While the world’s attention has been focused on Ukraine, the Biden administration also has been racing with world powers toward restoring the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran.
After months of negotiations in Vienna, the various sides have indicated a new deal is close, perhaps in the coming days. But instead of the “longer, stronger” agreement originally promised by the US, the deal is expected to do little more than reinstate the original pact, whose key restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity expire in a few years.
This modest accomplishment appears to be the best the Biden administration can hope for at a time when it is restrained by Congress at home, and overwhelmed abroad with the Ukraine crisis and longer-term challenges such as China and climate change.
But it is setting off alarm bells in Israel, whose leaders have grown increasingly vocal in their condemnations of a deal they fear will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“The emerging deal, as it seems, is highly likely to create a more violent, more volatile Middle East,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said this week, repeating his threat that Israel is not bound by the deal and is prepared to attack Iran if needed.
Here is a closer look at the agreement and what lies ahead:
How we got here
The 2015 agreement, spearheaded by former President Barack Obama, aimed to prevent Iran from being able to build a nuclear bomb. It offered Iran relief from harsh economic sanctions in exchange for curbs of 10 to 15 years on its nuclear activities. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful.
Critics, led by then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, complained the restrictions were temporary, not airtight and gave Iran a pathway to developing atomic weapons capability. They also argued that the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, did not address Iran’s non-nuclear activity, including its support for regional proxies and its development of long-range missiles capable of delivering a bomb.
At Netanyahu’s urging, President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, promising a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Iranians. Despite tougher sanctions, that strategy appears to have backfired.
The Iranian government, now under a more hard-line leader who was elected last year, remains firmly in power, and with the deal unraveling, Iran has raced ahead with uranium enrichment and other research far beyond the boundaries of the original agreement.
Why not negotiate a new deal?
Iran has shown little interest in seeking a longer-term agreement. Even if one could be reached, Biden would face a tough time implementing it.
Under a 2015 US law, any new agreement granting Iran relief from sanctions would require congressional approval, a process that would be slow and uncertain. Instead, the White House has signaled it plans to argue that any deal emerging from the Vienna talks would be simply “re-entering” the initial JCPOA.
That could avert a battle with Congress but means that key aspects of the original deal, such as limits on uranium enrichment, would expire in 2025. The administration appears to have concluded that a flawed short-term deal is better than nothing at all.
Why Israel is upset
Israeli leaders fear the brief remaining lifespan of the JCPOA will do little to halt Iran in the long run, especially after the technological gains Iran has made in recent years. It remains unclear whether Iran will even have to give up its stockpile of enriched uranium.
But they also fear that with sanctions eased and billions of dollars in now-frozen assets to be released, Iran would spend more on arming and funding its proxies across the region. These include Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and the Hamas and extremist groups in the Gaza Strip.
“Iran is going to be more able and confident to do things it has already been doing, with more resources and confidence, and perhaps immunity because it signed a very important agreement,” said Yoel Guzansky, an expert on Iran at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank.
What Iran is saying
Iran has long insisted on a complete lifting of US sanctions imposed under the Trump administration as its economy buckles under the pressure of inflation and a currency crash. Tehran has signaled it is willing to return to the agreement's nuclear enrichment red lines but it wants access to $7 billion in frozen assets and the ability to sell its oil exports unhindered.
Iran also insists it has every right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. Israel is widely believed to have its own nuclear arsenal, though it has never acknowledged it.
The Biden administration has issued only limited sanctions waivers and says these moves are aimed at helping facilitate discussions so that Iran returns to full compliance of the accord.
The International Crisis Group, an organization once headed by the top US negotiator, says any success in current talks still “hinges on the political willingness, mostly in the US and Iran, to accept compromises on remaining areas of disagreement, which is by no means assured.”
“After weeks of intensive talks, we are closer than ever to an agreement. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, though,” Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani was quoted in Iranian media as recently saying.
What Israel can do
Guzansky, the Israeli expert on Iran, says the upside of an agreement is that it “buys time.”
He said Israel should use the coming years to beef up its military capabilities in case it has to take action against Iran. “We need to flex our muscles and get this option ready to use,” he said.
He also said Israel should bolster its new alliances with the Gulf Arab states, who, even if they are less outspoken, feel equally threatened by Iran.
Israel recently signed a defense pact with Bahrain, participated with dozens of nations in a US-led naval exercise and is sending for the first time a naval attache to be based at the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
“It’s all connected,” Guzansky said.
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