Biden says he wants – through diplomacy – to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran – i.e. a JCPOA ‘Plus + Plus’. The Europeans desperately concur with this aspiration. But the ‘deal protocols’ that his ‘A-Team’ inherits from the Obama era have always contained seeds to failure.
And now, four years on, the prospect of failure seems assured – firstly by the hostages to fortune already offered up by Biden, and secondly (and decisively), by the fact that the ‘world’ today is not the ‘world’ of yore. The ‘chair’ at the head of the table of global leadership is no longer an American perquisite. Israel is not the same Israel, and Iran – for sure – is not the same Iran (as at the outset to the Obama initiative). The world has moved on. The last four years cannot simply be expunged as some inconsequential aberration to earlier protocols, still valid today.
Trump’s mark on America and the world cannot be normalised away. Half of America in these last years has become America First-ers – as Pat Buchanan points out, whatever the establishment believes, in the clash between nationalism and globalism, globalism has lost half of America.
If followed through, the protocols – the implicit procedures – to ‘a deal’, in today’s environment, inevitably will take Biden or Harris, or whomsoever is President, along the path to the protocol’s final point: Should negotiation not produce the desired result, the threat of a military option will be back on the table.
Just to be clear, some hope for that. Most sane people don’t. Likely, at this early stage, the Biden ‘A’-Team just hope it won’t come to that. Hope, alone – however – is no strategy.
What are these protocols, and what are these separate global shifts that will take Biden into that ‘tunnel’ leading ultimately to the ‘military option’ – which is not really ‘a true option’ at all?
The protocols reach back to the ‘Wohlstetter doctrine’ which enunciated that since there was no essential technical difference between peaceful enrichment, and weapons-oriented enrichment; ‘untrustworthy actors’ such as Iran should, he argued, not be allowed to enrich – ever. Many today, in the Israeli-influenced, U.S. foreign-policy establishment, still cling to the Albert Wohlstetter view.
Some Iranians dissented to his doctrine: No, they assured the West (as early as 2003), monitored and verified, low-enrichment could be a trusted solution that would foreclose on the need for the ‘military option’ (Obama, at the time, was seeking to escape the military option, as, at that same time, Netanyahu was advocating a go-it-alone, Israeli attack on Iran).
The latter attack was only just avoided (in 2009) through the steely opposition of the then head of Mossad – the redoubtable Meir Dagan. Finally, Obama bought into the verifiable limited-enrichment idea, and accepted to time-limit the experiment through Sunset Clauses, after whose expiry, the enrichment restraints would fall away.
But the Wohlstetter shadow lingered on, making the Obama protocols accept military action as the due response, were Iran to move within twelve months to a putative nuclear breakout (because Iran was ‘not to be trusted’).
Rightly, or wrongly, even then, Obama understood that the protocol dynamic could lead him towards a military option (with, or without, Israel participation).
What was so problematic about the protocols? Well, the point was that they never addressed the real underlying issues, which, if anything, have become much, much more acute, today. These issues remain ‘unspoken’, yet very present.
The first is that no one – including Israel – believes that nuclear weapons of any sort are a real threat in the Middle East. The Region is just too small – a jostling amalgam of competing sects and interests. It is all too much of a ‘mixing bowl’ that presents no ‘clean’ targets for strategic nukes. Even Israeli ideologues do not believe that Iran would contemplate liquidating 6.5 million Palestinian Muslims to get at Israel.
What frightens Israel is Iran’s conventional missile weaponry. And these were not a part of the deal. (There would have been ‘no deal’ if these were included, given Iran’s memory of recent life under Saddam’s missiles and chemical weapons).
The second occult issue derived from the (real) Sunni fear of a resurgent and energised Shi’a Iran, at a time of long-term decline and the visible exhaustion of the old Ottoman Sunni élites. The power of the Revolution and of subsequent Shi’a renaissance terrified the Gulf monarchies.
