The news in the Middle East these days suddenly seems like a return to circa 2014. Israel and the U.S. are at odds over the Palestinians, America is courting Iran, and the Abraham Accords between Israel and the Arabs get the back of America’s hand.
In other words, President Biden is rejecting the Trump strategy that focused on containing Iran and forging closer ties among America’s traditional allies. Team Biden is returning to the Obama calculation that engaging Iran is the key to reducing America’s footprint in the Middle East, even if it means creating anxiety for Israel and the Gulf Arabs.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the hell-bent U.S. attempt to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. A revival of the agreement will reshape the Middle East for years—and not to the benefit of U.S. interests.
left the 2015 deal three years ago and pursued a “maximum-pressure” sanctions campaign. The new economic restrictions targeted Iran’s nuclear malfeasance, as well as its support for terrorism abroad and violation of human rights at home. An isolated Iranian economy contracted 6% in 2018 and 6.8% in 2019, and Tehran responded by stepping up nuclear activity proscribed by the deal.
Rather than seeking a better deal as the Islamic Republic struggles with domestic unrest, Iranian and American diplomats have spent more than six weeks in Vienna negotiating through intermediaries a way back to the nuclear deal. The Biden Administration is sending stronger signals by the week that it will give up most of its leverage over Tehran to get a deal.
By one count, Mr. Trump imposed sanctions on more than 700 Iranian officials and entities—including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s national oil company and central bank. Iran says it wants all sanctions lifted before it will halt its illicit nuclear activities. That would amount to a multibillion dollar payout for reducing its stockpile of increasingly pure uranium. The knowledge Iranian scientists have gained from activating advanced centrifuges can’t be reversed.
The 2015 deal empowers the Islamic Republic while only delaying its nuclear ambitions and ignoring its missile program and malign regional activity. But evidence is still emerging to show that even the deal’s nuclear limits don’t mean much. That’s why Iran’s other negotiation in Vienna—with the International Atomic Energy Agency—is also critical.
Israeli agents pilfered a massive collection of technical documents from an Iranian warehouse in 2018. The Institute for Science and International Security’s
who have received extensive access to this nuclear archive, provide new details about Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program in their book “Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons.”
The authors say there are as many as two dozen sites in Iran “highly relevant to the IAEA in determining the origin of undeclared nuclear materials and fate of undeclared facilities and activities, the completeness of Iran’s nuclear declaration, and whether nuclear weapons efforts have ended or in fact are ongoing.” Inspectors have visited only three of these sites and found traces of processed uranium. Further inspections are crucial to understand the extent of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
But in February Tehran withdrew from the Additional Protocol, which enabled IAEA inspectors to verify Iran’s nuclear activity. The nuclear watchdog struck a temporary agreement with Iran to allow some access, but it expired Saturday. This will likely be extended but isn’t close to sufficient.
Arms-control agreements are only as good as the verification allowed. If international inspectors don’t have instant and comprehensive access to declared or undeclared nuclear sites, there’s no way to know whether they are complying—or if a deal even covered all of Iran’s nuclear activity. If the Biden negotiators can’t address Iran’s undeclared nuclear sites, and the IAEA doesn’t make progress either, there’s little point in returning to the Obama deal.
A related illusion is that once the 2015 deal is revived, the U.S. and Iran can seek a phase-two deal that addresses Iran’s missile program and regional imperialism. But what leverage would the U.S. have to win Iranian concessions after it gives up the Trump sanctions?
The Administration seems eager to accept even a flawed deal as a way to liberate the U.S. from its entanglements in the Middle East. But this will empower Iran and its proxies and make it more likely America is dragged back in—albeit in a weaker strategic position.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the May 24, 2021, print edition.