I The Goldenberg Re-entry Thesis: The Iran Nuclear Deal

In December, I wrote four blogs on the Iran nuclear deal:

  1. A Geo-Political Frame for Iran: Europe, US, Israel & the Gulf States
  2. Israel and America versus Iran
  3. The Collapse of the Deal
  4. Revising the Deal

In the two-and-a-half months since, there was an insurrection in America, the installation of a new president and a number of actual initiatives towards revising the deal. Numerous papers and webinars were conducted as well on the issue. However, in spite of the explicitly expressed desire of the U.S. to re-enter the deal that significantly curtailed (but did not over the long-run permanently block) Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for easing economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Iran would have to go back to its position prior to the American withdrawal. However, the Biden administration now wanted changes as well, even though Biden himself had explicitly stated that he would rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as long as Iran returned to compliance. I believe we have moved a considerable distance away from instead of towards such a revival.

For Biden’s position has itself moved away from resurrection and towards reforming the JCPOA. The Biden team wants to extend its restrictions, both the limit on nuclear fuel production scheduled to expire in 2030, as well as other sunset clauses. They also want to expand access to Iranian facilities by U.N. atomic energy inspectors. These are the least of an additional wish-list of other changes sought, such as prohibitions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and withdrawal of its militias from Yemen, Syria and Iraq, All of these had been rejected by Tehran in earlier negotiations. The JCPOA deal was concluded on the premise that even a limited control on Iran’s nuclear program, thus advancing non-proliferation, was better than a more long-term solution, let alone any effort to limit Iran’s conventional capabilities.  

I want to explain why this is the case and offer a new frame for consideration of how Iran can be brought back into a deal, but in a way that will advance a broader prospect for actual peace and not be restricted to simply freezing Iran’s advance towards a nuclear capability. However, first I will put forward the positions of those pushing for re-entry, the Re-entry Camp (RC), and those Opposing Re-entry (OR). The first will be represented by Ilan Goldenberg and his collaborators. (See, for example, Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers and Kaleigh Thomas, “Reengaging Iran: A New Strategy for the United States.”) The latter OR will be represented by Mark Dubowitz who provides a well thought-out policy (in contrast to the Trump impulsive one) of putting maximum pressure on Iran since America unilaterally pulled out of the agreement in May 2018. After dealing with these two positions, a third blog will then position the issue within a larger theoretical frame for moving towards peace and a fourth will offer some concluding commentary.

In addition to several webinars starring Ilan Goldenberg on the Iran issue, he has written a number of articles. For example, in Mosaic he wrote a piece, “How Iran is Already Testing the Biden Regime.” He did so from a background of considerable scholarly and policy experience. Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.as well as a B.S. in economics from the Wharton School of Business. Prior to his CNAS posting, Ilan was the Chief of Staff to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at the U.S. Department of State supporting Secretary Kerry’s failed initiative for a permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Before that, between 2012 to 2013, he served as a Senior Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering Middle East issues. From 2009 to 2012, he served first as a Special Advisor on the Middle East and then as the Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy.

In a recent article (21.12.2020) featuring his views in The Los Angeles Times (“Biden’s test: Rebuilding the Iran nuclear deal Trump tore apart”), he began by acknowledging, what everyone presumably already knows, that one of Biden’s earliest foreign policy objectives of the U.S. will be rejoining the Iran nuclear deal that Trump spent four years “disparaging and gutting.” However, Ilan also recognized that restoring (his word not mine) the agreement, however, “will be among his administration’s toughest foreign policy challenges.”

Why?

  1. There are a plethora of additional sanctions Trump imposed that need to be dismantled.
  2. Biden has a split Senate with even a few Democratic senators suspicious, sceptical or even antithetical to Iran.
  3. The opening for action during the current relatively moderate president’s remaining term is very short since elections are scheduled for May for a transition in June. President Hassan Rouhani’s term will end and there is an excellent chance that he will be succeeded by a more belligerent successor.
  4. Since 2018, Iran has resumed enriching its uranium stockpile and producing high speed centrifuges, shortening the breakout time once again towards producing a nuclear weapon.
  5. The Iran nuclear program is now more technically complex than ever.

The motto of the RC camp was perhaps best summarized by Suzanne Maloney, a former Middle East specialist at the State Department and now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution: “There has to be an approach on this that doesn’t put this off any longer. We really have no choice on this.” The RC carry the conviction that there is no other alternative.

Further, its advocates believe that the current situation in Iran is very opportune.:

  1. The Iranian economy has suffered enormously from the sanctions; it has purportedly contracted 6% over the last three years.
  2. The nuclear program has repeatedly been subject to cyber and conventional sabotage, presumably by the Israelis.
  3. Iran’s most senior nuclear expert, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. was assassinated within Iran itself, as was a top Revolutionary Guard commander in Iraq, General Qassem Soleimani.
  4. The U.S. very recently launched an air attack on a key Iranian installation in Syria.
  5. Covid-19 has been raging through Iran.
  6. As a result of both the economic and the health crisis, “the street” in Iran has become very restive.
  7. The Europeans have been very active in trying to mediate both an American return to the deal and an Iranian reversion to the status quo ante.
  8. The Republican Party is still reeling from Trump’s loss and the aftermath as well as the full court press against Iran in the last few months of the Trump administration with new sanctions on Iranian individuals and businesses in Iran and from other countries that do business with Iran by blocking their access to the international financial system and oil market, even though these efforts have been interpreted by many countries as extreme and disproportionate.

