Category Archives: JCPOA

Will Israel accept ‘half a loaf’ on Iran’s nuclear program?

Source: Getty

Despite the election of a zealot as Iran’s new president, Iran and the United States likely will return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear agreement, with only minimal changes. Iran needs to stabilize its government to prevent a popular uprising, in part because of the economic collapse fostered by stringent American sanctions. At the same time, America wants to kick the proverbial “nuclear can” down the road and take the Islamic Republic off its to-do list by claiming victory. 

Read the rest in The Hill.

Israel needs Russia, but it is not a marriage made in heaven

Published in The Hill

How did we reach a point where America’s most important ally in the Middle East is forced to deal with Russia if it wants to act against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon and Syria? Today, all of the Middle East’s major players, from Iran to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel, know that Russia is the “go-to mediator” that has relations across the region’s ideological spectrum and can successfully navigate between opposing sides.  

As Jonathan Spyer wrote in the Jerusalem Post, Russia “maintains open channels …with the main players …which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent. … [Russia is] comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts and divided countries. … Under Biden [the U.S.] shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region.”  

America has outsourced its foreign policy in the Middle East to Russia, which has forced Israel to change its approach to its most imminent threat from its northern Iranian front in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. With American financial help for its anti-missile systems and Israel’s essential intelligence-gathering to advance American national security interests, the U.S. and Israel are indispensable allies. Beyond that, there is little America can do, or is willing to do, since it has decided not to be an active player in the Levant.

The relationship between Israel and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a complex cat-and-mouse game, in which Russia winks and allows Israel to strike its erstwhile allies — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled militias. Yet, Russian interests demand that it also keeps those entities in control of Syria and Lebanon to solidify the crucial gains it attained by supporting the Syrian civil war’s winning side. Russia’s Syria victory allowed it to expand and upgrade its Tartus seaport on the Mediterranean Sea, a warm water port that expands its regional influence toward  Europe. Add to that its upgraded Khmeimim Air Base near the Syrian city of Latakia, and Russia is as much a victor as Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Source: JTA

According to the former head of research for the Israel Defense Force Military Intelligence Division, retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, “Everyone understands that Israel isn’t acting against the Syrian regime [as long as it is not] doing anything that jeopardizes Russian interests. Russia appears to be giving Israel a free hand against game-changing technology transfers from Iran, as long as it plays by its rules.”  

How did Russia become the most influential force in the region?

The die was cast nearly 10 years ago when former President Obama allowed his chemical weapons “red line” to be crossed, choosing not to militarily respond to Assad’s use of sarin gas that killed 1,400 civilians. Instead, Obama chose to abandon Syria and turn over the removal of chemical weapons to Putin, who was more than willing to accept the invitation as a path to becoming the dominant power in the Levant. The Obama administration apparently was convinced that turning Syria over to the Russians would be analogous to America’s experience with Vietnam. Russia thanked Obama and immediately proceeded to change the Syrian war in favor of Iran and Syria.

According to The Atlantic, “Obama’s failure to follow through on (his) threat … has continued to haunt America’s involvement in the Syrian tragedy. The subsequent U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal did not prevent the horror of April 4 [2017] when … Assad’s forces mounted a new sarin attack on civilians. … The agreement and its implementation mechanism were deeply flawed.”  

Israel’s long-term plan of playing Iranian Whac-a-Mole — hitting game-changing military targets as they emerge throughout Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — needs Putin’s consent. Israel’s continuing air campaign must be coordinated with the Russian military to avoid its accidentally targeting Israeli aircraft. Neither Israel nor Russia would like Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system to shoot down an Israeli jet aircraft, or worse, to force Israel to target a Russian missile system in response. That would be a diplomatic disaster. Syrian anti-aircraft destroyed a Russian plane during an alleged Israeli missile strike in 2018.   

The unspoken “quid pro quo” between Israel and Russia is that Israel must settle for half a loaf. It can attack Iranian proxies and their advanced missile facilities, but it must accept a permanent Iranian presence and influence in Syria, just as it has in Lebanon with Hezbollah. In 2017, Russian promises to keep Iran and its proxies 53 miles away from the Israeli Golan evaporated almost from the moment they were uttered.  

