files could lead to dangerous nuclear concessions. (Some reporters have wrongly asserted that Israel and the Gulf countries rejected the JCPOA because it did not include Iran’s malign behavior and ballistic missiles.)
The new administration is understandably eager to address looming challenges in the Middle East. But it would be wise to move deliberately and carefully, learning from past mistakes. Israel can help, but it must speak with one voice and coordinate carefully with its partners, working assiduously to avoid a return to the disastrous agreement of 2015.
Brigadier General (Res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor and head of Israel’s National Security Council. The views expressed are the author's own.