This tension is deep, and its’ nature mostly misunderstood in the West: Sunnis for the last millennia have viewed themselves as the natural ‘party of government’ – they were (and still believe they are) ‘the Establishment’, if you like. The Shi’a, on the other hand, always have been disdained (and discriminated against) – they were the ‘deplorables’ (to use the American analogy). And just as the U.S. Establishment loathes Trump and his populist army, similar tensions exist in the Middle East – the Gulf monarchies loathe the ‘deplorables’ and fear them (and fear any inversion of power). –
So they looked for protection from America their own surging (Shi’i) ‘deplorables’. The nuclear ‘bomb’ threat is, and always was, their leverage to get what they wanted from Washington – even if they didn’t really believe in it per se. Ditto for Israel: Weapons and subsidies galore for them, and painful, damaging containment for Iran.
This is the ‘protocol paradox’: For two decades, Washington has been absorbed with stopping a largely illusionary ‘Big Threat’, whilst Iran has quietly been assembling thousands of almost invisible tiny deterrents (as small as the smallest drones) right under everyone’s nose. A ‘Biden’ JCPOA++ diplomatic initiative will resolve none of these under-the-table issues – and will not therefore, be accepted by Israel (or by the Gulf).
A U.S. return to diplomacy – however improbable its successful outcome – simply exacerbates these fears. And the Democrat’s ‘A-Team’ are giving many hostages to fortune: Not content with aiming for a new nuclear accord – limiting enrichment and centrifuges – they want the deal stripped of its present ‘Sunset clauses’; they want restrictions over Iran’s foreign policy; they want Iran’s proxies de-fanged; they want conventional arms control (ballistic missiles); AND they want Israel and the Gulf States’ direct involvement in the process. In short, they have overbid.
Has Washington learned nothing from the Palestinian experience? The American Oslo teams imagined that if the Palestinians could only ‘re-assure’ Israel about its security, Israel would concede a two-state solution – in its own demographic interest. But this was an error: the more Palestinian security Israel got, the more it wanted. It will be the same in respect to Iran – Israel can never have enough.
So what of the new realities?
Israel remains the hub around which U.S. foreign policy wholly revolves. In the period since the Obama team left office, a number of its former members suggested that the Obama failures (i.e. to actuate the two-state objective) had resulted from team members being too Israeli-centric (“playing Israel’s lawyer”, in the words of one). But to repeat, the Israel of today is not the Israel of the Obama era.
There is no Israeli ‘peace party’ any more (with any meaningful political heft). The hard Right and the Orthodox sectors are now the key ‘swing’ power bloc. Netanyahu’s line on Iran cannot be challenged by Israeli politicians today (in fact, even ‘Leftist’/Liberal senior Israeli former officials have hailed the Fakhrizadeh assassination). Ditto for the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu simply has taken these off the Israeli domestic agenda. They have become settled national stances. Were Netanyahu to depart the political scene, would Israeli policy change significantly, given the shifts already entrenched in it? Unlikely.
On Iran, Netanyahu’s explicit JCPOA conditionality lies closer to the Pompeo’s (maximalist) 12-point red-lines, than to anything resembling the ‘Obama approach’. Iran says – definitively – that it will not accept any new conditions to a JCPOA re-launch. Israel says – definitively – it will never accept the JCPOA as it stands.
In Obama’s, and now Biden’s playbook, this has always conceptually opened the window to possible military action (should Iran make a rush to a ‘weapon’ (in the U.S. formulation), and, in the Israeli view, should Iran rush to 90% weapons-grade enrichment).
Given the logic to both U.S. and the Israeli formulation, military action will inevitably distill into serious consideration. Does Biden’s Team ‘A’ believe that a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is realistic, without triggering wider war? If not, is Team ‘A’ then prepared to contemplate wider war – on Israel’s behalf? One hopes not.
Mossad and some western intelligence agencies cast Iran as being on the brink of economic collapse and of political implosion, owing to their perception of an Iran riven by popular disaffection. Russia and China however see Iran in differently: They view Iran both as the pivot to RBI (they help fund components to it), and lying at the centre of a ‘heartland’ north-south energy strategy. They acknowledge Iran’s significant regional security contribution, too – a big disparity in analysis with that of the West, that is rarely considered.
