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Short Read

America’s Approach Towards Iran

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The Biden administration has a lot on its plate from handling the Covid19 pandemic and climate change, Russia, China and other highly important issues.  President Biden also seeks to negotiate with Iran in order to stop it from producing a nuclear weapon.  What should President Biden’s strategy towards Iran look like?  It is a crucial matter which might bring a nuclear arms race to the Middle East and maybe even a nuclear war.  Israel and Arab states are also very concerned about Iran and about its regional ambitions and long range missile project.  All of that has to be addressed by negotiation while retaining a military option should the talks reach a dead end.

We also have to be mindful of the upcoming elections in Iran and the possibility of a new supreme leader in the near future.  This too will have a major effect on Iran’s policy and the way the United States and others  will handle Iran.  The Biden administration, with support from its allies, including those in the Middle East, can try to reach an agreement with Iran.  The United States has to build an anti-Iranian coalition aimed at deterring and containing Iran.

Going back to the JCPOA?

On 21 January 2021 White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “The president has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern.  Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for that to proceed.”

The Biden administration will have to determine if it can revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) first signed in 2015 by the Obama administration.  The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement on 8 May 2018.  The Obama administration put a degree of pressure on Iran, mainly through the use of sanctions in an attempt to maintain the agreement.  Trump then upped the ante and imposed crippling sanctions, calling it “maximum pressure”.  Even then, the United States did not actually do everything it could to put the “maximum” pressure on Iran.

Both Obama and Trump sought the same goal: to make Iran negotiate with the United States and accept US terms.  During its talks with Iran, Obama’s team had to make compromises such as leaving out Iran’s missile program and its aid to non-state actors in the Middle East.  Trump did not entertain talks with Iran because the latter demanded to remove the sanctions and refused to negotiate with Trump on a new deal.  Both Obama and Trump expressed the threat of force but they did not use it as part of the effort to urge it to negotiate.  The Biden administration is likely to have a similar approach and will choose sanctions over force.

President Biden served in the Obama administration as Vice President, for eight years.  Although he did not agree with all the decisions that were made then by his boss, he will probably act more like Obama than Trump, not only in his personal style but also in adopting a less aggressive approach.  The fact that Biden picked several former senior official from the Obama administration to serve in top positions in his administration suggest that. Biden, unlike Trump, also strongly supports coordinating US policy with its allies, mostly European powers.  However, going back to the JCPOA might not be easy at all.

The Israeli perspective

Israel sees Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to its own survival.  Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in early January 2020 that “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” In mid January 2021 Tzachi Hanegbi, a Minister close to Netanyahu, threatened that Israel might bomb Iran’s nuclear sites if the United States re-joined the nuclear deal.

Israel will hold elections of its own on 2 March 2021, for the fourth in the past two years.  Netanyahu’ is likely to exploit the division amongst his rivals.  He may also manage to be seen as the one who defeated the Covid19 pandemic, in Israel at least, where already a large part of the population had received the vaccine.  Therefore Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009 may well be re-elected.  This would allow him to continue to call the shots about Iran in Israel while trying to influence other states to adopt his position.

Netanyahu has concerns that the Biden administration will return to the JCPOA or negotiate a new agreement.  It may not be successful if Iran insists on having its exaggerated demands met as a condition or re-engagement.  For example, as a precursor to re-joining the talks, Iran wants the United State to compensate it for sanctions already imposed.  This approach might not work well with President Biden.  The talks between Iran and the United States might break down, something Netanyahu and many others in Israel would like to see.  If the talks continue, Netanyahu will try to prevent another agreement or at least make it much tougher on Iran.  Biden might actually ignore Israel’s requests, especially if he feels they will be an obstacle in reaching a deal with Iran.

The Iranian and the Arab perspective 

Presidential elections will take place in Iran in 2021, although of course it is Iran’s Supreme Leader who will decide the nation’s policy.  Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is quite old and is not in good health.  If he passes away, there will be a fight on who will replace him.  If that does happen, Iran’s radical faction may succeed in appointing their own man (and it will be a man) as supreme leader.  They may also win the forthcoming elections in their own right.  If that happens, they are unlikely to talk with the United States, claiming that it could not be trusted, following Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.

