Part III: The Collapse of the Iran Deal

The assassination of a leader of its Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani, and murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as “the father of the Iranian bomb” and Amad project, took place presumably at the hands of Israel. After the killing of Fakhrizadeh, 251 lawmakers in Iran’s hardline-dominated 290-seat Iranian legislative chamber advanced a bill to end UN inspections of its nuclear facilities. Further, the legislation required the government to boost its uranium enrichment if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions. Tehran would give two months for the European signatories of the 2015 nuclear agreement to work to ease sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors imposed when the US abandoned the deal in 2018. The parliament also voted to end inspections to ensure uranium was not enriched beyond 3.67%. Site inspections would also be halted.

J Street and others suspect that the timing of the assassination was an attempt by the Netanyahu/Trump collaboration to deliberately encumber the Biden administration, for Fakhrizadeh had always been available as a target. Why at this time? According to the Biden disruption thesis, the killing was designed to throw a roadblock in the way of any rapprochement with Iran. On the other hand, Iran is not interested in escalating its strained relations with the U.S. prior to Biden taking office. It is unlikely to respond to the assassination by killing an American, though Iran might seek revenge by targeting a specific Israeli official. For the same reason, Iran is unlikely to unleash its proxies. However, the incident will make it more difficult for Iran to offer substantive compromises once Biden is in office, particularly if they sweaken the hand of the hardliners in Iran.

However, Michael Koplow, the policy director for Israel Policy Forum, has argued that the Biden disruption thesis is “highly implausible. For starters, surveillance of a person under tight Iranian government protection whom the regime had taken great pains to shield from outsiders, planning the operation to kill him, recruiting the people necessary to carry out the plan, and then successfully executing it, is not something that happens on a whim, a primary impetus for Trump foreign policy. For this to be primarily about hampering Biden would mean that it was all done in a matter of a couple of weeks, which is functionally impossible. 

“Second, making this all about the JCPOA ignores a long history of Israeli and joint American-Israeli operations to disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, from killing nuclear scientists to the Stuxnet virus to the explosions earlier this year in July at Parchin and Natanz,” the latter building seriously damaged, and undoubtedly extending to other incidents that we know nothing about. Satellite images of the area around the Natanz nuclear site, taken by the US-based Earth-observation company Planet, suggest that following the destruction of the main Nantanz building, Tehran moved its centrifuge assembling operation inside a nearby mountain. Jeffrey Lewis, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, identified two tunnel entrances with two roads connecting these tunnels to the old building; the new building was at least as large as the old one. After all, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, had publicly vowed that the new building replacing Natanz would be sheltered in the “heart of the mountains” to protect it from possible attacks.

The thesis that the timing of the assassination was intended to undermine Biden’s Iranian policy before he is even inaugurated “ignores cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on this front during the Obama administration and before the JCPOA was negotiated. It ignores the basic fact that Israel has done everything it can short of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is certainly possible that killing Fakhrizadeh will make it more difficult for Biden to re-enter the JCPOA and negotiate a follow-on agreement, as he has said he is determined to do, and it is also possible that turning up the heat on Tehran to an even hotter temperature will make it easier for him to execute his plan. Whatever the eventual outcome, positing this latest move as being first and foremost about Biden’s JCPOA ambitions ignores a long string of facts. It is noteworthy that of all the people publicly arguing as such, Biden and his circle of advisers are not among this group.”

President Hassan Rouhani promised not to implement the new law passed by the Iranian legislature since it was “damaging to diplomacy”. Mohammadreza Kalantari, Professor of International Relations at London’s Royal Holloway University, stated the issue well. “Despite what the hard-liners in Iran are saying, doing and threatening in the last few days, the public opinion vis-à-vis Soleimani is much different from that of Fakhrizadeh…Iran’s position after the assassination [elevating Fakhrizadeh’s importance] is a tactic and bargaining chip for the upcoming negotiations with Biden. Hence, while Iran retaliated [for] Soleimani’s assassination, as it did in January, it won’t take a harsher stand this time.”

But what will happen over the next three weeks? Trump deployed several B-5H Stratofortress heavy bombers via Israel “to deter aggression and reassure its US partners and allies.” After all, Iran used the release of $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets when its entered the JCPOA, not to improve the domestic economic pressures on its citizens as expected, but to expand its military thrust into Syria as well as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Further, since the Trump withdrawal, Iran has increased its stockpile of fissionable material by a factor of twelve and enriched some of its uranium of the fissile isotope U-235 beyond the JCPOA limit of 3.67 to 4.5%. Now the Iranian legislature has authorized increasing it much further to 20%, a level capable of fueling a nuclear bomb.

How will the Biden administration respond? I have seen two very opposite headlines.

