Can an effective Iran deal be put back together? - opinion

Returning to the JCPOA is a promise Biden never should have made facing today’s reality. He may be able to get a limited deal, but it will be a tough sell at home if it is just a short-term Band-Aid.

 CURRENT US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is among the top Democrats who opposed the 2015 JCPOA. (photo credit: TOM WILLIAMS/POOL VIA REUTERS)
CURRENT US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is among the top Democrats who opposed the 2015 JCPOA.
(photo credit: TOM WILLIAMS/POOL VIA REUTERS)

I thought the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement was a good one for the United States and for Israel because it would limit, under international inspection, Tehran’s production and stockpiling of enriched uranium, making it more difficult to build nuclear weapons.

The deal was flawed by what it left out – ballistic missile development, support for terrorism, destabilizing the region – and its duration, but it was a good start. The financial benefits for Iran were a great incentive: it would be getting back its own money frozen by the United States and others and not a dime from American taxpayers, as critics charged.

Even initial opponents in the Israeli defense and intelligence communities admitted it was working and beat the alternative of an Iran rushing to build a bomb. But, the pact became a bitter political weapon. Much of the zeal of leading opponents, including former president Donald Trump and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was inspired more by their personal animosity toward former President Barack Obama than any of the deal’s other flaws.

They are gone and President Joe Biden wants to rejoin the agreement that Trump abrogated in 2018. He rejects accusations that rejoining is his homage to Obama, for whom he was vice president.

Maybe he is too anxious. Biden looks like an anxious suitor pursuing a reluctant Iran, which is acting like it is doing everyone a favor just by talking about it, though they refuse to talk to the US directly. Negotiations are beginning their second year in Vienna with the US locked out of the room; the Iranians are meeting with their friends, Russia and China, Washington’s principal adversaries, and America’s allies, Britain and France.

European External Action Service (EEAS) Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria June 20, 2021. (credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)European External Action Service (EEAS) Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria June 20, 2021. (credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Few details are emerging. The major stumbling block reportedly is Tehran’s demand that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command (IRGC) be removed from the US State Department’s foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) list. Four of the US negotiators have quit the team, most notably Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel. Sources following the talks closely report the team members are frustrated with the administration’s policy, suggesting Washington is too anxious to get a deal.

Talks have been suspended since early March. The deal that Trump and Netanyahu broke may be like Humpty Dumpty. It just can’t be put back together again. Too much has changed.

There has been a proliferation of Iranian missiles to its proxies and allies; it has a lethal presence in Syria, where it manufactures weapons and a drone base as it encroaches on Israel’s borders. It has dramatically upgraded and enlarged its stockpile of enriched uranium, its missiles are more advanced, and its terror network is greater.

And even if the US is allowed back in the room in Vienna and a deal is signed, those endless negotiations may prove to be the easy part.

Although the JCPOA is not a treaty which must be ratified by the Senate, the Congress must enact enabling legislation, notably to lift sanctions. Naturally, all Republicans will be opposed regardless of substance and use it as a campaign issue this fall and in 2024 to accuse Biden and Democrats of being weak on fighting terrorism.

Then there are the Democrats. Few are showing much enthusiasm. Four top Democrats opposed it in 2015, including now-Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin and Joe Manchin.

Getting a Democratic majority in this volatile and partisan environment may be more than Biden can expect.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) got badly burned and damaged its relations with Democrats and the White House by joining with Republicans and Netanyahu in leading the anti-JCPOA lobbying campaign. Facing new criticism for its endorsement of far-right Republicans who tried to block Biden’s election, the group may be more reticent this time.

REPUBLICANS ARE already – falsely – accusing Biden of wanting to give Iran nearly $100 billion in taxpayer dollars to use to finance terrorism. Fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked that as a lie. As in the 2015 agreement, no US taxpayer money is involved; it was Iran’s money frozen by the US Treasury Department.

Since the agreement was abrogated in 2018, there has been a marked increase in attacks by Iran and its surrogates on US facilities and partners in the region, according to the State Department. All the while, Tehran was expanding the quality, quantity and level of its nuclear program. In other words, the regime is closer to the nuclear threshold than would otherwise have been.

The money may be Iran’s, but it is fungible. Once released, there is no control over how it will be spent and the tsunami of cash from renewed oil sales to re-opened markets.

As for a nuclear breakout, I believe Iran wants and feels it needs the weapon, while Biden, NATO and EU leaders were in Brussels last month, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un sent them a message. “Don’t forget about me,” he declared with the launch of a new ICBM capable of striking any target in the US. He sees his nuclear arsenal as an insurance policy preventing regime change in North Korea from the outside. Iran’s ayatollahs want their own insurance policies.

Israel is an undeclared nuclear power that knows that arsenal is its best deterrent.

If Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia would most likely not have invaded.

Biden can’t turn the clock back to 2015. Any new agreement must deal not only with nuclear development but also ballistic missiles, terrorism and regional destabilization.

Israel has been atop Iran’s target list for extinction. Tehran generously arms and finances Hezbollah and Hamas terror organizations.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes the JCPOA but has said his predecessor’s handling of the matter was a strategic failure, making him determined to avoid repetition, choosing instead to keep disagreements with Washington private.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said on Israeli television that the country’s hands are not tied and it would not be bound by any new agreement.

Whatever emerges from Vienna, Israel can be expected to continue its attacks and sabotage aimed at Iranian targets, particularly in Syria, that it considers threatening.

One positive side effect of the JCPOA has been to bring Israel and Sunni Arab states – United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Morocco – together as they recognize that Shi’ite Iran is a common threat.

When the US declares it will not allow Iran to become a nuclear state, Israel and its Sunni friends question just how far Washington is willing to go to keep that promise.

Returning to the JCPOA is a promise Biden never should have made in the face of today’s reality. He may be able to get a limited deal to slow down Iran’s nuclear quest, but it will be a tough sell at home if it is just a short-term Band-Aid. He will have to convince Congress and the public than an incomplete deal is better than no deal at all. And he will have to tie it to a joint commitment to pursue a more comprehensive agreement involving nuclear, missiles, regional stability and terrorism.

Bennett suggested that could begin by imposing on Iran the kind of sanctions leveled on Russia.

Absent a very convincing demonstration of an Iranian commitment to intrusive inspections and a commitment to negotiate broader arrangements, the rejoined JCPOA risks looking like a win for Iran that may only feed a growing perception of a globally weak and weary America.