A “Clean Return,” without ironclad new provisions that strengthen and lengthen the JCPOA, will diminish US clout and destabilize the Mideast.
Biden’s Election Promise
One of Joe Biden’s major election promises as candidate for the US presidency was US return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA), a multilaterally negotiated agreement which had been enthusiastically negotiated by former President Barak Obama; but from which his successor President Trump withdrew in 2018.
On September 20, 2020, candidate Biden wrote: “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiation. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.” Furthermore, he declared rejoining of the nuclear deal as a priority for his administration.
Simply put, Biden undertook to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal as is, with no preliminary negotiations on “extending and strengthening” it or on other issues of concern. All these will be put on the table only after the US rejoins the nuclear deal – namely, after lifting the Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran. All this, in return for Iran’s “rollback” of its violation of the deal’s provisions, such as enriching uranium beyond JCPOA-permitted levels.
Biden’s statement defines US return to the nuclear deal as a “starting point for follow on negotiations” but leaves open the question whether it will also be Iran’s “starting point.” Biden required no prior commitment from Iran for any “strengthening and extending” of the deal, or in fact any prior commitment to negotiate. What will President Biden do if Iran flatly refuses to consider any change in the deal or to negotiate other “issues of concern”? His statement remains mute on this question.
Stripped of diplomatic verbiage, Biden’s election promise is very simple: The US will lift Trump’s sanctions in return for a rollback of Iran’s violations. It is reasonable to assume that the procedure envisaged by Biden’s team is straightforward. Once Iran rolls back the violations, and once the IAEA inspectors verify that it is back to full compliance with JCPOA provisions, President Biden will issue new presidential orders cancelling Trump’s presidential orders on Iran sanctions, and instruct the State Department to rejoin the P5+1 group of states monitoring the nuclear deal. In diplomatic parlance, this simple procedure is dubbed a “Clean Return”; a procedure that is not conditioned on anything that is outside of the language and stipulations of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Yet Biden’s statement contains some criticism of the original nuclear deal. Specifically, Biden hints about some weaknesses in the existing stipulations that need “strengthening.” He points out that the agreement needs to be “extended,” and that there are other “issues of concern” that need to be addressed. Some of the weaknesses of the original agreement were obvious even during its negotiation, and some became clear immediately after its conclusion and ever since.
In its December 5, 2020 issue, The Economist listed three reasons why US conservatives as well as Israel and the Gulf States are opposed to a US “Clean Return.” First, some of the limitations on Iran already have expired or are due to expire in the next few years. Second, the exclusion of Iran’s missile program from the nuclear deal. Third, Iran’s aggression across the region and in particular its support of armed proxy militias like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In short, critics believe that a new and improved nuclear deal is required, that will extend its duration, impose limitations on Iran’s missile programs, and require Iran to moderate its regional policies.
It goes without saying a “Clean Return” will deprive the Biden administration of any leverage over Iran regarding negotiations on, or implementation of, any changes in the existing nuclear deal. Nevertheless, immediately after the elections, speaking as president elect, Biden did not change his position. In an interview to Tom Friedman in The New York Times on December 12, 2020 he said that “There are talks about missiles of various ranges and other matters that destabilize the region” but “that the best way to bring back a modicum of stability to the region” is “to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.” Thus, a return to the existing nuclear deal with no strings attached seems to be a cornerstone of Biden’s foreign policy.
Moreover, it stands to reason that Biden as well as his European allies will move towards Iran rapidly, under the gun of the June elections of the next Iranian president. Following the elections, Iran’s incumbent president Rouhani and his foreign minister Zarif (the team that led the nuclear deal negotiations to its conclusion in 2015) will step down. Both have a clear motivation to see the US rejoin the nuclear deal now, thereby restoring their prestige and public standing that was bruised by Trump’s withdrawal. While still in office, this duo is likely to speak softly and make some vague promises about future negotiations, as a lip service to Biden’s election promise of returning to the nuclear deal as a “Starting Point.” This will provide the new US president with the moral justification for a “Clean Return,” against critics in the US, in Israel, and in the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia.