What should be less in dispute, however, is the veritable transformation within Iran. Its political centre of gravity has moved: In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Principalists (conservative) faction achieved an unprecedented victory by winning 221 out of 291 seats in the Iranian parliament. And it is likely that the next President – to be elected in mid 2021 – will emerge out from this faction. Iran has adopted its own Ostpolitik. It is developing its options away from America and Europe, and is more culturally nationalist.
Young and old now, are equally suspicious of both Europe and America – whereas at the outset of the Obama era there was genuine optimism about a rapprochement with the West being possible. That optimism is long gone. Iran’s economy, though not thriving, has adapted. But notably, Iran – literally – has transformed in terms of its conventional military capabilities. This key shift poses the crucial question – why exactly would Iran today want a new nuclear deal? At what price?
Tom Friedman of the NY Times, (no friend to Iran), surprisingly gets it:
“With the assassination presumably by Israel of [Mohsen Fakhrizadeh], the Middle East is promising to complicate Joe Biden’s job from Day 1. President-elect Biden knows the region well, but if I had one piece of advice for him, it would be this: This is not the Middle East you left four years ago …
Yes, Israel and the Sunni Arab states want to make sure that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. But some Israeli military experts will tell you today, that the prospect of Iran having a nuke is not what keeps them up at night — because they don’t see Tehran using it. That would be suicide, and Iran’s clerical leaders are not suicidal.
They are, though, homicidal.
And Iran’s new preferred weapons for homicide are the precision-guided missiles that it used on Saudi Arabia and that it keeps trying to export to its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, which pose an immediate homicidal threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and U.S. forces in the region. (Iran has a network of factories manufacturing its own precision-guided missiles.)
If Biden tries to just resume the Iran nuclear deal as it was — and gives up the leverage of extreme economic sanctions on Iran, before reaching some understanding on its exporting of precision-guided missiles — I suspect that he’ll meet a lot of resistance from Israel, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia.
Why? It’s all in the word “precision.” In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Iran’s proxy militia, Hezbollah, had to fire some 20 dumb, unguided, surface-to-surface rockets of limited range in the hope of damaging a single Israeli target. With precision-guided missiles manufactured in Iran, Hezbollah — in theory — needs to fire just one rocket each at 20 different targets in Israel with a high probability of damaging them all …
That is why Israel [is trying] to prevent Tehran from reaching its goal of virtually encircling Israel with proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Gaza, all armed with precision-guided missiles …“Think of the difference in versatility between dumb phones and smartphones,” observed Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment: “For the past two decades we have been consumed by preventing Iran’s big weapon, but it is the thousands of small smart weapons Iran has been proliferating that have become the real and immediate threat to its neighbours.”
Friedman has it right (in part): The murder of Fakhrizadeh likely was the formal missive from Netanyahu to Biden’s lot to warn that Israel is looking more to the ‘military option end’ of any ‘deal spectrum’, rather than to accept anything resembling a JCPOA-style outcome, at the opposite end of the deal spectrum.
The ‘under-the-table’ issue is Iran’s conventional military prowess, and not its putative nukes. And that is why Israel will insist on maximal pressure – i.e. more (and not less) U.S. extreme sanction leverage – over Iran, to force constraints on its conventional armoury, as well as on its nuclear programme. And that just ain’t going to happen – Iran isn’t going to do that. “That is going to be very, very difficult to negotiate”, Friedman says, “It’s complicated”.
Indeed. Pursuing negotiations according to the old Obama protocols inevitably will take Biden directly to the explicit threat of the ‘military option’ (which exactly seems to match Netanyahu’s intent).
Paradoxically, it is however, precisely this new Iranian ‘smart’ conventional capability that ultimately might deter Biden from the military option path – the fear of igniting region-wide war that could destroy the Gulf States. And it is this Iranian transformation which indicates why the ‘military option’ is not a true option: A U.S. endorsed military option is a ‘red pill’ option for the region.
Any new accord, Friedman warns, ‘will be very, very difficult to negotiate’. Friedman implies that Biden’s difficulty will be in persuading the Iranians. Actually, the difficulty – conversely – will lie with Biden persuading Netanyahu to look truth in the eye: The ‘red pill’ option would destroy Israel too.