Some advocates in the Return Camp (RC) are sure that Iran has no alternative but to return to following the terms of the deal. According to Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Iran will return to the nuclear deal because their economy necessitates it.” On the other hand, Connor Sutherland (“A War with Iran Would Wreck the American Energy Market,” 20 July 2019) had already argued that Iran could reciprocate. Even though America is now a surplus producer of oil and gas, Iran could use its oil to play havoc in Europe, thus producing pressure on the US. Ilan had written in Foreign Affairs that isolated, small-scale missile attacks or cyberattacks could drive oil prices to a now unthinkable $150 a barrel.

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Under Ilan’s leadership, think tank members at CNAS have recognized that a return to the JCPOA cannot be a smooth ride. Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama have argued that over and above Iran’s demands, the local regional Gulf Arab partners have grown more forceful and feisty in pushing their perspectives. The Abraham Accords, that were seen as giving those states entry to the inner sanctum of the US via Israel, has, in fact, led to them establishing their own vocal pressure track. In the face of greatly increased pressure, they have pushed for a more subtle and more flexible sanctions regime, that would both make its targeting sharper while, at the same time, making them more credible as well as easier to withdraw. Further, they have advocated the inclusion of other traditional tools in a peace-makers tool kit – more information sharing and transparency. Finally, and this is a very major shift, they advocate that something has to be done to curb Iran’s use of surrogates and proxies across the region.

One suspects that Biden’s recent air attack against the Iranian facility in Syria was a probe to see if the US could join Israel in its mabam campaign. Certainly, these revisionist reformers have suggested eight lessons that the U.S. could adapt from the Israelis:

  1. In renewing a diplomatic outreach to Iran, take into account Iranian domestic politics and policies.
  2. Supplement economic pressures with military deterrence measures and attend to how economic pressures intersect with military coercion in its various forms.
  3. Break with rather than seek a continuation or renewal of the past.
  4. Economic prospective measures should be included in a deterrence strategy.
  5. Do not resort to the use of ground forces as such a step will draw the US into a quagmire that will fulfill Iran’s objectives of provoking and exhausting the Great Satan.
  6. Refine American designations, listings and de-listings based on a study of past effectiveness.
  7. In the sanctions regime, designations are far more effective than delistings.. (cf. Abigail Lineman Sanctions by the Numbers).
  8. Allow the United States actually to increase the military pull back in the Middle East while re-emphasizing diplomacy and a smarter assistance strategy. (Cf. Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas Next Defense Strategy).

Robert Malley who was the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group and is now Biden’s special envoy to Iran, spoke about how to re-engage Iran before taking his appointment, and in a discussion with Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas, they set three objectives for the renewed diplomacy:

  1. Prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons period and not just for the next ten or twenty years.
  2. Practice containment with respect to Iranian adventurism in the region;
  3. De-escalate regional tensions, proxy warfare and conflict in the Middle East.

These are clearly goals and mechanisms that add up to much more than just a strategy for renewal, but, in the name of renewal, is an effort to reconstruct a brand new and much better deal that includes both nuclear issues and regional conventional ones. Carried forward in tandem. This is why Iran rejected both the EU and US offers to hold direct nuclear talks. This is why Iran attacked an Israeli ship. Some may characterize Biden’s shift as a betrayal, not only of Americans but of the Iranian people (see Mariam Memarsadeghi in Tablet 28 February). Others find it to be a strategic adjustment that has to be carried forward in stages.

Stage 1: De-escalation and Confidence Building

  • Abolish the travel ban from Iran
  • Remove symbolic sanctions on officials, such as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
  • Support a post-COVID-19 International Monetary Fund (IMF) package
  • Ensure sanctions do not interfere with medical supplies needed to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Stage II  A Few Steps Forward – First half of 2021

Iran

  • Arrests its nuclear progress.
  • Cease proxy attacks on U.S. forces and Arab Gulf oil facilities.
  • Reduce provocative naval actions in the Gulf.

US

  • exercise restraint re its military deployments in the region.
  • Limited relief of U.S. sanctions
  • Buy time for serious negotiations in Biden’s second year.
  • Engage Congress, the Europeans and regional allies in strategic and tactical initiatives.

Stage III

  • Move from a little for a little to more for more.
  • Prepare inventory of trade offs and mechanisms.
  • Intensify and deepen consultations.
  • Negotiate nuclear and conventional issues independently but in tandem.

There is a long and arduous road ahead; there is no short term re-entry on the horizon.

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