How would president Biden deal with the Iran nuclear standoff?

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: The Democratic nominee will need to jump off the tightrope and commit to a concrete path with real-world consequences.

A MISSILE unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location in this photo released yesterday. (photo credit: WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
A MISSILE unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location in this photo released yesterday.
With Joe Biden officially nominated this week and clearly leading in the polls, imagine that it is November 4 and he has won the US presidential election.
Though undoubtedly his primary issue will be combating the coronavirus in the US, equally certain is the fact that he will quickly need to craft a policy on the Iran nuclear standoff.
The Trump administration has achieved some successes with its “maximum pressure” campaign, but has also endured some serious defeats.
How will Biden greet this crucial moment? What will Biden do following the Trump administration’s recent overwhelming defeat at the UN Security Council over the conventional arms embargo on Tehran set to expire in October?
Incidentally, now the Trump administration is charging toward a second loss going for a UNSC snapback sanctions vote. It will either be a lost vote or will be an ignored vote, since almost no one on the UNSC believes the US has the right to enforce a vote, once it left the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.
What balance would Biden strike between that issue and Israel’s victory in indirectly turning the IAEA against the ayatollahs? Israel achieved this success by providing evidence from the Mossad’s raid on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear archives.
Will the approximately one dozen explosions in Iran from late June to early August change Biden’s calculus, if it set back Iran’s advanced centrifuge program at Natanz?
Biden’s foray onto the stage with Iran could be characterized by defeat or new openings.
His surrogates have walked a fine line between implying he will try to improve the deal and that rejoining the deal is an “urgent” priority on its own to emphasize diplomacy’s importance.
That was the message from Tony Blinken at a Democratic Majority of Israel webinar in May, from Jake Sullivan and Michele Flournoy at a similar webinar on Wednesday, and from the Democratic National Convention platform. These surrogates could be future secretaries of state, defense and holders of other key positions.
That is the surrounding background.
But if he is president, Biden will need to jump off the tightrope and commit to a concrete path with real-world consequences.
Biden will need to decide whether to quickly rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, as many Democrats want, or offer to rejoin the deal but only for serious concessions by Tehran. He cannot do both. He will need to decide what to do with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and what his own endgame is.
Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen has told The Jerusalem Post that he is confident that Biden will demand concessions in exchange for rejoining the deal.
Biden would be entering a reality in which last week’s UNSC vote undermined any efforts to maintain an arms embargo on the Islamic Republic.
Sima Shine, the Mossad’s former top official on Iran, and former IDF Intelligence official Eldad Shavit (both currently fellows at INSS) wrote on Tuesday that “even if it is not yet clear to what extent Russia and China might hasten to sell weapons to Iran, preparations should be made for direct dialogue with them in order to reduce the prospects of sales of highly advanced weapons.”
Shine and Shavit also said that Israel must already start parallel coordination with the Trump administration and with Biden’s potential team about what to do regarding the expiring arms embargo and other Iran issues.
This is because the dismal loss at the UNSC was not just a blow because of the arms embargo, but because it shattered any notion of diplomatic unity to pressure the ayatollahs into any new major concessions regarding the nuclear deal.
The UAE-Israel peace deal boosts the US-Israeli agenda, but it does not change the Iran nuclear equation.
From the hearings that the UNSC held over the arms embargo issue, it was clear that the European position would prefer to extend the embargo and would prefer Iran agree to nuclear concessions.
At the same time, it will staunchly avoid bringing these issues to the boiling point anytime before the end of the nuclear agreement, terrified of fast-forwarding to that day of reckoning.
Most of the deal’s core nuclear restrictions are technically still in place until 2025 or 2030.
However, by June, ignoring aspects of the restrictions, Iran already had enough low-quality enriched uranium for two nuclear bombs.
It appears that the European position would be to allow Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to continue to build up his stock of enriched uranium (prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, there was enough low enriched uranium for at least 10 nuclear bombs) indefinitely, as long as two requirements are met.
