| Washington Wrap |

Different Decade, Same Iran Deal

Biden negotiates with Iran on return to Obama’s bad deal

Last week, for the first time in a year, an official diplomatic ceremony took place in Washington with a live audience. I had the opportunity to be physically present as Gilad Erdan and Yousef Al Otaiba, the Israeli and UAE ambassadors to Washington (along with the Egyptian, Moroccan, and Jordanian ambassadors), planted an olive tree in the UAE embassy’s garden in honor of Earth Day. The two discussed the warm and productive cooperation between the two countries in the wake of the Abraham Accords signed last year.

But the reporters present were interested in something else — the ongoing talks between the United States and Iran. And while Ambassador Otaiba evaded the question with characteristic diplomacy, Ambassador Erdan was happy to provide them with quotes emphasizing Israel’s opposition to the deal taking shape in Vienna. He added that the IDF chief of staff, the head of the Mossad, the head of the military intelligence directorate, and the national security advisor were all making their way to Washington to discuss Israel’s concerns with Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan.

It’s not every day — or every year, for that matter — that such a high-ranking delegation of Israeli security officials makes its way to Washington. But it happened this week. Israel is trying to get all the alarm bells ringing and send a clear message to the Biden administration — which seems determined to return to the 2015 Iran Deal — that Israel doesn’t look kindly, to say the least, on a return to what it sees as a flawed agreement.

Meanwhile, in Vienna, the talks between Iran and the United States are progressing rapidly, and the two sides hope to be able to announce an agreement within the coming weeks.

A senior official in the State Department said last Wednesday in a conference call that there were still major disagreements between the parties and that several more rounds of talks would be necessary. But in the same breath, he revealed that the talks currently taking place aren’t about trust-building steps ahead of lifting sanctions, but about the whole package — i.e., a full return to the nuclear deal by both sides.

So what are the remaining disagreements?

As there’s no great deal of trust between the sides, a significant part of the talks is focused on the sequence of events — who returns to the deal first, and when the sanctions will be lifted. The Iranians are demanding that sanctions be lifted before they re-enter the deal, while the Americans first want to see the Iranians cooperating with the deal and will only then consider lifting sanctions.

The solution to this could be a simultaneous return to the deal by both parties. But that won’t be simple either. Returning to the deal will involve Iran getting rid of enriched uranium. This takes time.

Another subject of disagreement is which sanctions will be lifted. The Iranians want all of the sanctions to be lifted at once. But of course, the situation is more complex than that. Although some of the sanctions are directly connected to the nuclear deal, the Trump administration imposed a whole set of additional sanctions after exiting the deal.

The Americans will certainly consider lifting some of these sanctions, but obviously they don’t want to lose all their bargaining chips before extracting significant concessions. Instead, they want to lift only the sanctions connected to the nuclear deal, so they can keep the rest of sanctions as leverage for creating a “longer and stronger agreement.”

But despite the statements from both sides that accompany such haggling, it’s important to note the direction of travel. Negotiations are a dynamic thing and no one can predict the future, but the chances look high for a deal to be signed within the coming weeks.

And that’s exactly why Israel is so opposed to the Vienna talks.

To start with, there’s the basic principle of granting recognition to the Iranian regime, a regime that calls openly for the destruction of Israel, sponsors terror throughout the Middle East, and flagrantly violates human rights, including executing opponents of the regime.

The Trump administration initiated a maximal pressure campaign, on the premise that if Iran became totally isolated in the international community and its economy were crippled by the sanctions, one of two things would happen. Either the regime would collapse in the face of public protests, or the ayatollahs would remain in power, but the economic situation would force them to take a more moderate position and stop sponsoring terror. Israel supported the maximal pressure campaign not only because of the nuclear issue, but also because of the fundamental question of Iran itself: What kind of regime is it? Why cooperate with it? Why give it legitimacy?

The nuclear deal’s supporters respond, “Look, it works on paper, but none of that happened in the two and a half years since Trump left the nuclear deal.” Yes, the sanctions caused serious damage to the economy. Yes, violent protests broke out. But the fact is that the regime is still there and is rushing headlong to acquire a bomb, with uranium enrichment reaching a level of 60 percent. The deal’s supporters say: The idea of diplomacy is not to get everything, but to get whatever you can. First let’s ensure that the Iranians don’t get a bomb — because they’re getting close to that — and we’ll deal with the rest later.

To which the Israelis counter: What exactly does later mean? It already is later. The Israeli argument also has two aspects. First, Tony Blinken said that he’s interested in a “longer and stronger agreement” than the original deal. What this amounts to, says Ambassador Erdan, is that the Americans themselves admit that the original deal was flawed. And if a new deal is necessary, why return to the 2015 deal? What’s the logic in that?

From Israel’s perspective, the danger is that Iran will return to the deal, sanctions will be lifted, and then the international community’s interest will fade. Because if there’s a deal, and Iran isn’t on the verge of acquiring a bomb, who will be motivated to push for Deal 2.0 addressing ballistic missiles, terror sponsorships, and other critical issues?

And one more thing: Tony Blinken pledged to consult the United States’ allies in advance of the talks. But whatever happened with the consultations, the bottom line evidently didn’t change. The Americans are determined to return to the deal. Israel might manage to change the wording of this or that clause, but can’t exert meaningful pressure on the six powers determined to re-enter the deal. It was in this context that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ambassador Erdan clarified that Israel won’t be bound by the deal. This is a pretty clear threat that Israel reserves the right to take action even after the deal.

But the Biden administration isn’t impressed by this, especially given the fact that Israel is at a political crossroads after four inconclusive elections, while facing it is a Democratic administration controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. And that administration, it seems, is determined to sign a deal in the near future.

What others think

The 2015 deal was signed between Iran and six other powers, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, France, China, Great Britain), plus Germany.

Each country has a different set of interests. The interests of China and Russia are substantially different from those of the United States. Their security concerns are also fundamentally different. Despite this, the six powers share a unanimous agreement that there are two ways to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon. The first is the military option, the second is the diplomatic one. And as none of these powers has any intention to pursue the military path at this juncture, there’s a shared agreement about pursuing the diplomatic course.

Silent Saudis

As it becomes obvious that the Biden administration wants a deal at any cost, several countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, are already preparing for the worst. The Saudis are opposed to the deal and to Iranian interests in general, with several areas of conflict between the two countries in the Middle East, including Yemen. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were officially severed in 2016.

But Riyadh understands where the winds are blowing at this moment and are operating on a premise that although they can’t prevent the deal, they might be able to influence it. Saudi Arabia, which only a few months back was carrying on talks with Israel about normalization, has changed course dramatically and is now carrying on talks for a normalization with Iran.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 858)

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