Some of the Iran nuclear deal’s fiercest opponents are urging President-elect Joe Biden to let them have a say — and maybe even a seat at the negotiating table — in future talks with Tehran.
Representatives of some Gulf Arab countries as well as Israel are raising the idea in private and public conversations in the run up to the start of the Biden administration. After all, ambassadors of three of the countries argued in interviews with POLITICO, they have more at stake than the United States or the other countries who crafted the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran. Bringing them on board, they add, would beef up the U.S. leverage over Iran.
But it also could cause a clash with the Biden team, which has said explicitly that it would seek to revive the Iran deal, which President Donald Trump left in 2018 to emphatic cheers from Israel and some Arab states. Those same countries would prefer that Biden forget the original deal and start afresh in hopes of inking a tougher agreement that could even cover Iran’s non-nuclear programs, such as its ballistic missiles and use of proxy militias. And that’s to say nothing of what Iran’s Islamist leaders, who have defied and baffled U.S. presidents going back four decades, will agree to do.
The loosely coordinated Arab-Israeli calls are a reminder of how much the policy landscape has shifted since Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president. Among other things, some Arab states have recently agreed to recognize Israel, which could give their demands more weight in U.S. foreign policy circles and might allow them to more explicitly join hands in lobbying the White House.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the well-connected United Arab Emirates ambassador in Washington, argued that in crafting the 2015 deal, U.S. officials operated as if they had to choose between European allies, who were involved in the negotiations, and Middle Eastern partners, who largely were cut out.
It’s a “false choice,” he said in an interview. “America should maintain strong relations with all its partners in Europe and the Middle East and show up with both groups at the negotiating table.”
The UAE is one of four majority-Arab countries that recently agreed to take steps to normalize their relationship with Israel. The agreements, also struck with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, in some cases follow years of back-channel coordination, often to counter Iran. They are a profound shift for a region that has often been defined by Arab-Israeli hostilities.
On Monday, Otaiba and his Israeli and Bahraini counterparts took part in a “private, off-the-record” discussion with members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the prominent pro-Israel group confirmed.
Such once-unthinkable gatherings are becoming more common in the wake of the new Arab-Israeli accords, and the envoys have used the moment to discuss their views on what to do about Iran and the nuclear deal.
In mid-November, the same three ambassadors appeared together in a virtual session with The Economic Club of Washington, D.C. During that event, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer noted that in the past, when the United States pursued the six-party talks with North Korea, U.S. regional allies Japan and South Korea were “at the table.”
“So the first thing I would say to the incoming administration, sit with your allies in the region, listen to us,” Dermer said. “Try to work out a common position, which I think is possible, not only to deal with nuclear issues but also to deal with the regional aggression of Iran.”
In the long run, Israel may choose not to be involved in face-to-face negotiations with Iran — a country whose leaders routinely threaten Israel’s existence. But close U.S. consultation with the Israelis could give them a voice in the process.
In an interview, Bahraini Ambassador Abdulla al-Khalifa noted that his country is particularly frustrated with Iranian interference in its internal affairs. Iran has supported Shiite Muslim groups that have challenged Bahrain’s Sunni rulers. Earlier this month, the Trump administration designated one such group, Saraya al-Mukhtar, as a terrorist organization.
“It is important for us to be a part of the conversation, because it is us who have a front row seat to any development, and it is us who will have to endure all the consequences,” al-Khalifa said.
The 2015 nuclear deal lifted many U.S. and international economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on the country’s nuclear program. The agreement, which took years to put together, involved the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. Its official title is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and officials frequently refer to it as the JCPOA.
The deal came about in part because of secret U.S. talks with Iran. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations in some four decades, following Iran’s Islamist revolution. The secret talks involved meet-ups in places like Oman, a Gulf Arab country that has had good ties with both Tehran and Washington. A handful of U.S. officials, among them Biden’s future national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, used military planes, service elevators and other tricks to hide their rendezvous with Iranian representatives. Word of their talks startled and upset some of America’s other Middle Eastern partners.
Israel and some Gulf Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, worried that the agreement didn’t do enough to eliminate the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The Arab states in particular were unhappy the deal didn’t cover other Iranian activities in the region, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress to express his opposition to an agreement he insisted “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
Trump voiced similar rationales when he decided to abandon the agreement and restore U.S. sanctions on Iran in May 2018. In the years since, as European countries have failed to give Tehran meaningful sanctions relief, Iran — which has always maintained its nuclear program was meant for peaceful purposes, not a bomb — has slowly backed away from its commitments under the deal, too.
Biden has said he’ll take the U.S. back into the deal (meaning he’ll lift sanctions) if Iran returns to compliance. Then, Biden and his aides say, the U.S. will pursue follow-on negotiations that would address the shortcomings of the original plan and possibly cover some non-nuclear issues. Their language has suggested that Iran needs to indicate an openness to follow-on talks before the Biden administration will rejoin the original deal.