These requirements are: that there is no enrichment to higher levels, and that IAEA inspections remain in place.
Israel does not like this position at all, but can live with it if it has to.
With Iran’s current technological capabilities, as long as none of its enriched uranium is medium or high quality, it will remain at least around four months from being able to develop a nuclear bomb.
As long as IAEA inspectors are on site, there is a very strong chance that they would catch Iranian attempts to enrich to higher levels.
In fact, pre-2015, Tehran publicly announced when it was enriching to higher levels, in order to parade its achievements and taunt the West. So such a shift would probably not be concealed.
Likewise, it seems that a Biden administration would have generic support from European allies to try to get concessions from Iran, but that support would likely come without any willingness to go to the mat any sooner than the 2025 and 2030 deadlines.
Almost all Israeli defense establishment officials believe that, despite the regime being shaken, regime change is still not realistic in Iran.
It is equally unlikely that Tehran will just agree to all of what the US, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states would want – namely, extending the nuclear deal restrictions beyond 2030; limiting ballistic missile testing; rolling back adventurism in the region; limiting advanced centrifuge development; and access to military, nuclear and other disputed sites.
In the meantime, a Biden administration would likely be dealing in real-time with the consequences of new conventional arms sales to Iran, and trying to block them, deal by deal.
That leaves the endgame options as an indefinite game of chicken, as the Trump administration played, hoping the Islamic Republic might agree to one or two of the five above conditions as a price for the US rejoining the deal, while giving in to the regime on the other conditions for now, or rejoining the deal as a show of good faith to try to wrangle conditions afterward.
The truth is that no one, probably including Biden himself, knows what he will choose.
Biden’s history on Iran is of someone who has less trust in gambling toward the mullahs’ better natures than Obama.
But he leads a Democratic Party that, overall, is more afraid of an unnecessary conflict with Iran now than it is of the nuclear restrictions expiring in 2025 and 2030.
Whatever he would like to decide, the UNSC vote weakens his options.
The IAEA may have voted to condemn Iran in June for its lack of cooperation in granting access to two disputed cites and to resolve inspectors’ questions about undeclared nuclear material found at the Turquzabad site, but the main teeth of the IAEA would be to move to the UNSC for enforcement.
Considering that the UNSC has shown it will not throw down the gauntlet before Tehran in the current time period, the IAEA is more of a secondary diplomatic victory than a real potential pressure point that Biden could exploit.
Moreover, the Post has found that in multiple communications with the IAEA, the organization refuses to commit to any concrete actions against Iran despite IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi’s self-imposed August 1 deadline for Tehran to comply with all inspection requests.
ONE FACTOR that could buy Biden time to delay any major moves would be this summer’s approximately dozen or so explosions in Iran.
As reported first by the Post, the most important explosion on July 2 took out three-quarters of Iran’s main advanced centrifuge assembly facility at Natanz.
Until that explosion, a rising worry in Israel was that Iran could use advanced centrifuges to significantly shorten the four-month breakout time to a matter of weeks – the so-called walk-out scenario.
If, in the past, officials worried about a “breakout” scenario, where Iran made a decision to “dash” after nuclear weapons on a clock of around three months, the advanced centrifuges could have enabled reducing months to weeks – dubbed “the walkout.”
Even Iran hawks believe that this scenario was pushed off by one to two years following the July 2 explosion, leaving only an old-fashioned and public three- to four-month breakout scenario.
If Iran makes no moves, then Biden could push off deciding on an endgame as long as he can. He could sound a more conciliatory tone than Trump, but keep some pressure on the ayatollahs for leverage.
Another possible scenario is that Biden cuts a deal to rejoin the Iran agreement in return for restoring the arms embargo or for commitments by various countries not to sell conventional arms to Iran despite the end of the embargo.
This would not resolve Israel’s concerns, but Biden could present it as some kind of an achievement.
But following the loss at the UNSC, Biden has no good dramatic options.
Whether he will find the right mix of military and diplomatic threats along with offers of cooperation and opportunity remains an open question.