The Biden administration, to be sworn in on January 20, will have to deal with many urgent issues at home and abroad and to repair the rubble left behind by the Trump administration. For Israel, despite the existential importance of reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians and preventing a bi-national catastrophe, there is no more urgent priority at the moment than a return to the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) between the world powers (P5 +1) and Iran. This will immediately stop the prospect of Iranian nuclear breakout, which has become a very real possibility since the Trump administration’s abandonment of the agreement.
Biden will strive to improve the agreement, postpone the expiration date of the agreement (sunset provisions), improve the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and reach agreements on other issues on the agenda with Iran – the ballistic and other means of launching a bomb, undermining stability and promoting terrorism in the region. But the expectation that Biden will condition the return to the same reality before Trump unilaterally breached the agreement in significantly improving the agreement is unrealistic and even dangerous.
In order to reach an agreement on all issues, a long and arduous negotiation is needed, which requires aligning with the other powers that were partners to the agreement in order for the front against Iran to be effective. During the negotiations on the returning to negotiations, Iran will continue unmonitored to accumulate enriched uranium (it already has 12 times the amount of enriched uranium it had when Trump violated the agreement), and add sophisticated cascades of centrifuges. In addition, there is no chance that Iran, Russia and China will agree to return to negotiations before ending the JCPOA related sanctions which were unilaterally renewed by Trump.
There is great urgency to return to the agreement also due to the June elections in Iran in which the pragmatic camp, currently led by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, is facing candidates backed by the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guard candidates are extremists who prefer that the Iranian economy continue to falter rather than negotiate with the West and compromise.
The claim against immediate return to JCPOA (compliance for compliance) is that the Biden administration is relinquishing the leverage created as a result of the steps taken by Trump against the Iranian economy. In reality there are many not related JCPOA sanctions that Biden can use as leverage. On top of that, the broad international coalition against Iran, which Biden would also try to extend to U.S. Sunni allies in the region, would provide far more leverage over Iran than American pressure alone.
We have all seen in the years since Trump withdrew from the agreement that American pressure has failed to cause Iran to change policy, even though it has done much damage to the Iranian economy. In fact, the contrary is true. Economic pressure is of no value if it is not accompanied by a diplomatic route that will allow Iranian leaders to justify a policy change. In the absence of a "ladder" that the international community will give to Iran in order to "come down from the tree," the Iranians will continue with the attitude the more that they are tormented, the more steadfast they will hold.
Contrary to what the detractors say, the Biden Administration has no intention of allowing Iran to reach military nuclear capabilities. The Biden approach is that in order to prevent Iran from achieving military nuclear capabilities, diplomacy is needed alongside economic pressure. To this end, it is necessary to renew the international coalition vis-à-vis Iran and its expansion, and it is necessary to strengthen the pragmatic side in Iranian regime that favor the good of the Iranian economy over efforts to achieve Shiite hegemony in the Middle East.
The Israeli government needs to learn from the mistakes of its policies vis-à-vis the Obama administration. We must be a player that contributes to the international effort to stop Iran and refrain from pursuing a unilateral and confrontational policy toward the United States and other powers. The Israeli confrontation with the Obama administration meant we were not part of the process of building the agreement, turning Israel into a divisive issue in American politics and tearing up the Jewish community, which largely supported Obama's approach.
In order to stop Iran and to restore Israeli relations with the US and with the American Jewish community, the Israeli government must cooperate with the Biden government in its efforts to return to diplomacy with Iran from its first day in office, on January 20, not a moment too soon.
(This article was published by the Jerusalem Post on January 6th 2021)