Through an Israeli Lens: Biden and Iran

Eldad Shavit, Sr. Researcher, INSS

Eldad Shavit is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and previously served in senior roles in Israeli Defense Intelligence and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, Research Fellow, INSS

Dr. Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran. He is also a veteran Iran-watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces.

OPINION — Former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections was received in Iran with a sense of hope that the new U.S. administration will depart from its predecessor’s Iran policy. Even if there is some sense in Iran that the prospects for change exist, the messages from Tehran emphasized that the United States’ conduct will be evaluated by deeds rather than words and that the complete removal of all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since May 2018 is a precondition for Iran’s return to the negotiating table. The Iranian leadership is not expected to readily forfeit the bargaining chips it has accumulated in recent years concerning its progress in the nuclear realm. In any case, Iran will wait to see what the actual policy of the new administration is and whether the reimposed sanctions can be lifted in their entirety in the early stages of negotiations.

In the meantime, Biden and his advisers remain ambiguous about their willingness to forfeit sanctions leverage in exchange for bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. Even if the new U.S. administration is expected to focus most of its attention and resources in the coming months on domestic issues, it will likely be forced to address the Iranian nuclear programs advances with some urgency. Despite Biden’s promises to return the United States to the nuclear deal, the likelihood that the administration will quickly lift all sanctions to rejoin the deal and “turn back the clock” to the last days of the Obama Administration is extremely low. Both Iran and the United States cannot ignore the developments that have taken place in each country since the JCPOA was signed in 2015.

The key question looking forward is: How can the two countries restore enough trust to allow them to negotiate seriously in the months preceding the Iranian presidential election in June 2021? The new administration will have to address some of the Iranian regime’s concerns, especially as the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, views President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal as evidence reinforcing his long-held view that the United States cannot be trusted to uphold the agreements it has signed. Although Iran is facing an acute economic crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, it is highly doubtful that it would return to negotiations without preconditions. Just as those who assessed that President Trump’s maximum pressure strategy would force Iran to capitulate and resume negotiations were wrong, so, too, Biden’s victory should not be expected to automatically return Iran to the negotiating table in the absence of adequate compensation for taking such a step.

Against this background, the new administration must formulate a coherent strategy towards Iran, which should include incentives, an offramp for the increasingly tense U.S.-Iran dynamic, and clear messages that Iran should not expect the United States to give up its bargaining leverage altogether. It is important that the administration highlights its continued determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by emphasizing that it retains other options – including a military strike – for dealing with the issue if negotiations should fail. In any case, recent years have proven time and again that a policy based solely on threats and pressures is incapable for forcing Iran into a political process and might even lead to further escalation and for Tehran to dig-in on hardline positions.

The new administration would, therefore, be well-advised to take advantage of the months leading up to Iran’s presidential election to restore some level of trust with Tehran, re-establish communication, and create a situation conducive for the resumption of talks. This may require confidence-building measures, such as Washington’s approval for the International Monetary Fund loan Iran sought to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic or perhaps authorizing European countries to grant Iran limited lines of credit. The pandemic provides the new administration with a favorable context which allows it to present limited concessions as humanitarian gestures rather than forfeiture of leverage.

The new administration must be prepared for a long and complicated process vis-à-vis Iran in which Tehran will likely demand compensation every step of the way – from renewing talks, to returning to the JCPOA, to expanding the agreement. In anticipation of this, the U.S. administration should retain as many “cards” as possible for the future, in particular for the possibility of negotiating a new and improved agreement which more comprehensively covers the challenges Iran poses to the international community.

It is still too early to define exactly what the United States’ requirements for negotiating an improved agreement will be, but it ought to require at least a partial closure of what are considered to be the loopholes of the 2015 JCPOA through the extension of the sunset clauses, prohibition of R&D on advanced centrifuges, and expanding IAEA supervision over suspected military components of Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, an improved agreement should seek to extend restrictions on Iran’s missile program. Of course, even if Iran agrees to renegotiate the JCPOA, it, too, will show up to the table with far-reaching demands of its own.

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