The deadline of June 2021 results from the fact that all five contenders for Iran’s presidency belong to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Hitherto there was some semblance of a balance of power between the so-called “hardliners” and the erroneously called “moderates” in Iran’s leadership. In reality, this was nothing more than a tenuous balance between the ideological-military establishment that is headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and the economic-diplomatic faction in Iran’s government that to-date has nominated all of Iran’s presidents. Many of these presidents have been considered as “moderate” by the West because they used more friendly language towards Western diplomats and civil society organizations. Some of them, most notably Rouhani, were willing to make some real concessions.
This tenuous balance will collapse once the ideological-military faction takes over the presidency. In somewhat simplistic media language, the “moderates” will be excluded – perhaps permanently – from Iran’s decision-making processes. It is not unlikely that an Iranian president who hails from the IRGC will flatly refuse to promise or even hint at any further negotiations once the US has lifted sanctions. This will make it harder for President Biden to justify a “clean return,” since it will not be a “starting point for follow on negotiations.”
It should be noted that this deadline is a self-imposed target. Once an IRGC President is in power, the likelihood is very low that he will honor any commitments from the Rouhani–Zarif era. In other words, the Biden administration is rushing to return to the nuclear deal while there is still a soft-spoken Iranian president to give the US cover for doing so; while there is still a chance to coax some vague and vacuous promises of follow-on negotiations from Rouhani and Zarif.
In fact, this window of “opportunity” may be even narrower than previously envisaged. While violating some JCPOA provisions (ever since reimposition of US sanctions), the Iranians nevertheless have been careful to adhere to two key stipulations: no enrichment beyond 3.5% and permitting IAEA inspectors to visit their nuclear installations. But following the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist (Muhsin Fahrizadeh) in November 2020, the Iranian parliament (which essentially is an organ of the IRGC) legislated an increase in uranium enrichment levels to 20% and the barring of IAEA inspectors from some of their tasks. On January 2, 2021, Iran announced the resumption of 20% enrichment “as soon as possible.” A week later, on January 9, it threatened to expel all IAEA inspectors by February 21, 2021 unless sanctions are lifted by that time. Once these two measures – higher enrichment levels and the end of watchdog inspections – are implemented it will be much more difficult to roll back Iran’s transgressions.
Thus, the latest Iranian threats are obviously meant to pressure Biden into rejoining the JCPOA “cleanly,” without delay.
Motivations and Obstacles on the Road towards Rejoining the Nuclear Deal
The eagerness of the new Democratic administration to rejoin the nuclear deal derives from a combination of contemporary liberal articles of faith and pragmatic considerations.
One typical article of faith among Western liberals is that nuclear weapons are the ultimate evil that dwarfs conventional threats. Therefore, curbing nuclear proliferation justifies “conventional” concessions. Another article of faith is that diplomacy and negotiations are the preferred tools for settling disputes, and that the lack thereof inevitably brings wars. The third article of faith is the essence of the US alliance with Europe. For the new US administration, rejoining the nuclear deal signifies a return to the liberal camp of nations that pursue policies based on values rather than interests.
Beyond ideology, the new Biden administration has several pragmatic reasons to rejoin the JCPOA. One of the originals aims of the nuclear deal was to prevent the nuclearization of other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Another key aim of the architects of the nuclear deal was to craft something that was more than just another routine arms control agreement, but rather a deal that augur “detente” between the West and Iran; a new path of moderation for Iran which transition from a “rogue” state to a peaceful and respectable member of the international community. President Obama, in his “Implementation Day” statement in January 2016, called on the Iranian people to take “the opportunity to begin building new ties with the world. We have a rare chance to pursue a new path – a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world. That’s the opportunity before the Iranian people. We need to take advantage of that.”
As several US analysts have pointed out, from Obama’s perspective, the details of the Iran nuclear deal did not matter. What mattered was the very existence of an agreement, however indirect, between the US and Iran; an agreement that its architects hoped would become the first step in the “reconstruction” of Iran and its reintegration into the global community, expecting that this would soften Tehran’s policies on other matters.
Taking Biden at his word, the rush to rejoin the nuclear deal stems from the desire to “return a measure of stability to the Middle East” – which probably means Biden’s concern over an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, and in the longer run over the nuclearization of more Middle Eastern countries. The fact that the US reversal of course may destabilize the Middle East apparently is not being considered by Biden administration officials.