  1. Biden has said he would only rejoin the agreement if Iran was in “strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”
  2. Biden says he will re-enter Iran deal without new conditions, then negotiate a new agreement.

Only one of them can be true. According to Biden’s interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman published on 2 December, only the second one is. The Biden administration is planning simply to re-enter the deal and then to engage in an effort in obtaining a reform package that will entail better and longer term inspection provisions, no longer exclude restrictions on Iranian missile development and end Iran’s extension of its military mischief within Arab states. On the last item, Americans do not and should not expect any progress on this strategic rather than existential threat. That rejection would not reinstate the nuclear sanctions. Sanctions would be lifted but would be held as a sword of Damocles over Iran if there was no progress on the renegotiations. This would comply with Iran’s insistence that negotiations be resumed “without conditions” and that the sanctions imposed by Trump be lifted.

This stricture was not just set down by Khamenei. President Hassan Rouhani indicated that there is room for future discussions with the Biden administration, but only on condition that it returns to the pre-Trump situation and policy. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s on 18 November tweeted that Washington had to lift the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed after withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018. “If the US then seeks to re-join the JCPOA, we’re ready to negotiate terms for it to regain its ‘JCPOA Participant’ status.” Majlis speaker Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf—a Rouhani political rival and potential presidential candidate—reiterated Khamenei’s words, and indicated that there was virtually no prospect of resuming negotiations until the US lifted its sanctions.

On the American side, re-entry is technically easy even if it met a political maelstrom. If does not require Senate approval. After all, the JCPOA deal was never confirmed by the Senate in the first place, though it was endorsed by the House by a simple majority. Further, Trump withdrew from the deal without any legislative vote whatsoever but a vote that required a two-thirds majority to reject the deal. However, the decision to return to diplomacy and re-engagement now faces even more obstacles than the ones faced when JCPOA was concluded. Given the significant increase in distrust of America because its withdrawal took place even though Iran was, at least in appearance, following the terms of the deal, Iran is more wary.  

There are a set of other interrelated problems to a return even to the status quo ante, let alone an expanded deal to include conventional weapons and revolutionary tactics on the ground beyond even the terms that Iran has already set down. The first is domestic, the difficulty in getting Senate majority support in the U.S. even in the unlikely event that the Democrats win both Georgian Senate seats up for grabs. Second, it will be very difficult to corral the Europeans, let alone the Russians and the Chinese, in such an effort at renegotiation even after re-entry by the U.S. after the enormous harm resulting from Trump’s unilateral action. Thus, the United Nations Security Council rejected a US-led draft resolution to extend the weapons embargo under JCPOA. In response, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, threatened unilaterally to do “everything within our diplomatic toolset to ensure that the arms embargo doesn’t expire” on October 18.

Further, without Biden administration action, Israel may be provoked to launch its own unilateral targeted attack against Iran backed by Saudi Arabia. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former security adviser and author of a memoir, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, set out a general critique of the Obama doctrine, arguing that it was based on wishful thinking rather than realism, on naivety and hope rather than caution and genuine fear, on the self-delusion of what he called a decades-old pattern of “strategic narcissism.”

Whether that critique is justified or not, it makes clear that, unlike the unusual interlude of the Trump-Netanyahu partnership, America’s national interest in Iran is different than Israel’s. For Israel, Iran is an existential threat. For the U.S., Iran is a strategic threat both in terms of limiting nuclear proliferation and preventing Iran from becoming a regional power in the Middle East. The latter, for Israel, is instrumental to its survival. American interests and threat perception make it a matter of power politics.

The general strategic critique has been complemented and reinforced by a number of empirical details revealed about the Iran nuclear program since JCPOA was signed. I strongly supported the deal, as did most of the Israeli intelligence apparatus, as better than no deal at all, for it significantly delayed the prospect of a nuclear war in the Middle East and could possibly strengthen the so-called moderates within Iran. It also bought time.

Finally, even if the U.S. re-enters the deal, the U.S. will insist on Iran returning to full compliance, re-opening the issue of limits on Iranian missile capability and discussing Iranian adventurism in Iraq and Syria. Other countries have side issues to negotiate as well. For example, Canada has severely criticized the Iranian inquiry into the downing of Ukrainian International Flight PS752 that claimed 176 lives, including many citizens or permanent residents of Canada.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards admitted that they accidentally shot down the plane shortly after takeoff; given the very high tensions with the United States, they had mistaken it for a missile. Former minister of public safety Ralph Goodale, who represents victims’ families, insisted that “many of the key details of this horrific event” remain unknown.” Given the other issues of grave concern, the death of 176 civilians may seem to be a minor side note. But Iran’s failure to provide full cooperation into the enquiry and in its compensation for the victims certainly does not earn Iran friends.

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