Arab states, Israel say they want in on Biden’s future Iran talks

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.”