Still, the “clean return” policy may hit some serious obstacles. The most significant obstacle may be Iran’s own policy. According to official Iranian media releases, the US walkout from the JCPOA was an illegal violation of a UN Security Council decision and an act of aggression against Iran. President Rouhani expects that “The US will bow to the Iranian nation.” The “bowing” will be expressed in procedure. According to Rouhani, “Iran will return to the nuclear deal within one hour of the US doing so,” this demanding that the US rejoin the deal – in other words, cancel sanctions – with no strings attached, and without a prior Iranian undertaking to roll back its violations and without IAEA verification. This version of a “super clean return” will probably meet some objections even within Biden’s administration.
Moreover, in his first speech of 2021, Supreme Leader Khamenei demanded that “The United States …. compensate Iran for the damages it has endured since President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.” A similar demand was voiced earlier by Foreign Minister Zarif. Yet the most significant obstacle to a “clean return” may be an Iranian demand for assurances that the US never again will leave the JCPOA.
Catherine Ashton, former EU foreign minister, recently revealed that the Iranians had worried even during the negotiations over the nuclear deal about a US walkout, as actually happened later. Remember that President Obama never sent the nuclear deal to Congress. He committed the US to join the agreement through a UN Security Council resolution and by lifting economic sanctions on Iran through Presidential Decrees. This allowed Trump to reimpose sanctions by issuing another set of Presidential Decrees. Consequently, Iran may demand that the US legally bind itself to the JCPOA by an act of Congress, as a precondition for “rolling back its violations.” Zarif hinted as much immediately after the US election, when he said that Iran may demand “assurances” before “it allows the US to rejoin the previous nuclear deal.” Even with its newly won parity in the Senate, the Biden administration may find it difficult to get formal congressional approval for such binding JCPOA commitments.
Ever since the September 2019 devastating attack by Iranian UAVs on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, the awareness has grown among many observers (including dovish analysts) that Iran’s threat to regional and global security is not limited to its nuclear ambitions. Therefore, what is needed is more than just limits on Iran’s military nuclear program, but limits on Iran’s conventional capabilities too, including its entire spectrum of destabilizing weapon programs like ballistic missiles and UAVs.
A “clear return” to the JCPOA that leaves Iran free to pursue its destabilizing non-nuclear threats may be hard to swallow within the US administration and Congress, as well as in Europe. Even French President Macron, who in September 2019 suggested opening a $15 billion credit line for Iranian economic recovery, has stipulated that first Iran would have to end its JCPOA violations; extend the duration of the agreement; and enter negotiations on “regional security.” Macron’s statement anticipated Biden’s own list of Iran deal “weaknesses” by one year. In other words, a “clean return” might be objected to by some of America’s European allies.
No such objections were voiced at the November 23, 2020 meeting of German, British and French foreign ministers. Reportedly, the foreign ministers did not discuss any “issues of concern” regarding Iran except the ways and means for paving American rejoining of the nuclear deal. One of the suggestions made was a “super-clean return,” meaning an Iranian rollback its violations in return for US lifting of sanctions, even without the US formally rejoining the JCPOA. These foreign ministers did voice concerns about prospective Iranian demands for “assurances and compensations.”
Finally, there are regional concerns to consider. Israel’s position in this matter may not count too much in an administration that is eager to expunge Trump’s legacies. But the position of other US allies in the region including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States may have greater weight in the Biden administration.
In any case, there is an obvious conflict, even a deadlock, between Biden’s minimum demand that Iran end its JCPOA violations first, and Iran’s minimum demand that the US end sanctions first. Another conflict concerns the guiding principle of US policy. Is a return to the JCPOA a “starting point for follow-on negotiations,” as per Biden; or is it the endpoint for “US violation of UN Security Council decisions,” as per Iran?
The overwhelming majority of analysts believe that a “clean return” process is destined to be much more difficult than envisaged. It has an inbuilt deficiency, namely that the ending of sanctions strips the US of leverage on Iran for follow-on negotiations. To work around this problem, some proposals have been floated (among other by the Economist and Financial Times) for a modified rejoining process that might be dubbed “Conditional Return.” This would have the Biden administration show good faith by unilaterally cancelling some of the sanctions ahead of any Iranian agreement to rollback its violations, while leaving the rest of the sanctions in place until Iran agrees to follow-on negotiations. Naturally, the two British newspapers that floated this idea also proposed that the “good faith” part of the plan will be the lifting of European sanctions on trade with Iran.
