Will Biden return to the Iran deal after the Fakhrizadeh assassination?

While it is natural that Biden will want to reverse many of Trump’s policies, it is essential that the new US administration maintain pressure on Iran.

Iran FM Zarif, EU Rep. for Foreign Affairs Mogherini, and Iranian and Russian officials at signing of nuclear deal in Vienna, 2015 (photo credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS)
Iran FM Zarif, EU Rep. for Foreign Affairs Mogherini, and Iranian and Russian officials at signing of nuclear deal in Vienna, 2015
(photo credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS)
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a clear message to US President-elect Joe Biden that he would oppose American efforts to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal.
“Do not return to the previous [Iran] nuclear deal,” Netanyahu said at a memorial service for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. “We must keep to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu credited Israel’s “determined stance against Iran’s nuclearization and... our opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran” along with Arab countries changing their stance on Israel.
On Friday, Biden and the Iranians received an even stronger message. Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was targeted in a sophisticated assassination near Tehran. Fakhrizadeh was the only Iranian scientist named in the IAEA’s 2015 “final assessment” of open questions about Iran’s nuclear program. 
Although there is no official word on who was responsible for killing Fakhrizadeh, and it could be more than one country, Iran has blamed Israel’s Mossad. 
“Once again, the evil hands of global arrogance were stained with the blood of the mercenary usurper Zionist regime,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said. 
Certainly, no tears were shed for Fakhrizadeh in Israel – nor in Saudi Arabia, which has suffered repeatedly from Iranian-sponsored attacks – and the other Gulf countries that feel threatened by Iran’s ongoing nuclear aspirations.
The timing of the operation is significant, coming less than two months before US President Donald Trump vacates the White House, and whoever carried it out probably took into account that this might be the last chance to act before Biden enters the Oval Office.
Obviously, carrying out such a complex operation in the heart of the Islamic Republic needed serious intelligence research and time. That’s why it’s relevant to recall that when in 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the preliminary findings of the extraordinary heist of Iran’s nuclear archives from a Tehran warehouse, he made a point of mentioning the scientist’s name in connection with Iran’s covert nuclear project saying: “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.”
It is possible that the name also came up when Netanyahu, Mossad head Yossi Cohen and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman last week.
Some experts speculate that Iran will hold off or moderate its response to Fakhrizadeh’s killing in order not to anger the incoming Biden administration. But Iran is clearly hurt and humiliated by this latest in a string of incidents that include the archive heist, the killing of Qassem Soleimani (head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force), a series of fires at its nuclear facilities, hits on its targets on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights where it is trying to establish a foothold, and more.
Israel strongly opposed the JCPOA between the P5+1 powers (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) and Iran. Netanyahu angered then president Barack Obama and his administration when he spoke out against it before both houses of Congress, and Trump abandoned it in May 2018 in favor of a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime.

Biden will take office on January 20 and has said he would rejoin the deal if Iran resumes strict compliance. But he has not specified what he would do to strengthen the agreement, restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program or curb Tehran’s support for terrorism.
The original deal let Iran think it could bide time and then carry on with its nuclear program, but it is important that it doesn’t come to believe that it can ride out the few years of a particular US president (or an Israeli prime minister) and then continue as planned.
While it is natural that Biden will want to reverse many of Trump’s policies, it is essential that the new US administration maintain pressure on Iran. 
The many flaws of the JCPOA are glaring, and rather than return to that poor deal, Biden must take the opportunity to introduce significant improvements. It would be better to have no deal than the agreement that has enabled Iran to continue to threaten the entire world with its nuclear weapons program.