by Martin Raffel
In a nutshell:
- While the Biden/Harris Administration will focus primarily on domestic challenges in the months ahead, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA) is one Middle East issue that is likely to demand early attention.
- Biden has pledged to bring the U.S. back into the deal – which former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2018 — if Iran meets its requirements (‘compliance for compliance’). If successful, this step would be followed by follow-on negotiations intended to strengthen the deal and confront Iran’s missile program and its malign behavior in the region.
- Unlike the situation in 2015 when the deal was developed in secret contacts with Iran, the Biden administration promises to consult more closely with Israel, the Arab states, and other allies.
- Debate in the Jewish community in 2015 about the nuclear deal was often rancorous. Jewish public affairs organizations have already begun to articulate positions both pro and con. Hopefully, this time, the discourse will be civil and respectful of differing viewpoints.
- This author appreciates that there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue, but, in the end, favors the Biden approach.
The Biden administration initially will focus heavily on domestic issues, primarily managing its response to a still out of control pandemic, reviving a severely damaged economy, and healing the wounds of a deeply polarized American society. In foreign affairs, emphasis is likely to be placed on restoring confidence in American leadership among our allies in Western Europe and other parts of the world and addressing challenges from our major adversaries, especially China and Russia.
For a variety of reasons, including our diminished dependence on imported oil, the Middle East appears relatively low on the administration’s initial priority list. That said, one issue the administration will need to confront in the next several months is Iran’s ongoing nuclear project as well as its continued malign behavior, from its support for transnational terrorist organizations and other destabilizing activities in the region, to its threats to destroy Israel. The Obama administration had sought to meet part of this challenge, in part, through the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This deal was signed by Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations plus Germany.
Under the JCPOA, Iran promised to eliminate its medium enriched uranium, reduce its low enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by two thirds its gas centrifuges for thirteen years. It agreed to enrich uranium up to 3.67% for the following 15 years and refrain from building new heavy water facilities for the same period. Uranium enrichment would be limited to one facility using first-generation centrifuges for ten years. Other facilities would be converted to prevent proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was tasked with monitoring Iran’s compliance and permitted to gain access to all Iranian nuclear facilities. In return, Iran received sanctions relief from the United States, European Union, and United Nations.
In May 2018, true to his campaign pledge, former President Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and launched the “maximum pressure” policy by reimposing sanctions that were lifted when Iran met the JCPOA’s requirements. According to the IAEA and the U.S. State Department, Iran essentially was in compliance with its requirements under the deal when the U.S. withdrew. Some members of Congress and Jewish leaders who originally were against the deal opposed the decision to withdraw.
Since that time, Iran, arguing that it was released from fulfilling its obligations under the deal because of the U.S. withdrawal, has resumed high levels of uranium enrichment. As a result, it is far closer to nuclear weapons breakout today than it was when the U.S. left the JCPOA. In addition, Iran has continued to expand its weaponization and missile programs, matters not included in the JCPOA.
For a deep dive into the details of the JCPOA, see: “What is the Iran Nuclear Deal?” A backgrounder from The Council on Foreign Relations
Biden administration position
President Biden and his foreign policy team have pledged to return to the JCPOA based on ‘compliance for compliance,’ meaning that if Iran fulfills its requirements under the nuclear deal, the U.S. will meet its obligations. Once that is achieved, the U.S. and its partners would then launch follow-on negotiations not only to seek to fix some of the JCPOA’s flaws, such as the deal’s sunset provisions allowing Iran to resume high level uranium enrichment in the future, but also to address problematic issues not covered by the deal such as Iran’s missile development and nuclear weaponization programs and its destabilizing behavior in the region. President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken, in his confirmation hearing before the Senate, asserted that the administration sees the 2015 JCPOA as “a platform” for a “longer and stronger agreement.”
On its face, this seems like a straightforward formula. But it is not so simple. How will we get Iran to roll back all the gains it has made since 2018 in uranium enrichment, as well as enhancements it has made to its nuclear infrastructure, and effectively verify that this objective has been accomplished? Who takes the first step toward a return to the deal’s requirements? Should any consideration be given to Iran’s demand that the U.S. first pay compensation for losses sustained from our reimposing sanctions? Looming on the horizon are June 2021 presidential elections in Iran in which the JCPOA may play a role in determining the outcome between the hardliners who have been opposed to the deal and the more “moderate” candidates – although the real decision-making authority still lies with the Ayatollah and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp.
For an analysis on why return to the JCPOA is not a simple and smooth matter, see Brian O’Toole’s
A key question: once sanctions are lifted, assuming the JCPOA is revived, what leverage would exist to press Iran into accepting a “longer and stronger agreement?” One thing to keep in mind: Iran has been targeted with three sets of sanctions. Even if those related to the JCPOA are lifted, sanctions imposed on Iran’s central bank and the Revolutionary Guards related to support for terrorism and money laundering, and sanctions related to human rights abuses, would remain in place.
