Israel’s Cynical Advice to Biden: No Rush on Iran

After four years of Trump-induced whiplash, it should come as no surprise that other nations have learned that ideological or even factual inconsistency is no longer considered a virtue. What’s true one day — or even hour — may not be so the next. Such is the case with Israeli assessments of Iranian nuclear capabilities. After over a decade of ringing the alarm bell over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, suddenly, Israel’s treating it like a back-burner issue.

As reported in Al-Monitor on Friday, Israel is trying to convince the Biden administration that there’s no urgency to reinitiating negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program because Iran is at least two years away from a bomb. The latest assessment, which comes via the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, estimates that from the moment Iran moves to increase uranium enrichment to 90% levels, it will require two years to build a nuclear bomb. This timeline stands in stark contrast to the one given by American Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who on January 31 said in an interview that Iran just a few months away from being able to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

While it’s worth noting, as the Israelis did, that the IDF assessment concerns a functioning nuclear weapon, while Blinken was talking purely about the material necessary for producing a bomb, this distinction is beside the point.

The IDF’s assessment may be technically accurate, but the political recommendation attached to it is false. The plea for patience flies in the face of nearly all Israeli messaging on the Iranian threat for a better part of a decade. Instead, they are proposing a dubious and disingenuous “wait-and-see” style approach that urges Biden to maintain all the destructive policies of his predecessor, presumably because they are working.

And for Israel, they are. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already anxious about his standing in the eyes of the new American administration, desperately wants to maintain the Trump administration’s “achievements” vis-a-vis Iran, including the degradation of the JCPOA and a return to aggressive economic sanctions. The specter of a dangerous Iran has also facilitated a realignment in Middle Eastern political and security relationships, giving Israel unprecedented acceptance among Arab states. Quick restoration of the deal would render four years of hard work to isolate and weaken Iran merely a temporary victory. More concerning to Netanyahu, it would have the potential to damage his image as shrewd statesman and protector of the realm in the eyes of some voters ahead of an upcoming general election (Israel’s fourth in less than two years).

The timing of this tonal shift surely also takes into consideration the upcoming Iranian presidential election scheduled for this summer. With Hassan Rouhani’s moderate/reformist coalition administration in the late stages of lame-duckitude, there isn’t enough political capital left to achieve a breakthrough without American support. It’s still a little too early to tell in which direction the political winds will blow the next Iranian government, but most indications seem to point toward a pendulum swing back toward the hardliners, who have little or no interest in diplomacy with the West. Absent a breakthrough in the dying embers of the Rouhani administration, supporters of a renewed deal will not have much to offer voters come June.

I feel like a broken record saying it, but the window of opportunity for Biden to gain a foothold in Iranian diplomacy is closing quickly. It took several years of pre-negotiations, negotiations, memoranda of understanding, preliminary agreements, and then more negotiations just to arrive at the final version of the JCPOA. Biden has four months. The Israelis are clearly playing to run out the clock on the current Iranian administration, hoping that the next one will kill off diplomacy for good and cement in place the current state of open hostility and borderline military conflict.

One could easily construct a metaphor here comparing the Israeli recommendation to wait to deciding to put off medical treatment for a deadly disease. In truth, Biden’s task is far more challenging. To succeed, he’ll need to resurrect the Iran Deal — and with it, Iran-U.S. relations — from the dead.