Israel Is the Wrench in Biden’s Iran Policy

The U.S. president-elect wants to reengage with Iran, but Israel has other plans.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

A cutout of an Israeli soldier
A cutout of an Israeli soldier is seen behind signs pointing out distances to different cities at an army post in Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on Nov. 28. JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—If one thing can be learned from the assassination of the top Iranian nuclear scientist outside Tehran last Friday, it is this: Israel and the incoming Biden administration are on a collision course over Iran policy.

Analysts in Israel chalked up the timing of the operation, widely attributed to Israel’s Mossad, to the coming change of administrations in Washington and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to return to the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015. Outgoing President Donald Trump withdrew from the arms-control agreement in 2018, with backing from the Israeli government, citing flaws in the deal.

In the wake of the recent U.S. election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear he opposes any reengagement with Iran. While there is near consensus in Israeli political circles with Netanyahu’s hard-line policy on Iran, some former Israeli security officials hold a more nuanced position.

“There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said earlier this month.

In a joint appearance with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem earlier this month, the Israeli premier went further, expressing gratitude for Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign of increased sanctions on Iran and defending Pompeo’s list of 12 demands to Tehran.

“Your 12 points set the standard for what Iran needs to do if it wants to be treated like a normal country. Those who claim that your 12 points are either unnecessary or unrealistic simply want to give Iran a free pass. … The tyrants of Tehran deserve no free passes,” Netanyahu said.

Biden and his presumptive foreign-policy team have already indicated that “maximum pressure” and Pompeo’s “12 points” for Iran—including halting its nuclear programs, missile development, and support for regional proxy militias—will not be part of the new diplomatic push.

Biden has called Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal a “self-inflicted disaster” and said that once in office he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.” Both Biden and his incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken have indicated the United States would rejoin the agreement (and almost certainly provide some sanctions relief) if Iran resumes abiding by the restrictions set out in the accords. That arrangement would serve as a basis for follow-on talks aimed at “strengthening and extending” the nuclear deal’s provisions and other areas of concern.

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials view such a move as a repudiation of all the ostensible leverage garnered over the last two years under Trump. Last week’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, considered the father of Iran’s military nuclear program, was likely not a coincidence.

“The timing has to do with the situation that emerged as a result of the [U.S.] presidential elections and the fact that … Biden was a part of the team that cooked [up] the deal with Iran, and he has said during the campaign that he intends to go back to the deal,” retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, a former senior Israeli military intelligence officer, told foreign journalists on Sunday.

One unnamed Western intelligence official went further, telling Israel’s Channel 12 on Saturday that the assassination marked the “last chance [for Israel to strike a blow against Iran] before Biden enters the White House and returns to the nuclear agreement that will give the Iranians immunity.” (Israeli intelligence officials are known to use the cover of “Western intelligence officials” when discussing sensitive matters in the media.)

The Fakhrizadeh operation was only the most recent and palpable manifestation of Israel’s displeasure with Biden’s planned diplomatic outreach—if not an outright attempt to sabotage it. In line with Netanyahu’s public warnings, Israel does not want to see any concessions granted to Iran.

“My message to the Biden administration is: do not rush to the table with the Iranians,” retired Brig. Gen. Jacob Nagel, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu, told Foreign Policy. “The Iranians are under pressure. If they want a negotiation with the U.S. on the deal you can’t say, from the beginning, that the Biden administration should atone for what Trump did [in pulling out of the nuclear deal]. It’s the opposite. Iran should atone.”

Critics of this approach point out that the pressure Iran is under has not translated into tangible behavioral changes—quite the opposite. Since 2018, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has grown twelvefold, missile development work has continued, and its support for regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East rumbles on.

“Iran is far from falling to its knees, it has not folded,” Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, the outgoing head of Israeli military intelligence’s research division, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in October. Shalom justified the “pressure strategy” on Iran and highlighted the holes in the original nuclear accord. But he stressed that Tehran had “shortened its jumping off point to the bomb” since Washington’s withdrawal from the deal.

“The nuclear agreement, despite its shortcomings, also had space to influence other issues,” Shalom added. “It has not yet been proven that the exit from the nuclear agreement served Israel.”

Israeli government officials have ostensibly rejected this more nuanced analysis by their own national intelligence assessor. One Israeli government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was “no daylight” between Netanyahu and his political rival (and coalition partner) Defense Minister Benny Gantz on the question of “maximum pressure” on Iran.

Other Israeli security analysts have pointed to positive elements in the 2015 nuclear deal, even as they acknowledged its flaws.

Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the former military intelligence chief and now the head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told Foreign Policy that he rejected the two polar analyses surrounding the original 2015 nuclear accord: It was neither “the best non-proliferation agreement ever reached … [nor was it] a second Munich Agreement, or maybe a second Holocaust … like some in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and elsewhere” would have people believe.

Yadlin credited the agreement with rolling back Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon from two months to one year, and (contingent on Iranian compliance) possibly a decade. “It is better than the situation was in 2015 … and this is something you can’t underestimate as an achievement,” Yadlin added.

And yet, it would be wrong for the Biden administration to go back to the original 2015 nuclear agreement, Yadlin said, laying out a litany of concerns that must be addressed in any new negotiation: Iran’s ballistic missile development and nuclear weapons research, along with a harsher international inspection regime and a 20-year extension to the deal’s sunset provision.

The question for the Biden administration is whether such a deal with Iran, along the lines demanded by Israel, is even possible.

“I find it difficult to resolve the Israeli, American, and Iranian positions, which are almost impossible to bridge,” Raz Zimmt, a former Iran watcher in the Israeli military, told Foreign Policy.

“Biden wants to go back to the nuclear deal [in some fashion], and the Iranians won’t agree without sanctions relief—so the strategic decision in Washington is whether you pay to get Iran back into compliance. The Israeli position is wishful thinking and doesn’t correspond with reality.”

Zimmt did allow that Netanyahu likely “truly believes” that maximum pressure will, in the long term, lead to Iran’s capitulation—“not Pompeo’s 12 points, but something significant.” Yet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would almost certainly never relent.

“Khamenei may believe that giving up all these things—a threshold nuclear program, missiles, and regional proxies—is more a threat to the regime than economic collapse.”

The Biden administration, upon taking office in late January, will inherit this escalating policy dilemma—and in extremis, as Zimmt put it, “will have to essentially choose between Israel and Iran.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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