For those who are concerned about Iran, the best outcome will actually be the toppling of the regime itself.  Its mismanagement and corruption, together with its focus on supporting proxies was at the expense of taking care of the Iranian people.  The Iranian economy is in bad shape, which has brought waves of unrest such as those seen in late 2019.  Perhaps the next wave can undermine and even bring down the regime?  As long as the Iranian regime fears its own people it can be used against it.

It is not just Israel that is worried about Iran and its nuclear capabilities.  If Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon, it will be one of the biggest game-changers ever seen in the Middle East. Its likely effects would be greater destabilisation across the region as well as pushing other states to match Iran’s newly-found nuclear potential.  Saudi Arabia has already implied that it will obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran gets one; Egypt may follow suite.  The Middle East will become a much more dangerous place.

Is there a military option against Iran?

A wider element of America’s strategy in the Middle East/Central Asia includes removing its military presence in Afghanistan, where it has been engaged since 2001.  Afghanistan is a direct neighbour of Iran and shares a lengthy border which could have permitted the United States to open a front against Iran.  The United States has a presence in another state near Iran, Iraq.  However, the US military will not launch an attack from Iraq or Afghanistan and actually not from any other US base in the region or outside it.  The United States will do almost anything to avoid getting into another war in the Middle East.

It does not matter to the United States if a war with Iran would be less contentious than a confrontation with China or even North Korea.  Iran is much weaker than China and it lacks North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.  If attacked, North Korea is also likely to devastate South Korea with massive conventional bombardments, putting US troops stationed there at risk.  Either way, the Biden administration will follow previous US administrations and will stay away from the military option. Even a limited American strike against Iran could easily deteriorate into war.

Only under certain circumstances, such as Iranian provocation that would cost American lives, would the United States strike Iran. Even then, the goal would be to limit the conflict as much as possible.  If Iran continues to attack US targets, following the rise of the extremists there or because of miscalculations, then there might be a wider confrontation between the two states.

Should Iran get very close to producing a nuclear weapon, it is highly likely that Israel will carry out a series of attacks to neutralise the threat.  Some Iranian nuclear sites are underground but Israel has new missiles (the 1200lb Rampage and the upgraded Spice bomb (2,000lb)), both of which can penetrate some underground facilities.  Despite all the associated risks, including the loss of air crew and aircraft, Israel may well attack Iran, hoping to receive significant US military and political support in the process.  President Biden cares about Israel and he seeks to help Israel against Iran, but he will probably strongly oppose such a raid in the first instance.  Israel may of course attack without US permission but much will depend on the success of the Israeli attack and the ramifications such as on how Iran retaliates.

Possible Iranian Responses

If the United States and/or Israel attack Iran, the latter would have a number of options open to it should it wish to undertake an overt military response.  It could launch its ballistic missiles at Israel and across the Gulf to hit regional American bases as well as some of the Arab Gulf states.  A priority target might be Iran’s arch-nemesis and important US ally, Saudi Arabia.  Arab states that may not have assisted the United States /Israel in striking Iran could still be targeted with Iran inflicting serious damage in the process.

In addition to overt military action, Iran may also retaliate through a closure of the Strait of Hormuz.  Although the United States and its allies have been preparing to prevent such an attempt, the Iranian Republican Guard has recently demonstrated its ability to seize oil tankers from international waters.  Iran could also use its proxies against the US and Israel.  Globally, Iran could also launch terrorist and cyber-attacks, even on US soil.  All told, Iran’s ability to conduct a wide range of potentially devastating counters means its rivals will think twice before striking Iran.

