To save the Iran nuclear deal, think bigger

Soon after taking office, President-elect Joe Biden will face the daunting task of restoring the 2015 nuclear deal and getting the United States and Iran back on speaking terms. The outgoing administration of President Donald Trump intends to make that job nearly impossible by spending its last ten weeks in office engineering a “flood” of sanctions to further squeeze Iran. The Trump team apparently hopes that Biden will not wish to incur the political cost of backtracking on these sanctions, which will be tied to non-nuclear concerns such as ballistic missiles and human rights.

But the transparent sabotage actually only sharpens Biden’s choices and may force him to go bigger than just restoring the agreement. Contrary to the calculations of the Trump administration and its allies in Israel, Biden may now seek not only to rejoin the nuclear deal but also to improve relations with Iran in order to insulate the agreement from Saudi, Emirati, and Israeli efforts to kill it.

Refuse the choice

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made this gamble before and lost. In the mid-1990s, Israel pushed to make Iran’s nuclear program an international security concern, forcing the matter to the top of the U.S. agenda. When Netanyahu took office, he depicted Tehran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and the Iranian government as irrational and suicidal. His strategy was to curtail then President Barack Obama’s options: make containment impracticable, set the bar for diplomacy so high that talks could never succeed (for instance, by insisting on zero enrichment), and thereby leave Obama to choose between war and acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Netanyahu’s bet, of course, was that Obama simply could not allow Iran to go nuclear on his watch.

But Netanyahu miscalculated. By raising the alarm, he had made the status quo option—containment—appear to be unsustainable. The Obama administration would have to act. But when it did so, it refused Netanyahu’s binary and went instead for an option that Netanyahu thought he had closed off: real diplomacy with Tehran, based on mutual concessions and compromise. The Obama administration began secret negotiations with Iran in Oman and offered to accept that Iran would enrich uranium on its own soil (something Israel vehemently opposed) so long as Tehran agreed to transparency and restrictions that would close off all paths to making a bomb.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.