But leverage may come in the form of carrots too. Jake Sullivan, national security advisor, and Dan Benaim wrote in Foreign Affairs that a wider regional dialogue, particularly with a view toward ending Saudi-Iran enmity, could be an inducement for more responsible behavior after reentry to the JCPOA is consummated. See “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East”
Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has advised Democratic and Republican administrations for more than four decades, believes that, initially, it may not be a good idea to pursue ‘compliance for compliance’ negotiations. Instead, he suggests moving incrementally. “While continuing to express a willingness to return to the JCPOA publicly, the administration could convey that it is open to other approaches as well, including an interim agreement. Such a posture could reconcile U.S. needs to regain the initiative diplomatically, forge a common approach with the Europeans, gain sufficient bipartisan support in Congress, and reassure regional partners.”
In 2015, former President Obama submitted the JCPOA to Congress, and offered it an opportunity to voice disapproval. Obama agreed to abide by the outcome. At the invitation of Republican leadership, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made a dramatic appearance before a joint session of Congress urging members to vote disapproval. Republicans uniformly voted to disapprove of the deal, while most Democrats — 42 Democratic Senators — voted in favor of it, giving the president enough votes to sustain a potential veto. Democrats then filibustered a proposed resolution of disapproval, thus obviating the need for Obama to exercise a veto. It is worth noting that Sen. Chuck Schumer, now Senate Majority Leader, was one of the Democratic senators who voted to disapprove of the JCPOA. Speaker Nancy Pelosi voted to support the deal.
Members of Congress likely will come under lobbying pressure both from advocates of the JCPOA and its opponents. Currently, however, it is not clear whether the Biden administration intends to submit a return to the deal for Congressional approval. At the same time, consistent with his political approach, Biden can be expected to strive for as much bipartisan support as possible.
Changed conditions since 2015
Netanyahu is still Israel’s prime minister, and he faces yet another election on March 23, the fourth Israeli election in two years. His negative attitude toward the JCPOA is generally shared across the political spectrum in Israel, although there are differences of opinion among Israel’s military and security elites. Since both the House and Senate are controlled by the Democrats, unlike the situation in 2015, another dramatic appearance by the Israeli prime minister before a joint session seems highly unlikely.
President Biden was part of the administration that took the lead in formulating the JCPOA. In addition, he will be advised by some of the same experts who served during the Obama administration like Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Wendy Sherman Deputy Secretary of State. Nevertheless, Biden now can put his own independent imprint on how the U.S. deals with Iran.
Israel is not the only Middle East country fearful of a nuclear armed Iran. The Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and others in the Persian Gulf, also have deep concerns about Iran’s growing power in the region. This shared concern with Israel probably more than any other issue led to the consummation in 2020 of the groundbreaking Abraham Accords– normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Other Arab states have since followed with their own agreements with Israel. While the JCPOA was negotiated secretly, the Biden administration, with a predisposition to multilateralism, has pledged to consult with Israel and the Arab states in developing its Iran policies. Indeed, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken said the incoming administration would “engage on the takeoff, not just the landing” with allies prior to rejoining the deal.
And former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, writing in the Washington Post, asserts that conflict between the U.S. and Israel over Iran is not inevitable. “The United States and Israel will continue to share common goals: An Iran that is nonnuclear and that does not threaten to harm its neighbors. A wide range of tools, in the short, medium, and long term, are available for a joint strategy to achieve them. A commitment early on to overcome disagreements on tactical questions and to focus together on common strategic objectives will be better for the U.S.- Israel alliance and a more effective way to contain Iran.”
See Shapiro’s WaPo op-ed: “Israel can’t contain Iran alone. It Doesn’t have to”
Arguments for returning to the JCPOA
A consensus exists that the security interests of the U.S. and our Middle East allies requires prevention of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. While keeping all options on the table to address this threat, Obama believed that diplomacy and the JCPOA — which sought to drastically constrain Iran’s uranium enrichment program — achieved this objective without the need for military action. The Obama administration acknowledged it was not a perfect agreement, and it did not address other security-related problems such as Iran’s missile program and regional destabilization. Yet, it was argued that the JCPOA, which allegedly removed the nuclear threat, was the best deal available to the U.S. and its international partners.
Advocates of a return to the JCPOA argue that Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach over the last several years, which admittedly has seriously hurt Iran’s economy, is a failure. Instead of coercing Iran into more responsible behavior, it has resulted in an expansion of Iran’s nuclear work. Iran’s malign activity in the region, if anything, has increased. They further argue that a return to the JCPOA would not succeed if it was conditioned on an expansion of the deal to include missile development and regional issues. This thinking is reminiscent of the modern Hebrew expression, Tafasta merube lo tafasta, which means if you try to seize a lot, or too much, in the end you will not have seized anything.