Israel and the Iran Nuclear Deal
Was Obama’s nuclear deal beneficial or detrimental to Israel’s security? Opinions differ among Israeli analysts and leaders. One school of thought is that the sole existential threat on Israel is a nuclear Iran, hence the deal improved Israel security. This is the view of Haaretz editors who have argued that “The Iran nuclear deal lifted the single existential threat on Israel, since only nuclear weapons constitute such an existential threat.” This view is apparently shared by the IDF High Command, as reflected in a recent statement by Lt. Gen. (res.) Gad Eisenkot, former IDF Chief of Staff. He wrote that “Iran is not an existential threat to Israel,” referring to a non-nuclear Iran.
Another (apparently minority) school of thought believes that Israel is facing an existential threat not only from Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but from Iran’s conventional weapons buildup too. Recent technological advances render small, densely populated nations like Israel susceptible to nuclear scale “unacceptable damage” from precise conventional weapons. Indeed, the intentional exclusion of missiles from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was perceived by the latter (and by others) as a “green light” for Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs and their aggressive use across the Middle East. Seen from this perspective, Obama’s nuclear deal did not reduce the existential threat to Israel, but rather shifted its main thrust. Since Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats are connected, US withdrawal from the nuclear deal (while motivating Iran to resume its drive towards nuclearization) diminished Iran’s capacity to enhance its threatening non-nuclear capabilities. Unless the “weaknesses” of the original nuclear deal are corrected, Biden’s return to the deal will not improve Israel’s security but rather shift the thrust of the Iranian threat to Israel from the nuclear to the non-nuclear domain.
Still, even those Israelis who see nuclear Iran as the sole existential threat to Israel hope for a revised deal that will correct the “weaknesses” pointed out in Biden’s September 2020 statement. By way of example, it is important to understand how just one of those “weaknesses” – the ignoring of Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs, including includes drones and UAVs – greatly threatens Israel.
Indeed, there is a fundamental gap in perception of the Iranian threat that places Israel and other Middle Eastern states on one side of argument, and the US and Europe on the other. For the latter, the only prospective threat from Iran is a future nuclear arsenal capable of hitting European and US targets. For this threat to materialize, the Iranians need both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to deliver them. Since Iran’s conventional missile have not been perceived as threats, the architects of Obama’s nuclear deal did not see any need to put any limitations on them. For Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states the Iranian threat is far more complex, consisting of three components: The threat from nuclear missiles, the threat from non-nuclear missiles, and the threat from missiles in the hand of Iran’s proxies. From Israel’s perspective, Obama’s nuclear deal reduced potential threats on Europe and the US at the cost of increasing the Iranian threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states.
Israel has never objected to an agreement that would stop Iran’s military nuclear program. Rather, it has objected to the specific agreement crafted by the Obama administration, which Israel’s Prime Minister called “a bad deal.” One of Israel’s main objections was to the exclusion of Iran’s missiles – most of which are nuclear-capable – from the nuclear deal, as well as the complete disregard of Iranian transference of missiles and technologies to its regional proxies. A “Clean Return,” even if accompanied by vague promises for “further negotiations,” will practically stamp a seal of approval on Iran’s missile programs and regional belligerency. It stands to reason that Israel will voice its reservations about this to the Biden administration.
How will the new US administration react to Israel’s reservations? As noted above, the Biden administration is robustly motivated towards “Clean Return.” Its motivations derive from ideological and pragmatic considerations, but also from the fact that many senior Biden administration officials were directly involved in negotiating the Obama nuclear deal; they have a personal stake in its revival. The desire to expunge Trump’s key policies from the US ledger also will play a major role in future policy. If the “Clean Return” process proceeds smoothly – and this depends on a large degree on Iran’s response – it is reasonable to assume that Israel’s objections will be politely rebuffed. At most, Israel will receive some “compensation,” perhaps in the form of US-led regional diplomatic initiatives. If, on the other hand, the “Clean Return” process hits the anticipated obstacles, the administration may move to a policy of “Conditioned Return.” If the “sweetener” lifting of some sanctions is symbolic rather than substantial, Biden will still retain leverage on Iran for demanding follow-on negotiations. In such a situation, the administration might be better attuned to the concern of its Middle Eastern allies – their insistence on curbs not only for Iran’s nuclear programs but its missile programs too.
