The US has no strategy for ending the standoff with Iran

Michael Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  June 3, 2023

Far from undoing the damage done by Trump’s violation of the Iran Nuclear Deal, Biden is making a bad situation worse by continuing to support to a hardline and belligerent Israeli government without knowing its strategy towards Iran.

U.S. President Joe Biden sent his key Middle East advisor, Brett McGurk, on a quiet trip to Oman on May 8. The purpose of the trip was to try to revive efforts to re-establish a nuclear agreement of some kind with Iran. Oman is the conduit for most U.S. communication with Iran.

The trip further cements a shift in Biden administration tactics in recent weeks. Once protests in Iran over the so-called “modesty police” killing of a young woman, Masha Amini erupted, the United States put all diplomacy with Iran on the back burner. Now that the protests have receded and Iran, weighed down by crushing sanctions that have done little to harm the government but quite a bit of damage to the Iranian people, has moved forward with its nuclear enrichment program, the U.S. has decided to resort to diplomacy again. But it is doing so without recognizing its own blunders along the way, without addressing any of the reasons diplomacy has failed so far, and without recognizing the changes that have taken place on the ground. 

Israel’s unpredictability

Among the documents that were leaked in February by disgruntled, far-right airman Jack Teixeira was a CIA memo regarding their assessment of a potential Israeli attack on Iran. According to the document, “The CIA does not know what Israel’s plans are in the near future, and what its intentions are. Israel may wait to see what the reaction of the United States and the international community will be to the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding Iran’s nuclear program and whether the Iranian supreme leader… will agree to enrich uranium to the level required for a nuclear weapon…” The memo also notes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces difficulties in launching an attack on Iran but would like to do so. Onderkant formulier

Biden, unlike most of his predecessors, has not made it clear to Israel that the U.S. opposes Israeli unilateral action. While the U.S. has always said publicly that “Israel has the right to defend itself,” they have generally communicated that an Israeli attack would have serious repercussions for the U.S. and that Israel does not have a green light from Washington for such attacks. 

The double-talk leans away from that kind of restraint under Biden. Yet, despite cheerleading from the White House and its representatives that seem to go as far as to urge an Israeli attack, it remains very unlikely that Israel would launch a major military operation against Iran without explicit approval from Washington, and certainly would not keep such an act secret from its patron. If for no other reason than that Israel would need a lot of unqualified U.S. help in pulling off such an operation and in dealing with the ramifications, especially if anything goes wrong, it will need to coordinate with Washington to some degree. 

But the fact that the main branch of U.S. intelligence does not know what Israel might do speaks volumes about the deteriorating relationship between the far-right Israeli government and the more moderately conservative one in Washington. Regardless of how many pledges of “unshakeable” bonds and the “sacrosanct” nature of U.S. aid; regardless of the massive amount of diplomatic capital Biden spends, Netanyahu will remain hostile to even the mild, strictly rhetorical, rebukes the U.S. occasionally issues. His preference for Republicans makes it impossible for Biden to ever please him, which, of course, raises the question of why Biden constantly trips over himself trying.

But the fact that the U.S. does not know Israel’s thinking means it must act with care. Biden’s recent futile efforts to broker a Saudi-Israeli agreement showed his desperation to get a policy win with Israel ahead of the election next year. Conversely, given the astounding weakness of Biden’s candidacy, Netanyahu may believe that time is on his side regarding Iran. 

Iran’s improving position

While Israel has continued to bluster and threaten, and the United States has simply run around in circles with no strategy or even a good grasp of the situation, Iran has been improving its position. Iran continues to insist it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon, but it has also enriched uranium well past the point of civilian use in response to ongoing and tightening sanctions. Although the U.S. and Israel use this as evidence of Iran’s intention to build a nuclear weapon, the terms of the nuclear deal of 2015 which the U.S. broke without justification dictate that this is the way Iran must respond to the sanctions. It’s their only way to respond in a tit-for-tat fashion to the sanctions, so Iran uses it. 

Iran’s more hardline government under Ebrahim Raisi has taken the position that, since the U.S. broke the nuclear deal without any cause, it must assure Iran that it will not do so again. It’s a reasonable argument, but it is also one that is exceedingly difficult for any U.S. administration to comply with. It’s difficult to craft an agreement that a future administration that cares nothing for the U.S.’ ability to enter international agreements, as Donald Trump did not, can’t break. It would be difficult for a competent U.S. administration acting in good faith to do that, and the Biden administration has proven demonstrably that it is neither of those things, even if it is better in both regards than Trump. 

Instead, Iran has worked to reduce tensions with its neighbors. The recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia was the culmination of years of diplomacy, brokered first by Iraq and then, at the end, by China. This wasn’t just an embarrassment for the United States — it altered the strategic playing field in the region. 

