What will the elections do to the US-Iran conflict? – opinion

As the lessons of the JCPOA suggest, weaponization is very difficult to define and monitor, so it requires a catch-all plan that also focuses on the regime’s past activities.

FORMER US secretary of state John Kerry speaks to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, looks on in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. (photo credit: US STATE DEPARTMENT/ REUTERS)
FORMER US secretary of state John Kerry speaks to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, looks on in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015.
(photo credit: US STATE DEPARTMENT/ REUTERS)
In 2018, after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, calling it “the worse deal ever,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, vowed never to renegotiate another nuclear deal with the United States.
The Iranians understand that if Trump is reelected, they may have no choice but to reengage in negotiations with the United States. Based on his recent statements, including some uttered during the peace ceremony between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Trump appears eager to get back to the negotiating table. And he may even try to get Senate approval (67 votes) to convert his deal into a treaty – with buy-in from the Israelis this time.
Former vice president Joseph Biden, if elected, is also expected to quickly negotiate a new deal with Iran, with help from the Europeans. Some of his advisers have circulated working papers with the aim of getting “back to the JCPOA,” the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is also talk of returning to the interim 2013 deal, the Joint Plan of Action, as a show of good faith while negotiating a new deal. Some of these Biden advisers appear to have not learned from their own diplomatic missteps during the Iran negotiations of 2013–2015. In some cases, their working papers use remarkably similar language to US memos from the Obama years.
From all indications, a Biden plan would offer up-front sanctions relief to entice Iran back to the table, without getting much (if anything) in return. That was a bad idea in 2013 and 2015. It would be equally problematic 2021.
Since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the Iranian regime has engaged in nuclear blackmail, enriching more uranium, installing new centrifuges, enhancing its R&D efforts, and taking many other dangerous steps.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued several reports expressing its concern, backed by Israeli findings that the Mossad captured during its daring raid on Iran’s then-secret atomic archive. However, the international community has failed to make any decisions or take decisive action. The Europeans, who refused to cede that Iran has failed to uphold its nuclear responsibilities, have contributed to this inaction. The Iranians, meanwhile, are played their cards well, deferring any major decision until after the elections in America.
No matter who negotiates, the dangers are clear. The Iranians have a demonstrated history of fleecing American counterparts at the negotiating table. The American negotiators failed to seize the advantage, despite the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani telegraphed his negotiation strategy in his 2010 book. The unforced errors of the 2013–2015 negotiations, which yielded Iran massive sanctions relief and sunsetting restrictions, made that abundantly clear.
A new agreement, should there be one, would need to address all core weaknesses of the JCPOA. Indeed, it cannot be more of the same with some minor improvements. The goal must be to establish clear new terms so that the JCPOA’s vagueness does not persist. The deal should include an end to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, and other malign activities. This was all articulated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his “12 points” plan.
Of course, a new agreement should also include all three elements of Iran’s illicit nuclear program: fissile materials, weaponization, and means of delivery.
As the lessons of the JCPOA suggest, weaponization is very difficult to define and monitor, so it requires a catch-all plan that also focuses on the regime’s past activities.
The means of delivery, namely ballistic missiles, requires more than vaguely worded UN Security Council resolutions. And the deal should not be limited to halting the development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Fissile materials (uranium and plutonium), along with all the technology necessary to produce them, should be completely banned and monitored by the IAEA in ways the agency is fit to handle.
A NEW DEAL can be achieved only after the regime comes clean about its past, admits to previous violations, and declares its past inventory. Even then, it will not be enough. The JCPOA included dangerous sunset clauses that expired over the course of a decade. Those must be removed for decades, with stricter monitoring and verification.
Some might say the right agreement would never be accepted by Tehran. Acquiescence to such an agreement would be tantamount to regime change given that it would run counter to the “revolutionary” aims of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps so. But that does not mean that America’s president, Democrat or Republican, should accept anything less.
Regardless of who wins this November, there should be a “sanctions wall” in place, and it should not be easy to take down. These sanctions should punish the wide range of Iranian terrorist activities, human rights violations, and aggressive behavior.
No matter who wins, there is a risk that the next administration will be consumed with concerns about China, followed by Russia and North Korea, relegating Iran to a lesser priority. This might soften the ground for a less stringent nuclear deal. More must be done to avoid this.
To that end, the Trump administration has an opportunity between now and January 2021 to sanction Iran’s entire energy sector as part of its “maximum pressure” scheme. It can also blacklist all of Iran’s nuclear agency workers.
The Biden team has indicated that it may lift sanctions on Iran. Some of his advisers believe that sanctions relief will help achieve an agreement, and that an agreement will help avoid war. This is a false binary. Sanctions can help reach the right agreement and prevent war. It should also be noted that the threat of war can be helpful. Indeed, without a credible military threat, the Iranians won’t come to the table willing to negotiate real changes to the JCPOA.
Advocates for sanctions relief say that sanctions can be reinstated quickly because the threat of secondary sanctions against the Europeans, in particular, is powerful. European companies prefer access to the American economy over that of Iran.
But it is not that simple. Alternately adding and removing sanctions will confuse our partners and the market. As we learned from the previous round of talks and subsequent Iranian violations, there is virtually no chance the Europeans (let alone the Russians or Chinese) will agree to tough US “red lines” when Iran eventually tests the international community. And let there be no doubt: Iran will test the international community.
One significant change since the last round of talks is the peace agreements between Israel and three Arab countries (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan). These countries and others strongly object to granting any concessions to Iran, in the nuclear file or with any of its other malign activities. The concerns of America’s regional partners were ignored last time but should not be ignored again. Their decisions to make peace with Israel were driven, in part, by their shared concerns about Iran and a future flawed deal.
Secretary Pompeo’s 12 points demanding a halt to Iran’s destabilizing activities should remain the gold standard, with additional emphasis on zero nuclear activity. Both Trump and Biden should acknowledge this, preferably before November 3.
Some former Israeli officials have recently suggested offering other red lines to include in a future Iran deal. However, as we learned from the previous round of negotiations, red lines that do not completely ban nuclear activity are a slippery slope. The Iranians are adept at watering down such demands. The Israeli government should continue to reject any compromises that give Iran the benefit of the doubt.
Whoever wins, the priority should be to convince the international community and the market that business with Iran is off limits as long as Iran’s dangerous behavior continues.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor and head of the National Security Council.