Hezbollah is Iran’s most powerful protégé.  It has the ability to fire more than a 1,000 rockets and missiles a day into Israel and can also maintain this intensity for some time. Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets and missiles which will test the Iron Dome system to its limits.  Israel will invariably respond by launching a massive ground, air and sea offensive but will require US logistical support in fighting Hezbollah.  Estimating just how much Hezbollah would be willing to risk in a tough fight with Israel will be a significant factor for both Israel and also for the United States when they develop any plan to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

Deterring Iran by creating an alliance

The Biden administration will try to reach a new agreement with Iran but it may take time.  Actually the Biden administration might prefer to postpone negotiations with Iran and tackle more urgent priorities instead.  Unfortunately, Iran might not wait for Biden.  Iran is eager to lift the yoke of economic sanctions which continue to weigh heavy and this will require negotiating with the United States.  If there is a delay in negotiations, Iran might initiate provocations, including accelerating its production of a nuclear weapon.  The Biden administration will condemn Iran for such actions and might impose further sanctions.  The United States may also threaten using force against Iran but this would be as a last resort.

The way forward for the United States is to build an anti-Iranian coalition that goes well beyond the JCPOA.  This may well prove to be the best option for the Biden administration; the strategy does not seek war but aims to contain and deter Iran, including the production a nuclear weapon.  One of Trump’s last decisions as president was to include Israel in the US central command, CENTCOM that oversees operations in the Middle East – previously Israel was in the US European command.  It is unclear yet if the Biden administration will uphold it.  If it does then maybe it will increase Arab–US–Israeli cooperation against their common enemies, mostly Iran. Israel and Arab nations, such as Gulf states, will continue with their military cooperation such as sharing intelligence.  Israel can also sell weapons to their new found allies – maybe the Iran dome?

The United States and Israel have carried out multiple military exercises together such as the “Juniper Cobra” drills, aimed against Iran and its proxies.  Israel and the UAE have trained together in the past, as part of a joint exercise with the US military.  This could happen again, more often and in a larger scale. It might lead to joint exercises that will involve other Arab states as well.  It will build trust as part of establishing an anti-Iranian coalition.

Two Gulf Arab states, Bahrain and the UAE agreed lately to recognise Israel.  The final days of the Trump Administration saw the approval of selling the F35 to the UAE.  This is a highly advanced aircraft currently only operated by Israel in that part of the world.  President Biden might re-examine the sale agreement, a $23 billion deal.  It is quite a consideration for the new administration, which seeks to help US economy to recover from its low point, following the Covid19 pandemic.  The UAE also signed a separate agreement “to buy up to 18 drones, the second-largest sale of U.S. drones to a single country.”

Israel can try to disrupt the deal. However the UAE’s reliance on American close assistance to operate the F-35 means that if the UAE turns against Israel and the United States, then the Emirati F – 35 fleet would soon be rendered ineffective by a lack of American support.  Equally, if the UAE fully develops its F-35 force, it may help to convince the UAE to accept, or even help, an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear program.  This would come with enormous risk but the UAE, with its F-35s, will be better able to defend itself against any Iranian retribution. Something that may befall the Gulf State even if it does not assist Israel.

Conclusion

What should President Biden’s strategy towards Iran look like?  The Administration will try to contain Iran and its nuclear program, with or without signing a new agreement with this rogue state.  The new deal should include not only Iran’s nuclear program, but also its ballistic missile program and regional ambitions.  Negotiations might not work and Iran might insist on producing a nuclear weapon.  Then Israel might have to attack, with or without US permission.

Although Iran breached the JCPOA, it is now demanding multiple concessions in exchange for accepting the international community’s restrictions once more.  This poses a number of problems in an already complicated relationship.  If Iranian radicals win the 2021 presidential elections, the chances of a new deal might melt away.  The Biden administration can impose heavy sanctions in order to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, homing to avoid taking military action let alone an American one.  However, attacking Iran might be needed, as a last resort.  The United States also has to build an anti-Iranian coalition to deter and restrain Iran, as a possible alternative to using force.

Ehud Eilam

Ehud Eilam

Dr Ehud Eilam has been studying Israel's national security for more than 25 years.  He has served in the Israeli military and worked for the Israeli Minister of Defence as a researcher.  Eilam has published six books in the U.S. and U.K.  His latest books is 'Containment in the Middle East" (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).  He lives in Massachusetts and can be contacted at Edudei2014@gmail.com

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