Iran’s nuclear program is certainly not at the top of President Joe Biden’s agenda. It wasn’t even mentioned in his first major foreign policy speech given since his inauguration. Certainly, domestic issues (COVID-19, the economic crisis and healing internal tensions) as well as more pressing international matters (China, climate change, Russia, and rebuilding alliances) are preoccupying the administration’s time. However, in the Middle East, events have a way of forcing international attention, and Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions are of great concern to regional partners, especially Israel and the Gulf states. Therefore it is likely that the Biden administration will need to form a coherent and integrated policy approach to address this issue before long.
I do not pretend to be an expert on Iran, and much ink has been spilled by people far more intelligent and experienced than I on this issue. It is precisely because so many op-eds, assessments and briefings have been written that I feel compelled to mention an aspect of the discourse that I find lacking.
Full disclosure — I am not an impartial party when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal. I live in Israel, and thus Iran’s actions have a direct impact on my security. Furthermore, I have serious reservations about the Iran deal, known as the JCPOA, and any potential future return to it or to other negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. I can very much relate to Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi’s impassioned and eloquent case against the deal. Those arguments against the JCPOA (or any substantially similar deal) have been echoed by Israeli and regional governments. The deal’s flaws are many; its temporary nature (the included “sunset clauses” mean the JCPOA essentially expires in 2025), the looseness of its restrictions (Iran can still enrich uranium, and low enriched uranium can always become high enriched uranium), and its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its “malign regional activity”, to name a few. Indeed, the case against the deal is strong.
And yet, the case for diplomacy (JCPOA or otherwise) is likewise strong and has been advocated for by many experienced and intelligent policy experts. Leading Israeli commentators, former IDF and Mossad analysts, and current scholars at the reputable Institute for National Security Studies, have compellingly argued that of the myriad problems that Iran presents Israel, only its nuclear ambitions constitute an existential threat. Even at the time of the JCPOA’s signing it was argued that once the deal was signed, Israel should work within the multilateral system to counter Iran’s remaining threats and build international support for renewed efforts in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions once the deal neared expiration.
Israel did not choose this approach. For better or worse, the Israeli Government, aided by the Trump administration has embarked on a course known as “maximum pressure” since 2018, when the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and began reimposing harsh sanctions on Iran. This approach has undoubtedly put immense economic pressure on Iran, yet it has notably failed (thus far, and with little reason to expect a change in this regard in the foreseeable future) in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table as was claimed (or hoped) would occur. Furthermore, since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, potentially shortening its breakout time to a nuclear weapon, should it choose to build one. The United States’ and Israel are determined to prevent Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon (which was recently reiterated in a speech by IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi), including through use of force if necessary. This tension in turn increases the potential for a kinetic strike against Iran, which could well escalate into a devastating regional conflict – at the cost of many lives and with a potentially limited and temporary impact on Iran’s nuclear program, given that the latter is spread out over many sites (some buried deep underground) and given the scientific knowledge Iran has gained which can only be rolled back to a certain extent by bombs. Likewise an approach of assassinations and cyberattacks can set Iran’s nuclear program back, but not eliminate it.
In effect, the choice of policy becomes devastatingly difficult. On the one hand, Israel and the US could prioritize the nuclear issue, potentially defusing an existential threat to Israel but at the same time empowering Iran’s other destabilizing activities – which would in turn require a coordinated international response. Alternatively, they could adopt an all-or-nothing approach which may (but probably not) achieve all desired goals, but also risks a devastating war which no one wants and which would probably achieve very little. What is the right course of action given this impossible choice? The answer is – I don’t know, which is precisely the point.
When evaluating policy alternatives for this critical issue it is of the utmost importance to see both sides of the coin, each with its merits and faults, and to approach the issue with a healthy sense of humility. For example, if you listen to analysts talk about North Korea no one pretends to offer a simple solution – because all agree that such a utopia does not exist. While important differences exist between the situation in Iran and that in North Korea (most, that North Korea already has nuclear weapons), I believe the two share a fundamental complexity that is often overlooked by those wishing for simpler and easier policy solutions. But those solutions may well not exist. This sentiment was best expressed by Lynn Rusten, Vice President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in an interview with former acting director of the CIA, Michael Morrell. She said:
“It’s very common for critics of arms control deals to criticize what it doesn’t do but they never look at the real world choice of the agreement we have vs not having it – they kind of compare the agreement we have with the mythical agreement that did everything we wanted and gave no concessions to the other party – and of course that’s not how you reach agreements or have sustainable agreements.”
Statements made by Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken make clear that the new administration understands the complexity of its position. In this light, the no-rush approach it has adopted, without (yet) giving up on the enormous negotiating leverage provided by the Trump administration – seems to reflect the appreciation of Biden and his team of this complexity.
Worryingly, Israeli officials seem to be repeating the patterns of 2013 by speaking out against the deal without offering a credible path to de-escalation and avoiding a war that no one wants. In the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA Obama left Israeli and regional partners out of the negotiations process and did not properly address their concerns. Netanyahu, however, did not respond with “constructive criticism” – instead he provoked Obama by going directly to Congress, all but ensuring those involved in negotiating the deal would be less inclined to hear him out. As a concerned Israeli living in the shadow of Iranian regional aggression, I can only hope that this time those crafting Israeli policy responses to renewed American-Iranian negotiations can bring practical ideas to the fore, delineating what is considered an “acceptable risk” and what is an absolute redline, instead of remaining in the role of perennial naysayers – and being sidelined as a result.
We do ourselves a twofold disservice when we do not discuss complex issues with the nuance that they deserve. First, we simplify a multifaceted issue, glossing over key aspects of the issue whose acknowledgement would facilitate a more comprehensive policy response. Second (and perhaps more importantly), as involved citizens we become unable to engage in productive and thoughtful civil discourse, descending into polemics and political accusations instead of fueling wholesome public debate and civil activism. As Israel nears elections, and as events in the Middle East continue to race by at a dizzying pace, it is worthwhile to take a step back and remember that the Iranian issue (like many others) is a complex one, and that if there was a simple solution to the problem it likely would have been implemented already. Then, armed with that nuance, and with a healthy sense of humility, civilians and decision-makers alike can benefit when considering this issue.
 See podcast in anticipation of President Biden’s inauguration. Further publications calling for an accepting of the JCPOA and using the time gained to focus on combatting Iran in other areas, can be found here and here