Israel Should Support Biden’s Efforts to Revive the Iran Nuclear Deal
Reducing Iran’s breakout time and restoring robust monitoring are the most urgent priorities. A return to the JCPOA can achieve these goals.
Reports of damage to Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility and to an Iranian intelligence ship in the Red Sea—whether or not Israel had anything to do with either incident—and Iran’s subsequent announcement that it will increase its uranium enrichment to 60 percent levels, accentuate both the risks associated with Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions and the urgent need to address them.
On the face of it, the United States and Israel share a similar assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat and regional menace but are also strongly committed to the same goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and, in doing so, to prevent other countries from following suit. Neither is so naive to believe that Iran will abandon its military nuclear ambitions or that a nuclear Iran will not lead to further proliferation and instability in the region.
Yet in practice no issue has divided Israeli and U.S. policies and leaders more than the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).
Given this common objective, to avoid the distrust and acrimony between the United States and Israel that accompanied the negotiations and signature of the JCPOA, and—most important—to block Iran’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons, we and other members of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), a nonpartisan movement of more than 300 former leaders of Israel’s security establishment, are convinced that differences in the two governments’ approaches to this common challenge can and should be bridged.
With that in mind, CIS has recommended to the Israeli government that it should support the Biden administration’s two-phase strategy—the first of which focuses on reviving the JCPOA, while the second is aimed at reaching a follow-on “longer and stronger” agreement—and closely cooperate with Washington on the design and execution of both.
The two-phase approach is to begin by bringing both Iran and the United States back into the JCPOA, assuming that Tehran’s recent violations and certain flaws in the implementation of the original agreement (all beginning well before the U.S. withdrawal in 2018) are all addressed.
To recall, the goal of the JCPOA was to ensure that Iran could not acquire fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than a year—a measure known as breakout time. However, failure to implement core provisions, coupled with Iran’s violations since the U.S. departure from the agreement—including its pursuit of faster-spinning centrifuges and more highly enriched uranium—have brought Iran to within three or four months of possessing weapons-grade fissile material. Concurrently, Iran has accumulated a formidable arsenal of delivery systems for such weapons, which it developed in contravention of a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
We have urged Israel’s government to support the United States’ effort to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and ease related sanctions in return for Iran resuming full compliance with all three sets of obligations presented by the White House in 2015 as the JCPOA package. These include the core provisions of the JCPOA itself, U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit development of dual-use weapons delivery systems (including Resolution 2231 of 2015), full compliance with the comprehensive safeguards set by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and (under broadened powers codified in the Additional Protocol) granting IAEA inspectors unfettered access to nuclear sites (without cleansing the sites first), as mandated by Iran’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and reinforced in the JCPOA.
A U.S. return to its former status as a party to the JCPOA would restore its ability to determine when sanctions are snapped back, when sanctions relief is warranted in the context of Iran’s compliance, and its ability to affect decisions concerning the efficiency of inspections and reactions to violations when detected.
In addition, a U.S. willingness to return to the JCPOA and ease sanctions should be premised on the ability to ensure the implementation of key clauses in the 2015 nuclear deal that have been dormant, poorly implemented, or evaded by Iran. The most critical among them are those spelled out in Section T of the agreement, which were designed to verify that Iran does not pursue weaponization activity (activity that, as the nuclear archive exposed by the Mossad has shown, Iran had pursued, in violation of the NPT, prior to 2003), conversion of two facilities that Iran has failed to carry out, and collaboration with the IAEA on demonstrating the peaceful nature of its nuclear activity and ratifying the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA comprehensive access rights.
Despite the shortcomings in the Iran nuclear deal, no alternative diplomatic platform for dealing with the immediate crisis is available. Still, given Iran’s intentionally drawn-out negotiating style, lifting of sanctions should be linked to Iranian rollback of all violations and restoration of the status quo ante of levels of enrichment, quantities of fissile material, and deployment of centrifuges as specified in the JCPOA. But these would not suffice. The arms moratorium on Iran in the JCPOA already expired last October, other obligations are also due to phase out in coming years, and some steps Iran has undertaken since 2018 (such as its mastery of more advanced centrifuges) cannot be reversed. These shortcomings mandate a two-pronged follow-up strategy.
One component of it, which we deem essential, is the Biden administration’s aim to produce a new, “longer and stronger” agreement and to tackle issues including the Iranian missile program as well as the country’s destabilizing behavior in the region. This effort is likely to be complex and protracted.
Pursuit of these long-term objectives should not be allowed to delay or otherwise jeopardize the immediate goals of reducing Iran’s breakout time and restoring a robust monitoring regime—both of which could be achieved in phase one, through a revived JCPOA.
As this second phase is intended to address limitations of the Iran nuclear deal and other urgent regional issues that were left out of the JCPOA, we advised the government of Israel to support this follow-up U.S.-led effort as well and to work closely with the Biden administration on its design and execution.
Such a follow-up agreement should extend the “sunset clauses” of the 2015 deal—including restoring restrictions on arms sales to Iran that have already expired and extending the limits on enrichment research and development that are scheduled to expire in a couple of years—and also tackle Iran’s regional subversion and arming of Shiite militias and other anti-Western forces in the region with advanced weapons.
Given Iran’s negotiating style, and for other reasons, we expect that a phase two agreement with Iran that adequately addresses these and other concerns would not emerge anytime soon. To improve the prospects for the success of the current as well as future negotiations, diplomacy must be complemented with an urgent, clear message to Iran: The United States and its allies remain committed to preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Tehran should be put on notice that Washington and its partners would take an especially grim view were Iran to resume its nuclear weapons program, sustain its effort of equipping its regional proxies with precision missiles and other sophisticated weapon systems or deploy them outside its territory, or continue its other reckless conduct along Israel’s borders and elsewhere across the region. That message assumes its full potency when backed by joint and independent military capabilities that are available as a last resort.
We were pleased to learn that the United States and Israel have revived and shall soon convene the Iran-related senior consultation forum that operated during the Clinton, Bush, and Trump administrations. It is in this forum that views can be exchanged, relevant intelligence and assessments shared, and positions and, if necessary, operations coordinated—all conducted professionally, candidly, and discreetly as befitting such sensitive matters and intimacy among allies.
We have no illusions about the nature of Iran’s regime, its regional ambitions, its hostile behavior, or its advocacy of the annihilation of Israel—and we take its nuclear ambitions seriously. However, we have confidence in Israel’s military prowess and its ability to deal effectively with the security challenges facing the country, including Iran. A multilateral approach under U.S. leadership should be the preference, with a bilateral or unilateral one reserved for a fallback. The use of force should always be an option of last resort.
Tamir Pardo is a member of the leadership of Commanders for Israel’s Security and the most recent director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency from 2011 to 2016.
Matan Vilnai is the chair of Commanders for Israel’s Security and a former deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and deputy defense minister, as well as Israel’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2017.