Biden on Iran: Nukes first – again - analysis

Israel may not be happy, but president-elect's views are better than Obama administration.

US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden speaks about healthcare at the theater serving as his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden speaks about healthcare at the theater serving as his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
The waiting is over.
After writing a more general article in mid-September, US President-elect Joe Biden has finally gotten into the details of his strategy for dealing with Iran.
The bottom line is that Israel will not be happy, but it might be less disturbed than it was by the Obama administration’s approach.
Israel will not be happy because Biden told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times his strategy would be nuclear weapons first.
Jerusalem may be less disturbed because Biden signaled he may take seriously the issue of Iranian terrorism in the region, especially its shipping of advanced precision-guided missiles, Iran’s own ballistic-missile program and extending nuclear restrictions beyond the current 2025 and 2030 cutoffs.
What is the problem with nuclear weapons first?
In a word: leverage.
If Biden drops sanctions in exchange for the Islamic Republic to return to the nuclear deal, and only starts negotiating the other major issues after that point, he will have lost most of his leverage.
Israel’s defense establishment would prefer that he tie sanctions relief to progress on the nuclear issues and on the other issues.
In fact, the IDF even considers the issue of precision-guided missiles a far greater threat in the short and medium term than nuclear weapons.
Its reasoning is that Tehran may only want to reach the nuclear threshold but not go past a certain point to avoid risking Israel’s wrath and a potential preemptive strike.
In contrast, precision-guided missiles from Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere could be launched at any point and immediately cause massive death on the Israeli home front.
Biden tried to reassure Friedman about the other issues, stating that if Iran did not cooperate, sanctions could be snapped back.
But not really – at least not unless Biden is willing to go unilateral like the Trump administration did.
The success of the nuclear deal was that from its implementation in 2015-2016 until 2019, it kept the ayatollahs at least 12 months from a nuclear bomb.
A major failure was that it only dealt with enriching uranium and with a potential plutonium nuclear weapon – but not with missile testing, which helps deliver nuclear missiles, and not with terrorism in the region. And there was an end date that was not based on Iran meeting certain conditions of proving itself as a normalized country.
So under the deal, Biden cannot snap back sanctions just because Tehran refuses to agree to new conditions.
Maybe what Biden means is that he thinks the rest of the world will follow him in snapping back sanctions outside the terms of the deal because he will rebuild alliances and be more adept at persuading Iran, Russia and China.
The good news is that at least Biden recognizes the 2015 nuclear deal by itself is not enough.
The bad news is he may give up his leverage too early and may have an overly rosy view of what he can convince the rest of the world to do simply because he is not President Donald Trump.
There was also no talk of the military option on the table, something Biden will need to wield at some point to get the Iranians to agree to anything new.
The good news is that, according to foreign sources, Biden did not condemn Israel for the targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as some former Obama administration officials have. This is not an endorsement, but such silence is meaningful in terms of use of military force in the future.
It will be at least several months before Biden will have the chance to make major moves with the Islamic Republic, and his views may evolve based on always changing dynamics.
In the meantime, this interview will give Israeli defense officials pause and may require the planning of certain unilateral Israeli contingencies, while leaving some hope that Biden may succeed, where neither the Obama nor Trump administrations did, to abate the multiple problems posed by Iran.