international analysis and commentary

Threading the Needle: The Biden Administration’s Daunting Challenge to Revive the Nuclear Arms Deal with Iran

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In a plot worthy of an Ian Fleming spy thriller, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear program, was dramatically gunned down on the outskirts of Tehran. To add to the James Bond aspects of the hit, just days before Iran’s three chief adversaries met publicly for the first time in Neom, Saudi Arabia. It is not known what Benjamin Netanyahu, (Prime Minister of Israel), Mike Pompeo, (outgoing US Secretary of State) and Mohammed bin Salman (Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia) spoke about. But given the assassination of Fakhrizadeh just days later, my guess is that it wasn’t the weather.

While no one claimed responsibility for the assassination, old Middle East hands to a man suspect that Israel’s crack spy service, the Mossad, was behind the attack. But, as always, beyond the spy glamour glitz, the key political risk questions relate to a single word: Why? Why take out Fakhrizadeh? Why now? To answer these larger points, understanding the context of the past few years of US-Iran relations is vital.

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of Tehran, Iran.

 

Reverting to the Obama playbook  

The Obama administration’s geopolitical view of the Middle East started from the notion that it is time to pivot away from a thankless region of decreasing geopolitical and economic value and instead focus on Asia, where much of the new era’s rewards, as well as its risks, are centered.

For the Obama White House, the goal was to bring pariah Iran in from the cold in John le Carre fashion, transforming it into a ‘normal’ regional great power, alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt.

The hope was that a regional balance of the power among the five will organically form (after a period of turmoil), allowing for a modicum of stability over time. In such a case, the US could then turn away from a Middle East, which has caused it little but grief, serving instead as an off-shore balancer, intervening only as a last resort if one of the regional powers attempted to upend the new organic equilibrium.

This was the strategic rationale behind the nuclear deal with Iran, The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which withdrew the world’s effective sanctions levied against Tehran and normalized its relations with the rest of the world, in return for Iran’s promise to limit the extent of its nuclear program for the next 10 to 15 years.

The Trump administration came to a very different strategic conclusion: There can be no organic balance of power when one of the regional powers is in fact a revolutionary power, determined to upend and supplant the Middle East’s basic hierarchies. This very different political risk assessment explains Trump’s dramatic abrogation of the JCPOA in May 2018, imposing punitive further US sanctions on Iran as part of a new policy of ‘maximum pressure.” Yet, there is no doubt, with the coming of the Biden team, that the new White House is now broadly reverting to the Obama administration’s old assessment of the region.

That is why Fakhrizadeh was killed, and now. The goal of the clandestine meeting in Neom was to make conditions with Iran so fraught that Biden cannot easily re-enter JCPOA in particular or effortlessly change US policy in the region in general.

Donald Trump with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed Bin Salman

 

Conclusion: the outlines of a possible new nuclear deal

So, what in policy terms is the new Biden team to do about this crisis which has just landed on its doorstep? First, the President-elect is right to see the old JCPOA accord as merely a starting point; despite years of Democratic Party cheerleading, there is no doubt the old deal had great flaws, stretching from its finite time limits for managing Iran’s nuclear program, to not including Tehran’s missile program or regional expansionism in the deal.

Interested countries as far afield as Germany, Israel, and the Gulf States have recently criticized the original JCPOA for not addressing these vital strategic goals. To not do so this time around will merely amount to putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.

Second, and in line with the first point, the Biden White House is quite right to expand the circle of countries involved in the talks to include regional Arab countries this time. Without regional buy-in, no outside deal stands much of a chance of policy success, even into the medium term.

Both points one and two lead organically to the third reality of the upcoming negotiations. Because of a broadened agenda and a wider group of interested local parties also participating, the Biden White House must thread the diplomatic needle, concocting something short of a Grand Bargain with Tehran—which will never be agreed to, given the very different interests animating Washington and Tehran—which is still more comprehensive and more ambitious. To just mindlessly re-animate the limited, flawed, JCPOA will be to fail, and in the near term, for precisely the same reasons.

As Ian Fleming put it, “Never so no to adventures. Always say yes, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.” Now is a time for adventures. But they must be undertaken with a realist’s understanding that efforts to revive the nuclear accord may well fail. But we must try, and mightily, to avoid such a failure, and now reach for ambition and for the skies.