The limitations Israel and other Middle Eastern countries wish to impose in Iran’s missiles are of two kinds: General limitations and-range related limitations. In the first category, (general limitations not associated with range), Israel and Saudi Arabia may demand the limitation of missile and technology transfer from Iran to its proxies. Another request may be revision of the single paragraph in the Obama nuclear deal which relates to missiles. This JCPOA paragraph calls for Iran to refrain from developing and testing “missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” In other words, the agreement mentions only such missiles which are specifically designed to carry nuclear warheads.
Each time the West has protested Iranian ballistic missile and space launch tests, the Iranians respond with two defenses. First, that the nuclear deal “calls to refrain” rather than “forbids” Iran from developing and testing missiles. Second, that the tested missies are not specifically or deliberately designed to carry nuclear warheads. The Iranian response is formally accurate. In fact, the wording of the Obama agreement permits the Iranians to develop ICBMs, as long as they are not deliberately designed to carry nuclear warheads. The ambiguous language in the nuclear deal was not accidental but rather was a sophisticated ruse employed by US negotiators to waive Iran’s missiles out of the deal without appearing to do so to non-expert readers.
It will be reasonable for Israel to request that the phrasing is simplified and tightened to “missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads,” dropping the words “designed to be.” The internationally accepted norm for a nuclear-capable missile is a payload of 500 kg. and above, regardless of what that payload consists of. Most of Iran’s ballistic and cruise missiles fall into this category.
As for range limitations, it stands to reason that this will be quite controversial. The US is about 7,000 km. away from the nearest point in Iran. The distance between Iran’s western border and the nearest EU member (Bulgaria) is 1,450 km. The Iranian leadership has announced a self-imposed limitation of 2,000 km. on the range of all their missiles, whether ballistic or cruise. The EU never has protested this, although it puts some EU territory in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania within Iran’s missile range.
In discussion of this issue with Israeli analysts, former senior officials of the Obama administration have voiced their opinion that the range limitations on Iran’s missiles should be 2,000 km. “because the Iranians will never agree to anything else.” It seems likely that this will be the position of the Biden administration.
If formalized in a new nuclear agreement, this range limitation will put an international seal of approval on all Iranian missiles with ranges below 2,000 km. In other words, acceptance of all Iranian missiles that threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states. From Israel’s perspective, it is better not to specify any range limitation rather than specify a limitation that enhances the security of Europe and the US at the cost of reducing Israel’s security.
Israel would do well to coordinate its position on Iran’s missile range limitations with Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, even if in the end this position is rebuffed by the Biden administration. Such coordination will build additional confidence between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries threatened by Iran’s missiles.
A return of the US to the Iran nuclear deal will decisively shape the future of the Middle East and Israel’s security environment, for better or worse. A “Clean Return” is apt to diminish US clout and destabilize the Middle East. If the US administration “bows to the Iranian Nation” by rushing back into the Obama nuclear deal with no substantial correction of its “weaknesses,” the Ayatollahs will justifiably regard this as a historic victory. Iranian prestige and standing in the region will be enhanced immensely, and Iranian coffers will overflow with income from oil exports and renewal of international trade. Iran after a “Clean Return” will be stronger and more dangerous, posing a growing existential threat to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries – even if its nuclear program is delayed for a while. It is reasonable to assume that a “Clean Return” that amounts to an Iranian victory also will discourage Arab states from further normalizing their relations with Israel. If on the other hand, the Biden administration negotiates a revised nuclear deal that fixes the obvious weaknesses of the JCPOA; if the duration of nuclear limitations will be extended; if Iran’s missile programs are restricted; and if its missile transfers to its proxies are ended – the Middle East will become significantly more stable. The security of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states will be enhanced. This will allow the US to further disengage from Middle East with lower prospects of being drawn back-in once more (as happened following the rise of ISIS). Only a “Conditioned Return” that does not leave Iran as a regional hegemon may improve global security.
 Biden, J.: There is a Smarter Way to be Tough on Iran, CNN Opinion, September 13, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html
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 Manso, K, Bozorgmer, N. and Peel, M., Biden Team Considers Options on Iran Nuclear Deal, Financial Times, November 10, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/c6a3136d-804b-477a-953f-442645935ba2
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