Reviving Iran nuclear deal brings us back to Munich agreement - opinion

Has US President-elect Joe Biden learned from history or will he now fall into the Iranian trap?

IRANIAN NUCLEAR negotiator Abbas Araqchi attends a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, in September. (photo credit: EUROPEAN COMMISSION/REUTERS)
IRANIAN NUCLEAR negotiator Abbas Araqchi attends a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, in September.
The emerging Biden administration faces several pressing foreign policy issues – with apparent intention of returning to the original 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) being the most challenging and controversial one. History does not repeat itself nor is there ever exact parallelism, but students of history ought to remember the 1938 Munich Agreement.
Nazi Germany, bent on subduing Poland, first played a diplomatic game and even signed a non-aggression pact with it – also known as the Munich Betrayal – in which Czechoslovakia was abandoned by Britain and France. Hitler changed his modus operandi and presented the Poles with unacceptable ultimatums as an opening to aggression.
Iran isn’t planning aggression against the US, but it is replicating – almost precisely – the Nazi methods of deception. It is presenting the United States and Europe with an ultimatum of sorts: first lift the sanctions against us and then we will perhaps agree – the emphasis here is on “perhaps” – to discuss other issues.
But has US President-elect Joe Biden learned from history or will he now fall into the Iranian trap? For now, some of his and his team’s statements explicitly saying that they would seek to revive the Iran deal, are bound to encourage the Iranians in assuming that their ultimatum is working.
The British Economist wrote in a recent issue: “Mr. Biden rejects the idea of putting preconditions on a return to the JCPOA,” and a critical interview with The New York Times’ Tom Friedman showed that the lesson of Munich had, indeed, not been learned. As Biden stated in the interview, the US should first rejoin the original nuclear deal, as Tehran demands, lift the sanctions imposed by Trump and then hold “immediate” negotiations to bring about desirable changes to the agreement and address Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East. “There’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and the range of other things that are destabilizing the region,” Biden told Friedman. “But the best way to achieve getting some stability is to deal with the nuclear program... ” In other words, to renew the previous agreement in its entirety – or as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “You just have to take a piece of paper and sign it.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejoined: “We will never negotiate a new agreement.”
To his credit, Friedman is more realistic than the incoming president, commenting that “it would be unwise for the United States to give up the leverage of the Trump-imposed oil sanctions,” and that “we should use that leverage to also get Iran to curb its exports of precision-guided missiles to its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where they threaten Israel and several Arab states,” while defining Iran’s intentions towards Israel as “murderous.” Friedman notes that while Biden and his team – including his nominee for National Security adviser Jake Sullivan who was involved in negotiating the JCPOA – are aware of this argument; in their view this does not diminish the importance of restoring the original agreement “and we will take care of the rest later.”
HENRY KISSINGER, in a virtual discussion with Dennis Ross this week (as part of an event of the Jewish People Policy Institute) reiterated that “Iran possessing nuclear weapons was irreconcilable with a stable Middle East,” adding that Israel and the other countries in the region “cannot afford a mistake; they won’t have another chance.”
In an ideally moral world, a regime that unabashedly threatens to obliterate another country and its people, would be declared a pariah among nations – and certainly not a partner for diplomacy. But, as we see, this is not the case.
The Middle East is not as it was in 2015 when the nuclear deal was signed. The US is in a much stronger position vis-à-vis Iran now than it was then. The commonality of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab states against the Iranian threat has led to the creation of a unified pragmatic front with far-reaching implications for the future of the region.
This front is now signaling to Biden – and not just in words – that his administration should consider its fundamental and existential interests. As Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington recently argued, in the nuclear deal of 2015, the US ignored the interests and concerns of its Middle East partners and hoping that there should be no repeat of this.
Israel may have to play a key role in this regard. This is because Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony and its military and subversive plans pose an existential threat to Israel – and not just because of Israeli military capacities – but also because of its connections with opinion formers in America, including the mainstay of the Democratic party (relations which Israel should make every effort to reinvigorate).
Israel has been involved in a multifront preemptive war against Iran in recent years. Its relative success in this conflict was based on its correct strategic understanding, its close ties with the outgoing US administration and its creative diplomacy towards the other important player in the region, Russia, and hopefully it will find a way for practical understandings in this regard with the Biden administration as well.
Though the US since the Obama era, including the Trump administration, has sought to gradually deemphasize its interests in the Middle East, many experts have pointed out that it will continue to be of strategic importance to the US. The reasons include preserving the free flow of energy resources out of the Persian Gulf, fighting terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, of course, the security of Israel and its other allies in the Middle East and – in the long run – also of Europe.
Although Iran is not Nazi Germany in terms of its military capabilities, Germany did not have nuclear weapons and Iran – if not stopped – will. Also, a vacuum never remains unfilled and the obvious candidate to fill it is China.