For comprehensive analyses of arguments in favor of a clean return to the JCPOA, see:
by Mark Fitzpatrick in The International Institute for Strategic Studies:
by The International Crisis Group:
Arguments against returning to the JCPOA
Opponents of a return to the JCPOA argue that the deal is fatally flawed, that, in fact, it enhances the ability of Iran to become a nuclear power. They assert that because Iran is permitted to maintain its nuclear infrastructure, it can easily resume enrichment to weapons grade levels once restraints are lifted by the sunset deal’s provisions. Although Iranian leaders deny that the pursuit of a functional warhead, opponents insist there is ample evidence to suggest that they are lying. The JCPOA does not call for an inspections regime that would discover whether Iran is hiding such a program. In addition, they say, Iran already possesses sophisticated missiles and soon will have the know how to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching Western Europe and the U.S.
Opponents argue that, once the JCPOA is revived, the U.S. and international community will have forfeited whatever leverage they had with the Iranian regime. Funds generated from the lifting of sanctions, they assert, will not be used to benefit the Iranian people, but will be used to expand Iran’s network of terrorist organizations. Thus, by not addressing Iran’s malign behavior up front, Israel and the Arab states will be made more vulnerable to Iranian–backed violence.
For comprehensive analyses of arguments against a clean return to the JCPOA, see
Organized American Jewish community’s positions
Our elected leaders will want to hear from American Jewish organizations when formulating policy toward Iran. As the Reconstructionist movement likes to say about Halacha, Jewish law, American Jews should and will have “a voice, but not a veto.” There was sharp, at times bitter debate in the Jewish community in 2015 around the JCPOA. Tensions were heightened when Prime Minister Netanyahu made a dramatic last-minute and unsuccessful appeal to Congress to reject the deal.
In 2015, lacking consensus, the community’s umbrella bodies — The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — did not express a position for or against the JCPOA, but rather emphasized the need for civil discourse. AIPAC opposed the JCPOA and launched a campaign encouraging Congress to reject it. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also opposed the deal, while Jewish groups on the left supported it. J Street mounted a major media campaign urging members of Congress to vote in favor of the deal.
In a tweet, AIPAC already has signaled that it will oppose Biden’s ‘compliance for compliance’ approach: “Since the JCPOA, Iran and its terrorist proxies have plotted and carried out attacks against the United States, Israel, and our partners in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. We need a broad deal. Until then, sanctions reduce the flow of cash into a dangerous regime.” J Street has come out strongly in favor of return to the original JCPOA, with a follow-on negotiation—i.e., the Biden policy. The other major public affairs organizations and umbrella bodies have yet to weigh in, but, as in 2015, we are unlikely to see a consensus emerge.
My personal perspective
I can clearly recall the rancorous debate in 2015 surrounding the JCPOA, with those opposed to it sometimes being accused of war mongering and those who supported it as insensitive to Israel’s fundamental security needs. I sincerely hope we do not have a repeat of this nasty environment as the Biden administration navigates its Iran policies and return to the nuclear deal. The truth is that there are valid arguments on both sides.
The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons terrifies me. I am profoundly sensitive to the worries of my brothers and sisters in Israel who are forced to constantly live in the shadow of this threat. Speaking for myself only, if there was no other way to prevent Iranian nuclear breakout, I would unhesitatingly support military action. In the end, though, I concluded in 2015, and do so again, that it is worth giving diplomacy and the JCPOA a chance.
Will a return to the JCPOA remove the Iranian nuclear threat once and for all? I wish I knew. Sometimes, I envy those who seem to be sure one way or the other. I do know that once the JCPOA is revived, assuming that it is, I want the Biden administration to work intensively with our allies to strengthen and expand the agreement. The U.S. and international community possess massive leverage – I look forward to hearing more from the administration on this front — and we should not hesitate to use it. Perhaps there ought to be a time limit placed on the follow-on negotiations. If it does not yield the results we hope for, then maybe another exit from the JCPOA should be considered.
Regardless of how a reentry to the JCPOA and follow-on negotiation play out, I hope, and believe, that the Biden administration will work closely with Israel and the Arab states to develop a more coherent overall strategy to counter Iran’s malign activities.
***Stay tuned for analysis of other Israel-related policy issues facing the Biden administration, including the Abraham Accords, Israel-Palestinian conflict, and United Nations/ human rights.
***Prepared by DJOP board member Martin J. Raffel, who for 27 years served as senior vice president and lead international affairs professional at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). He was instrumental in the establishment of the Israel Action Network, a joint initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and the JCPA to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy.