Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seem to be resigned to the fact that the Biden Administration is determined to revive Iran’s nuclear agreement on terms that are said to be more permissive than the original nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The original 2015 deal put Iran at least one year away from being able to enrich a bomb’s worth of fissile material; however, under the new provisions, Iran may be able to accelerate its clandestine uranium enrichment program and, in due course, produce enough weapons-grade uranium to become a breakout state.
Other conditions of the renewed JCPOA are equally problematic for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They permit Iran to keep its advanced centrifuges, leaving the regime with the capacity to enrich fissile material more quickly than the old generation centrifuges that Iran was allowed to use under the original deal. According to critics, these concessions are far from the goal of “putting Iran in a box,” as the Biden administration claims to be its objective. The new deal is also expected to lift sanctions on the regime’s export of oil and gas and release billions of dollars in frozen funds.
More worrisome are the rumors that the administration has agreed to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from the State Department terror list in exchange for a promise not to harm Americans. Iran didn’t agree to the US demand but suggested giving the Biden administration a private side letter instead.
Critics argue that removing the IRGC – the principal malign actor in the Middle East as General Kenneth F. McKenzie, the outgoing commander of the Central Command called it – from the terror blacklist will be “a dangerous capitulation,” “unconscionable” “a denial of the basic reality that the IRGC’s core mission is to spread terror.” According to the critics, the Biden Administration should rescind this offer immediately because any public commitment on this issue from an organization whose “core mission is to spread terror” would be worthless.
The Obama administration assumed that the 2015 deal would persuade the regime to cease its effort to destabilize the region through the proxy militias controlled by the IRGC, but the opposite happened. The Revolutionary Guards poured millions of dollars into strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, the pro-Iranian militia groups in Iraq, and the so-called Shia Liberation Army in Syria. In Yemen, the Houthis became a potent hybrid force that has used Iranian-supplied missiles and drones to bomb Saudi Arabia the UAE and disrupted maritime activities in the strategic passage of Bab-el-Mandab.
Israel and the UAE also expect that the lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of Iranian accounts would bolster the maligned activities of the IRGC. Israeli officials released a statement saying they find it hard to believe that the US will abandon its closest allies by removing the IRGC from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) list. Defense Minister Benny Gantz stressed that the IRGC should remain on the terrorist blacklist and that Washington should not delist the group. “I want it to be clear, this is a terror organization, and as such, they should remain on the list.” Bennett and Lapid have called the proposed move an insult to victims.
Returning to the JCPOA will provide substantial additional resources available to the Guards and its terror proxies, such as the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah, which has thrived for decades on Iran’s cash windfalls. Hezbollah has previously received up to $700 million a year, accounting for 70% of its revenue. Still, sanctions on Iran heavily curtailed the regime’s ability to send money to the terror group. As a result, Hezbollah is forced to cut its spending. Many of its fighters are being assigned to the reserves, where they receive lower salaries or no pay at all. The terror group was also forced to withdraw many of its forces from Syria, where they were fighting to save the Assad regime.
At the moment, the options of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are limited. Despite an intensive campaign, the Israeli government has failed to persuade the Biden administration not to return to the deal or not to delist the IRGC from the State Department’s FTO list. This has resulted in Israel’s (and, by association, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) losing confidence in the security guarantees of the US or anyone else in the West.
The perception in Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia is that the US as the leader of the Western world cannot be relied upon. For instance, the Biden administration has delisted the Houthis from the State Department’s FTO list to help with the negotiations of the new JCPOA. Despite constant Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and expansion in Yemen, Biden had resisted pressure to designate the group as terrorists again. Even a future Republican presidency may not change the direction of US policy, which is focused on taking on the challenge of China and Russia.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has publicly announced that Israel would not be bound by the agreement and would act on its own to thwart the regime’s nuclear project.
One option is to refine the covert efforts against the nuclear facilities, a continued campaign for more than a decade. Starting with the insertion of Stuxnet into centrifuges in Natanz, the Israelis have used a combination of cyber warfare and sabotage to slow down the regime’s nuclear program. As part of the Abraham Accords, Israel has also tightened its cooperation with the UEA and, unofficially, with Saudi Arabia. Middle East nations have been accelerating their security and intelligence cooperation efforts, and discussing new ways to protect the Gulf States, including selling Israel’s advanced air defense system.
Should this option fail to push back Iran’s nuclear program, Israel can also explore a kinetic attack on the facilities. Israel considers a nuclear Iran an existential threat because several Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former presidents Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to “nuke Tel Aviv” and “wipe out Israel from the map.” Khamenei has used scriptures for Quran to predict that Israel will cease to exist.
It is not known whether Israel has all the necessary capability and equipment to mount a kinetic attack at the moment. Still, it is clear that preparations for this eventually are underway.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project. Siavash Gholami is a master’s student in political science at the University of Toronto.