The concrete possibility that Iran is not interested in returning to the 2015 nuclear deal—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions, or JCPOA—and merely wishes to attain sanctions relief through negotiations (“result-oriented negotiations,” as the Iranians put it) is now clear to decision-makers in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Furthermore, they now also understand that the current situation is untenable as Iran is no longer checking its nuclear program, and is willing to be bolder in its use of force, including harassing, attacking and hijacking ships.
As Europe (and the IAEA) is still heavily invested in the negotiations track, it must fall to other players to deal with the implications. This means the United States and Israel should swiftly plan and develop a strategy that should address three distinct issues:
- Crisis planning and management, as part of moving Iran from its sweet spot of never-ending negotiations, and the application of pressure to get the situation under control both in the nuclear realm and regional security one.
- China’s role vis-à-vis Iran, as its influence could be paramount if it chooses to engage on the matter. Russia has also an important role to play, as it is still shielding Iran from scrutiny by the IAEA.
- Creating a better situation to deal with a “no deal” reality.
To that end, Israel and America should first agree on a set of priorities and acceptable outcomes. Even if Israel is not thrilled with the prospect of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, and the United States is wary of using non-diplomatic means to prod Iran from its current trajectory, there should be room for understanding and executing a shared strategy.
In order to have the best chance of success, additional Arab partners should be approached, consulted, and integrated into the strategy, as they are major stakeholders in the Iran issue and possess additional tools and capabilities vis-à-vis China and Russia (oil and gas), as well as against Iran.
A major part of the strategy should be addressing China’s role and engaging it diplomatically to use its influence on Tehran. China’s involvement may come at a certain cost, but ultimately, it is also in its best interest to keep the region from escalation. Gulf nations should play a major role in engaging China since they represent another vital interest for the middle kingdom.
As the United States is disinclined to wade into the non-diplomatic realms, it should nonetheless aid Israel in applying pressure on Iran and preventing it from further expanding its destabilizing role in the region. A U.S.-Israeli agreement on these issues could lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive strategy involving additional American partners in the region.
Such an arrangement would allow both sides to act while not surprising each other and could be the cornerstone for a new U.S. security architecture in the Middle East, as it plans to turn its attention to the Indo-Pacific. Dealing with Iran that way may also give the U.S. insights and experience in “gray zone” operations that are necessary for strategic competition elsewhere.
At the very least, the planning and strategizing process could put both countries on better footing in order to address a possible aggressive Iran under its new hardline leadership. After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the drawdown of combat operations in Iraq, Iran may see an opening to cement its grip on the region and further escalate the pressure on U.S. partners in Iraq, Yemen the Gulf, and possibly even against Israel.
Israel should also focus on diplomacy with the two other world powers and describe, in no uncertain terms, the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran:
- The countries of the region would see Russia and China as culpable for their economic and strategic support for Iran if the regime emerges from the current situation as a nuclear actor. Iran is already viewed as an existential threat to many countries in the region, and they would not easily forget that.
- As Iran grows in confidence, the leverage of Russia and China on Tehran would decline. Iran would emerge as a competitor to Russia’s oil and has already tried to get involved in the Caucasus (threatening Azerbaijan). Regional instability would also undermine Chinese interests in the region, including much-needed energy supplies and strategic projects that are part of the “Belt and Road” initiative.
- Israel should press Russia to back the IAEA demands to verify and investigate probable violations of the NPT safeguards. As long as Russia prevents any action vis-à-vis Iran by the nuclear watchdog, brazen Iranian activities will increase, and Russia may find it very difficult to get Iran to adhere to the NPT (not to mention the JCPOA) if it is left unchecked.
Iran has shown it is willing to go to great lengths and endure economic and humanitarian hardships (sanctions and rampant COVID-19 surging through the country) in order to avoid making concessions in the nuclear realm. Iran has also doubled down on its regional activities targeting various countries with missiles, drones and cyber attacks while providing its militia proxies with advanced weapons and financial aid.
All of the above shows that Iran would remain a regional threat and pose an enduring challenge to the security of the region, as well as the interests of the United States, Israel and their partners.
But Iran is not invincible, and its rise is not preordained; its resiliency is suspect, it is an oil and gas producer in a decarbonating world, and the climate crisis is likely to hit it hard. Showing Iran an unyielding and united front that is willing to act against aggression, while offering it a diplomatic solution (backed by China and Russia) to truly address its nuclear program and make sure it never gets a nuclear weapon, is still the best option.
The United States and Israel should not shy away from developing both lines of effort.
Lt. Col. Yochai Guiski (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He served in various roles, including Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel’s Strategic Planning Division and the Ministry of Defense.