Though not without precedent, U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon is important. It is significant for two reasons: First, it was made during ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, and therefore impacts those talks. Second, the word he used was “never.” President Trump emphasized that he could only commit to what happened on his watch.
Although such a promise isn’t legally grounded and doesn’t obligate future administrations, it can’t be erased from the annals of Israeli-U.S. strategic relations, and grants support to another player (i.e. Israel) if the United States doesn’t fulfill its commitment come crunch time.
And now, after that optimistic introduction—a little realism for balance: The Middle East is not a top U.S. priority. Its problems at home demand the administration’s full attention. Meanwhile, America’s biggest foreign policy challenge is the struggle between world powers over control of the global agenda. The United States arrived late to this competition, which has already revived Cold War winds. This has put it at a disadvantage, which stems, in the eyes of many in the United States, from American involvement in endless Middle Eastern wars.
Although the United States isn’t abandoning the Middle East, it isn’t eager to start a new war there either—certainly not a war that can be avoided with a nuclear deal. Let’s assume, however, that the supreme leader in Iran won’t agree to renew the nuclear deal and won’t agree to drink from the same poison cup a second time, in his view, just to suffer another humiliation in another two years. By that time, the ayatollah perhaps thinks, the ruling administration might withdraw from the deal again and reimpose sanctions.
This state of limbo, in which there is no deal and Iran’s nuclear project is moving forward, is dangerous. Iran could become a nuclear threshold state. Such countries have nuclear deterrent power, they are treated as if they were already a nuclear power. In theory, such a reality wouldn’t contradict Biden’s promise, as a threshold state does not possess nuclear capabilities. Yet in such a scenario, despite having fulfilled his historic commitment, Israel’s national security position will have changed for the worse.
Another, even more extreme scenario is that Iran will openly break out toward a nuclear bomb. Can we expect America to take immediate action to stop it? This is entirely uncertain.
It is already evident that some in the United States (a minority, but not negligible) believe that a nuclear Iran will enhance stability in the Middle East because it will minimize the odds of escalation toward war. Supporters of this approach infer that it will resemble the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and believe that just as that competition led to stability because those nuclear weapons weren’t meant to be used but rather just to project power—the same will apply to the Middle East.
Israelis reading this will know inherently that such a reality would be intolerable. A Middle East mired in a nuclear arms race where some of the regimes rely on theological signals for their strategic decisions is far more dangerous than the one we live in. This clarity in Israel, however, doesn’t assure clarity in the United States. Israel must develop independent capabilities for removing the nuclear threat, but it needs American backing. To be sure, an Israeli attack inside Iran could very well spark a regional conflagration. In such a scenario, Israel must have international backing and legitimacy.
To summarize, the president’s visit was important from the perceptual perspective of sharing a historic destiny, and additional American support for Israeli defense projects might also improve Israel’s military capabilities. The memorandum of understanding signed by the countries’ leaders is also extremely important. General declarations such as these, however, lack the practical aspects to ease Israel’s fears. It knows it will still have to fight its own battles.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.