The United States is keen to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and is likely to do so even though Iran is playing hard to get. (This assumes that Ayatollah Ali Khameini indeed wants to renew the accord, to obtain sanctions relief).
The Biden administration’s declared intention of reaching a “better and longer-lasting” follow-on agreement with Iran (focused on more effective inspections, Iran’s regional mischief and ballistic missiles) will be null and void if Iranian demands for full sanctions relief are met. Such a concession would leave the United States without any real leverage on Iran.
Iran will certainly attempt to obtain an American commitment to preventing Israeli attacks against it in line with the Western commitment in the 2015 accord not to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities. Thus far, Washington has refrained from publicly criticizing Israel for its alleged attacks on Iranian targets. But if Washington agrees with Iran on a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel will be put in a difficult position. Does it continue covert action aimed at slowing the Iranian nuclear project, against the wishes of the Biden administration? And if covert operations exhaust themselves, will Israel risk conflict with the United States by directly attacking Iranian nuclear facilities?
Even if the lifting of sanctions gives the Iranian economy only a gradual boost, Tehran’s position in the Middle East will be significantly strengthened and its aggressive behavior across the region will intensify—as it did after the 2015 accord was signed.
Worst of all, an American return to the 2015 agreement in defiance of Israel’s concerns on an issue that is vital to its security will cast a dark shadow over Israel’s status as a key American ally in the Middle East. And it would be wrong to assume that any “compensation” offered to Israel by the United States will include armaments that will improve Israel’s attack capability against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Under these circumstances, Israel’s entente with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia may intensify. On the other hand, it also is possible that the Gulf Arabs will bandwagon with Iran when they see America withdrawing from the region and Israel’s hands tied by the United States. The Biden administration clearly is less committed to the Abraham Accords than its predecessor. The seeds of a Saudi Arabia-Iran dialogue, brokered by Iraq, are already evident.
There also are question marks about the future of ties between Israel and Azerbaijan, a country in which Israel has important strategic assets. However, Baku is growing closer to Ankara, and this could lead Azerbaijan to adopt a less friendly approach towards Israel, especially if Washington disregards Jerusalem.
Such a weakening of Israel’s strategic status, alongside the Biden administration’s friendlier approach to the Palestinians, may increase the latter’s demands on Israel. This could be accompanied by Palestinian violence.
In the face of these worrying trends, the following matters should be uppermost in Israel’s mind:
• Israel must unapologetically explain its diplomatic and security stance and equip its friends with clear talking points—that a return to the 2015 agreement is not only a threat to Israel but will shorten the time for an Iran nuclear breakout and precipitate nuclear-weapons proliferation across the Mideast, including in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; a danger to the entire world.
• It is vital to preserve Israel’s freedom of action. A resolute Israeli position, backed by action against the Iranian nuclear project that threatens to cause nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, will strengthen the Abraham Accords and prevent Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states from moving closer to Iran. Speaking out loudly in opposition to the renewal of the JCPOA is an element in maintaining Israel’s freedom of action and deterrent ability. It is important to do so now in real time.
• Jerusalem needs to prepare for heightened tensions with Washington and attempt to temper this through diplomatic efforts in Congress, in the Jewish community and with friendly groups in the United States. Israel’s stance against the nuclear agreement still can receive considerable sympathy in the United States.
• It is critical that these messages be conveyed by senior professional echelons, without partisan political messaging—Israeli or American. Even if there are disagreements with the Biden administration, the possibility of a U.S.-Israel rift must be avoided.
• Israel should be prepared to defend itself against Iranian missile attacks from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
• Iran wants to surround Israel with missile bases. In this context, Jordan is likely to be a target for Iranian subversion. Strategically, Jordan is Israel’s “soft underbelly.” Therefore, Jerusalem must do what it can to help maintain the stability of the Jordan.
Indeed, it will take a great deal of sophistication and skill to overcome the difficult situation in which Israel finds itself.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. He was the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. He has been a visiting professor at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and Boston universities.
IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.