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Soon after taking office, President-elect Joe Biden will face the daunting task of restoring the 2015 nuclear deal and getting the United States and Iran back on speaking terms. The outgoing administration of President Donald Trump intends to make that job nearly impossible by spending its last ten weeks in office engineering a “flood” of sanctions to further squeeze Iran. The Trump team apparently hopes that Biden will not wish to incur the political cost of backtracking on these sanctions, which will be tied to non-nuclear concerns such as ballistic missiles and human rights.
But the transparent sabotage actually only sharpens Biden’s choices and may force him to go bigger than just restoring the agreement. Contrary to the calculations of the Trump administration and its allies in Israel, Biden may now seek not only to rejoin the nuclear deal but also to improve relations with Iran in order to insulate the agreement from Saudi, Emirati, and Israeli efforts to kill it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made this gamble before and lost. In the mid-1990s, Israel pushed to make Iran’s nuclear program an international security concern, forcing the matter to the top of the U.S. agenda. When Netanyahu took office, he depicted Tehran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and the Iranian government as irrational and suicidal. His strategy was to curtail then President Barack Obama’s options: make containment impracticable, set the bar for diplomacy so high that talks could never succeed (for instance, by insisting on zero enrichment), and thereby leave Obama to choose between war and acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Netanyahu’s bet, of course, was that Obama simply could not allow Iran to go nuclear on his watch.
But Netanyahu miscalculated. By raising the alarm, he had made the status quo option—containment—appear to be unsustainable. The Obama administration would have to act. But when it did so, it refused Netanyahu’s binary and went instead for an option that Netanyahu thought he had closed off: real diplomacy with Tehran, based on mutual concessions and compromise. The Obama administration began secret negotiations with Iran in Oman and offered to accept that Iran would enrich uranium on its own soil (something Israel vehemently opposed) so long as Tehran agreed to transparency and restrictions that would close off all paths to making a bomb.
Biden should refuse to be boxed in on Iran much the same way Obama did.
Had Netanyahu not eliminated the status quo option and sought to force Obama to act, chances are the American president would have done what many of his predecessors had done when faced with a problem with no good options: kick the can down the road and let the next president deal with it. Indeed, Obama did exactly that with the North Korean nuclear program.
Biden should refuse to be boxed in on Iran much the same way Obama did. He should insist on thinking bigger than just the nuclear deal and looking instead to the broader relationship, because the experience of the past few years has shown that no arms control agreement can be sustained while relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate.
In 2015, the nuclear issue was the most pressing, precise, and defensible on which to engage Tehran. The resulting deal did not subsume other concerns, nor was it primarily designed to bring about a new era between the two countries. While the Obama team hoped that the success of the agreement would lead to a thaw in relations and a broader softening of Iranian foreign policy, it did not want the success of the deal to be measured against any such non-nuclear goals.
That approach produced an agreement with Iran that Washington could accept, but not one that could endure the onslaught that followed. Many traditional U.S. partners in the Middle East—in particular Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—prefer conflict to comity between the United States and Iran and have a vested interest in seeing that the United States uses its overwhelming military and economic might to prevent the regional balance from shifting in Tehran’s favor. These states do not hesitate to sabotage diplomacy between the United States and Iran, even when it means getting involved in U.S. partisan politics and pushing for policies that undermine American security. Because the United States has, arguably, assigned exaggerated value to its partnerships in the Middle East, Washington is often unwilling to resist such efforts and likely instead to appease them.
The United States showed its deference to its Middle Eastern allies by first convincing Iran to constrain its military options, then helping to build its allies’ militaries with arms deals and assistance. Between 2014 and 2019, Washington increased its arms sales to Riyadh by 220 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A year after signing the nuclear deal, the Obama administration signed a deal giving Israel $38 billion in military assistance over the decade to follow, the largest such aid package in U.S. history.
Even absent Trump’s excesses, Washington’s deferential approach to its strategic partners, combined with a tendency to view Iran as the source of all tensions in the region, created such pressures on the nuclear deal that its long-term survival was in jeopardy. Now the Trump administration would like to seal the agreement’s fate with a parting effort to constrain its successor’s policy options.
Rather than allowing Trump to force his hand, President-elect Biden should take the opportunity to think bigger, even, than the Obama administration was able to. Instead of asking himself what degree of sanctions relief he is willing to fight for in Congress to revive the nuclear agreement, he should ask himself what kind of relationship the United States would like to have with Iran in this century. If being trapped in unending enmity no longer serves U.S. interests, but instead makes the country less safe at a time when the public wants an end to wars and a withdrawal of forces from the Middle East, then Biden should outwit Trump just as Obama outsmarted Netanyahu and think beyond the nuclear deal. For instance, direct diplomatic ties with Iran could help the United States avoid conflict in the region and allow it to more effectively influence Iranian policies that it finds problematic. Biden could clearly signal that beyond the nuclear deal, he is open to normalizing relations with Tehran.
Many in Tehran may resist such a gambit, having often proved themselves more comfortable with the status quo than with peace-making. To make matters worse, Trump’s violation of the nuclear deal has severely discredited the notion of negotiating with the United States, let alone the prospect of a broader thaw. Putting the puzzle of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy back together will be tremendously difficult. But the last few years have shown that not trying will not make the difficulties go away.
Neither Pressure Nor a Narrow Nuclear Deal Can Succeed on Its Own