A Biden transition team spokesperson declined to comment for this story. But the Biden team’s messaging also implies that Iran has to take the first step. Iran, meanwhile, wants the U.S. to lift sanctions first. This divergence isn’t insurmountable — former U.S. officials say negotiators can work out a simultaneous pattern of actions that can make both sides happy.
“There are multiple sequencing options that should satisfy all participants,” said a former State Department official familiar with the issue. “Sequencing should not prevent the U.S. and Iran from achieving their stated objectives of returning to the JCPOA.”
Among Arabs and Israelis, however, there’s skepticism that Iran will meaningfully engage in follow-on negotiations once the original deal is restored. In the skeptics’ view, this means Iran will strengthen economically while still hanging on to pieces of a nuclear program it can resume once key parts of the original deal expire.
As things stand now, the U.S. is in a much stronger position vis-a-vis Iran than it was back in 2015, Arab and Israeli officials say. Iran’s economy has been severely weakened by the sanctions as well as the coronavirus pandemic. The country also has been hit in other ways, including America’s killing of a top Iranian general and a strike, likely Israeli, that killed a top Iranian nuclear scientist.
As Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, put it in an interview, why return to the original agreement when you can demand more now?
“If you go back to JCPOA 1.0 in hopes that you will negotiate and get 2.0 it’s never going to happen. You’re giving up all your leverage,” Dermer said.
Added Otaiba: “We all want a deal. Nobody wants a deal more than we do. We benefit from the stability that a new deal would bring. Why should we give up on having a better deal that makes us more stable?”
Iran’s leaders have indicated an eagerness to rejoin the original deal; just last week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “If sanctions can be removed, we shouldn’t delay, not even for an hour.” However, there’s little if any sign Tehran is interested in starting from scratch or having new parties at the table.
In a statement sent after this story was first published, the head of the media office at Iran’s mission to the United Nations said the country “will not renegotiate an accord already agreed to after careful and detailed back-and-forth.”
“To contrast, Iran has also always publicly said that we are ready to negotiate regional issues, but only with neighbors and countries in the region,” said the official, Alireza Miryousefi. “Iran does not believe that there is any need for foreign powers‘ presence at that dialogue, foreign powers who are literally thousands of miles away from the region. The sale of deadly weapons to countries in the region by these trans-regional powers has always been one of the most important causes of insecurity and problems in the region.”
For now, the president-elect’s transition team is barring contacts with foreign officials, an effort to avoid even the perception of foreign government interference that rocked Trump’s tenure. So Israeli and Arab officials say they have not been able to plead their case to Biden or his top aides in person.
But people in Biden’s orbit are aware of the Arab-Israeli desires, and they view them with some skepticism.
They bitterly remember how hard Netanyahu worked to scuttle the 2015 nuclear agreement, making moves many of them deemed downright insulting to Obama. While they are not ruling out some accommodation, there’s concern that Israel and the Arab countries might act as spoilers during future talks, not constructive partners.
Many Biden aides and others watching the process also disagree that going back to the original deal is a misstep or that it will mean giving up leverage. They point out that the U.S. and its partners can snap back sanctions on Iran when they want.
Some also worry about Iran’s political calendar — it holds presidential elections next year — and how that could affect Tehran’s desire to talk
“Renegotiating everything is just unrealistic to anybody who actually talks to an Iranian,” said one former U.S. official familiar with the issue. “The idea that we have leverage to just start over is nice in theory, but in practice there’s no way the Iranians will go for it. If Biden comes in and that’s the stand, the Iranians will be convinced that there’s no serious engaging with the U.S.”
In public writings and comments, Sullivan has indicated an openness to the broad concept of greater international involvement in talks with Iran. But he’s put it in the context of at least trying to restore the original nuclear deal first.
“If Iran decides they’re not going to come back into compliance in return for the U.S. coming back into compliance, then we have an opportunity to go to the rest of the world and say, ‘You’ve got to join us now in really showing the Iranians that there is no other choice but to deal with the program through this diplomatic option,’” Sullivan said during a forum hosted by The Wall Street Journal. “We believe this is a viable strategy.”
In a Foreign Affairs essay he co-authored with Middle East expert Daniel Benaim, Sullivan wrote that, aside from tackling the nuclear deal, the United States “should also push for the establishment of a structured regional dialogue” to resolve tensions between Iran and its neighbors.
The essay warns that “it is a recipe for failure to hold the opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear enrichment hostage to maximalist regional demands,” but says that a “phased” or a “loosely connected” approach could prove fruitful.
How Biden responds early on to Israel and the Arab states’ calls for more involvement in the Iran file could set the tone for his relations with those countries throughout his presidency.
He should learn from the past, some analysts said.
Under Obama, “the mindset was to freeze them out because their opposition was baked into the system,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It is no longer practical to freeze them out, nor should it even be desired. After all, what the Biden administration should want is not just an agreement that the Iranians accept but one that will last.”