The recent readmission of Syria to active membership in the Arab League after it was suspended in 2011 is another step toward easing tensions between the Arab states and Iran. While Syria’s return is a sensitive topic in the Arab League, and there remains a lot of unease about it among the other member states, it still helps to soothe a sore point between Iran — Syria’s closest ally — and the League. 

Iran has moved recently to thaw ties with Egypt as well. Those efforts are in the initial stages and there is a long way to go and many years of antagonism to overcome. But Iran’s public welcoming of those efforts, also brokered by Oman, reflects a new tactic from the Islamic Republic. By warming relations with the U.S.-allied Arab states — of which Saudi Arabia and Egypt are certainly two of the most prominent — they complicate efforts to threaten, much less launch, military operations against Iran.

The U.S. public is deeply opposed to another Mideast war after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, the United States must consider the wishes of Saudi Arabia in particular much more carefully. The prospect of a full-blown war in the Gulf, whether Iran would be battling the U.S., Israel, or both, was always distasteful to the Saudis. They simply have too much to lose by being caught in the middle of that battle. Now, with Iranian-Saudi ties warming, even tacit Saudi acquiescence to a military strike against Iran — such as by permitting Israeli forces to cross its airspace, which is the bulk of what lies between Israel and Iran — is probably off the table. 

Iran is also advancing its preparations for defending itself. They have been working to construct a facility near the Natanz nuclear site—which has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli sabotage efforts and would be one of the main objectives of any military campaign — that is deeper underground. Moving the Natanz facility would then make it impossible to bomb from the air, even with the advanced bunker buster bombs the U.S. has given to Israel. Iran has also recently tested a new hypersonic missile which would be capable of threatening Israel and other countries and would be almost impossible to defend against with counter-measures.

All of this serves to complicate Israeli and American threats of military action against Iran. But in the short term, they raise the danger of an Israeli attack. The longer Israel waits, assuming things develop as they seem to be now, the more difficult an attack will be. And this explains why the United States is pressing diplomacy, even though there is little hope for any progress.

The U.S.’ reluctant pivot back to diplomacy

The Biden administration came into office with a clear opportunity to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, they dragged their feet until that opportunity was gone while not just maintaining but doubling down on Trump’s failed and murderous “maximum pressure” policy, which tries to force Iran into submission through crippling sanctions that don’t actually hurt Iran’s rulers but wreak economic havoc on its populace. 

When Biden did finally try to engage Iran, the new, more hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi had taken over and yet Biden expected to be able to craft a deal that gave Iran less sanctions relief, imposed stricter monitoring and reporting requirements on Iran, and made no effort whatsoever to acknowledge that it was a unilateral and baseless U.S. decision that brought us here, let alone even try to find a way to reassure not only Iran but the U.S.’ own allies that there would not be a repeat of the U.S. simply breaking its word. 

It was a bizarre continuation, with different language, of Trump’s ignorant policy. While Trump’s insane decision remains by far the main reason we are where we are now, the Biden administration has made a bad situation worse. Only now is it starting to realize what kind of problem it has on its hands as a result, and Biden and crew still show no sign of grasping how they have contributed to the problem. 

So Brett McGurk, one of the most hawkish figures in Biden’s inner circle, went to Muscat to try to restart talks with Iran through Oman. The plan now seems to be to try to convince Iran to accept certain limits on its enrichment program in exchange for partial sanctions relief. Meanwhile, Biden hopes to appease Israel with some incremental steps with the Saudis, in exchange for which Israel will refrain from an attack on Iran unless there is a significant change in the status quo.

Neither of these ideas is going to work. I explained last week why Netanyahu couldn’t compromise even if he wanted to, which he does not. Moreover, Israeli diplomats met with U.S. officials at the White House on Thursday to express their concern over an interim deal. The Saudis have set an extremely high bar in their wish list of weapons and development of their own nuclear capacity in exchange for normalization with Israel and they don’t have any reason to throw any carrots toward Washington or Jerusalem. They can afford to wait. Iran, for its part, also has little reason to accept minor half-measures, especially as its relations with China and the Arab states are improving. 

Ultimately, the United States is going to have a choice. We can either continue on the course we are pursuing, which will lead to no deal, will eventually see Iran become a nuclear breakout state (that is, a state that has everything it needs to build a bomb, but has not yet done so), and will force the U.S. try to manage Israel’s response to that state of affairs. Or we can find a way to reinstate the general conditions of the JCPOA and create a mechanism where either U.S. law or Europe can ensure some sort of penalty with real teeth if either side abrogates the agreement outside of the dispute resolution mechanisms that would be part of the deal, as they were before. 

The latter is obviously preferable on every level. It serves Iranian, American, Israeli, and Arab interests. But the Biden administration, to date, has given no indication whatsoever that it is even willing to consider such an obviously sensible course. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics