Given that the US president has great influence in designing American foreign policy, and that the US plays the defining role in global affairs, Israel must consider and prepare for the possible ramifications of the 2020 US presidential election. In the context of Israeli national security, the future of US policy toward the Middle East in general and toward Iran in particular is of paramount importance. While the elections create a general sense of uncertainty, three scenarios should inform the range of eventualities that Israel prepares for vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear program.
Since May 2018, the Trump Administration has instituted a policy of “maximum pressure” which included a withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the reimposition of punishing sanctions which have devastated the Iranian economy. The Russians, Chinese and even the Europeans initially sought to resist Washington’s sanctions regime in order to soften the economic blow to Iran so as to incentivize it to remain in the agreement.
However, it soon became apparent that: 1) the other parties to the agreement could not resist US sanctions and would be forced to wind down their economic activities with Iran, 2) Iran would take cautious steps to erode the agreement’s restrictions and cut down its breakout time, some which are irreversible, but it is not interested in the JCPOA’s collapse, 3) Tehran was not eager to return to the negotiating table, and 4) US President Donald Trump doesn’t have any “plan B” handy to keep Iran away from the nuclear threshold should it continue to violate the JCPOA’s restrictions while refusing to negotiate. While it now appears that all parties seek to hold off on drastic measures in order to recalibrate after it is clear who will occupy the Oval Office next, the volatility of the situation leaves open the possibility of an “October Surprise.”
Both presidential contenders appear eager to shift from “maximum pressure” to diplomatic progress with Iran, as Trump promised a deal within four weeks of reelection and Biden called for a return to the JCPOA and the subsequent negotiation of follow-on agreements. Israel should express public support for renewed diplomacy between the US and Iran which aims to maximize the distance between the regime and a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, Jerusalem should privately express its concerns to Joe Biden’s team about initiating the process through both sides returning to compliance with the JCPOA. To paraphrase Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, rejoining the 2015 agreement would be worse than a crime, it would be a mistake. Even if Iran were to agree to such a proposal – though that seems unlikely – it would be unwise for the US to rejoin an agreement designed for the express purpose of restricting a nuclear program just before the restrictions are set to begin their gradual expiry.
YET, ISRAEL must be prepared in the event that the Iranian regime accepts American offers to engage in negotiations, and it can do so by outlining relevant security requirements and priorities to the Middle East advisers of both the Republican and Democratic presidential contenders. Failure to proactively coordinate US and Israeli negotiating positions on Iran could result in Israel reacting to developments in real time and seeking to quickly cobble together a response. The result will likely be more disorderly, ineffective and be perceived as an attempt to scuttle the ongoing negotiations.
It is also conceivable that despite overtures from Trump – or even Biden who is seen as less hostile to the regime – Iran will refuse to engage. Tehran may adopt such an approach because past experience reinforced the regime’s overwhelming skepticism that the US will deliver on its commitments, concerns about how taking the risk of falling for the same “American plot” twice would play in domestic politics, or doubt of American resolve to continue to rigorously enforce “maximum pressure.” In that case, the US could find itself stranded in mutual strategic patience, reminiscent of the current US-North Korea dynamic, meaning that Iran grows poorer as its nuclear program slowly progresses in a manner that avoids unnecessary provocations.
The incremental nature of this scenario, with Iran avoiding dramatic and public steps that would elicit a major response, make the danger of complacency exemplified by the myth of the slow-boiling frog very real. That is precisely why Israel ought to take the initiative of formulating clear red-lines regarding the Iranian nuclear program and then coordinating those positions with senior advisers of both US presidential candidates.
Lastly, Iran could opt to take drastic steps forward in its nuclear program either to provoke a crisis and gain leverage for negotiations or because it believes the US and Israel lack the determination to prevent it from going nuclear. Tehran is more likely to engage in such behavior if it believes that its steps will either be ignored or rewarded, and so it is important that Israel work with partners in the region and around the world to explicitly warn Iran of the multidimensional risks entailed in escalatory steps in the nuclear realm; after all, nonverbal signaling is a famously complex art and often fails to deliver the desired message or yield the anticipated results.
At the same time, Israel and the US presidential candidates should credibly reemphasize that their preference for diplomacy is accompanied by a willingness to use force as a last resort if it becomes necessary to prevent the dangerous regime from going nuclear. Failure to clearly articulate this message as a matter of bipartisan consensus in the US increases the likelihood that we will find ourselves in the dilemma depicted concisely but prematurely in former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton’s 2015 headline: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
The upcoming elections in the US create a degree of uncertainty about the future of US Iran policy, but any fluctuations are likely to stay within the general confines of the scenarios outlined above. Israeli efforts to coordinate with senior foreign policy advisers of both presidential contenders could prove useful in building trust and ultimately implementing a more coherent and effective Iran policy. However, dialogue is hardly a panacea. Gaps between the threat perceptions in Washington and Jerusalem will remain, as the former’s top priority shifts to great power competition with Russia and China while latter remains intensely focused on Iran’s nuclear and conventional threats.
Ari Heistein is a research fellow and chief of staff to the director of the Institute for National Security Studies. Eldad Shavit is a Senior Researcher at the INSS and previously served in senior roles in Israeli Defense Intelligence and the Prime Minister’s Office.