Offer more for more to stop Iran from going nuclear
The recent escalation in the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran suggests that, like it or not, the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are not sustainable without support from Israel and its Gulf allies, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
If Israel continues attacking Iran after Biden revives the old deal – as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently suggested Israel will do – Iran might decide to abandon the deal, declare war on Israel, or even go ahead and develop nuclear weapons in response. Also, securing follow-on agreements to limit Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal or its proxy war activities would become all but impossible. None of these outcomes is desirable. To avoid them, Biden must go big by striking a deal that eases Israeli and Saudi fears that Iran might get the bomb even after signing a deal, and Iranian concerns that Israel might continue to attack Iran even if Tehran agrees not to stockpile any more enriched uranium.
As part of a new offensive aiming to hinder Iran’s nuclear efforts that began last summer, Israel staged attacks against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, assassinated Iranian scientists and crippled sections of Iran’s electricity grid. These attacks also resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians within Iran. Netanyahu suggested that this campaign will continue even if Washington and Tehran renew the 2015 nuclear deal, declaring “with an agreement or without an agreement, we will do whatever is necessary so you (Iran) do not arm yourselves with nuclear weapons.”
Iran, meanwhile, has built a huge arsenal of increasingly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout Israel and the Arab Peninsula. It has passed thousands of its shorter-range missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is now believed to have more than 100,000 missiles and Iran is helping to make them far more accurate. When Hezbollah last went to war against Israel in 2006, it resulted in 165 Israeli and more than 1,000 Lebanese deaths, hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians on both sides, and billions in damages. A war today would likely be far, far worse.
The regime in Tehran remains desperate for economic sanctions relief, which is why Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was careful not to accuse Washington of complicity when criticising Israel for its April 11 attack on the underground Natanz nuclear facility. Rather than using Tehran’s go-to rhetoric of an “American-Zionist alliance”, Zarif described the attack on the Natanz facility as an attempt to sabotage the negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
Iran is eager to secure a new nuclear deal, because it knows that without fast and comprehensive sanctions relief, its economy, and regime, may soon collapse. Nevertheless, it will not stop its efforts to enrich ever more uranium, whatever the political and economic costs, if Israel continues its attacks.
This means that if the Biden administration wants a lasting agreement with Iran, it is going to have to broaden the appeal of its negotiations to include Israeli and Gulf State concerns. When Israel says it objects to the nuclear deal’s current sunset clauses, it means enrichment must stop. What might satisfy this Israeli demand? The UAE adheres to the “gold standard” of civil nuclear agreements by not enriching or reprocessing nuclear materials that could be used to produce power reactor fuel as well as nuclear weapons. The US has asked the same of Saudi Arabia. Could Iran be convinced to do the same?
Washington’s best hope to get Iran to agree to stop enrichment completely and indefinitely is to offer it more for more. Rather than merely keeping Israel and other regional powers “informed about developments” in its negotiations with Iran to lift some sanctions for some nuclear restraint, the US should broker indirect talks between Iran, Israel, and the Gulf states about how best to turn off the nuclear competition in the region. Certainly, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have more say in whether the bomb spreads throughout the Middle East than Germany, Britain or Russia.
In exchange for a gold standard agreement with Iran, would Israel agree to end its attacks within Iran? Might Saudi Arabia agree to a gold standard agreement if Iran did? Would Saudi Arabia and the UAE agree to buy fewer fighter jets with precision-guided bombs, and buy more defensive systems, like missile defence, anti-drone, and anti-ship weapons systems instead? Could the United States, its European allies, and the Middle East’s regional powers establish a framework for non-nuclear energy cooperation (ie. on renewables, pipelines, grid connections) to make going nuclear even less economically viable than it already is?
More audacious, might Israel agree to eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons arsenal if Iran dismantles its nuclear bomb programme and if the chance of others going nuclear – such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey – is eliminated by gold standard agreements and additional limits?
These, to be sure, are big asks. But shooting for anything less is unlikely to produce any lasting limits on the nuclear planning now in play in the region. If we want more, we need to offer more.