Russian pronouncements regarding Israeli actions in Syria and Lebanon are decidedly hostile. According to Newsweek, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov said, “Israel is attacking Hezbollah; Hezbollah is not attacking Israel. … The problem is Israel, not the Iranians. … There is no way we are approving any Israeli strikes on Syria.” But so far, it’s more Russian bluster than any tangible action inhibiting Israeli actions in Lebanon and Syria. 

Israel knows the address is Moscow if it wants to advance its interests and attempt to minimize Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Watching Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Hezbollah’s Lebanese parliament leader Mohammad Raad be given equal access and respect in Moscow this month must have turned a few Israeli stomachs. Then again, Russia is no angel — it delights in any opportunity to diminish the United States. 

The status quo in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq won’t last forever. Iran could turn the screws on Israel at any time if it senses weakness or military advantage. With American willingness to return to the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel could decide at some point to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, prompting a massive Iranian directed attack emanating from Syria or Lebanon. The likelihood that the situation on Israel’s northern border would spiral out of control over the next decade is high. However, Israel and Russia share an interest in not letting things escalate. Russia wants to solidify its gains, and Israel would like to avoid the costs of a major war with Iran.

If Israel’s northern Iranian border gets hot, some would argue that it is in American interests to actively engage in diplomacy to quiet the situation. The last time the U.S. worked with Russia on the northern border, the U.S. trusted Putin to keep Iran from permanently entrenching itself on Syria’s border with Israel. As with chemical weapons, Russia held the cards and did as it pleased, making America look impotent to its allies and enemies alike. With both Democrats and Republicans eager to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, Israel is left to deal with Russia for the foreseeable future.

Does the Biden administration believe Iran is behind most Shia militias?

by Dr. Eric R. Mandel

{Previously published in JNS}

A controversy that occurred during a recent question-and-answer session for reporters by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby may have revealed a troubling insight into the Biden administration’s approach in rebranding Iran’s problematic image. He claimed that Shia militias that are causing so much trouble in the Middle East are not Iranian-controlled. After criticism made its way into the public arena, Kirby partially walked back his statement in a subsequent press conference, agreeing that some Shia militias are Iranian-backed. Was this a Freudian slip, a trial balloon or a real insight into administration thinking?

There is a well-documented history of the Obama-Biden administration misleading the public about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Therefore, it is prudent to ask if Kirby’s first answer to a softball question that should not have flustered an experienced spokesperson was an accurate representation of the administration’s thinking. It’s all part of a strategy to create the illusion that the Islamic Republic is not responsible for supporting the majority of Shia militias throughout the Middle East in the hopes that in preparing the ground to rejoin JCPOA, Iran will be more palatable to the U.S. public.

So a primer on Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias and what the administration is doing is in order.

What Kirby may have been attempting to do is frame the situation as an internal ethnic conflict between Shi’ite groups who are independent of Iranian influence. However, the overwhelming evidence is that Iran’s strategy is to create Iranian-controlled militias in the region’s crumbling nations to exert control and undermine U.S. interests while threatening American allies.

Statements like Kirby’s intensify Israel’s well-founded fears that America wants to pretend it doesn’t see Iran’s malign activity. Instead, the administration chooses to put all of its eggs in the JCPOA basket, focusing on the nuclear issue while ignoring Islamic imperialism. Almost no serious military or intelligence analyst believes the Islamic Republic of Iran does not control Shia militias, such as the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq or Syria (local militias). Iran’s hegemonic ambitions carried out through its proxy network are a threat to be taken seriously.

A not-so-subtle warning for Israel not to attack Iran was posted by the White House in its Interim National Security Guidelines. The administration stated, “We do not believe that military force is the answer. … We will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests.” Is that a warning not to attack Iran in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon?

As in Lebanon, Iran is slowly swallowing Syria and Iraq. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah is the dominant military force while effectively controlling its parliament. Iranian symbols appear everywhere, as though you were walking in Tehran. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) martyr Gen. Qassem Soleimani was commemorated this year throughout the country with a massive statue placed in the center of the Lebanese capital Beirut. At rallies, Lebanese citizens under Hezbollah’s thumb wave the Iranian flag, not the Lebanese one.

What is groundbreaking in Syria is that Iran not only sent its IRGC troops with its Hezbollah proxy but has now recruited former Syrian rebels of local Sunni militias to create a permanent Iranian presence. The blueprint is the Hezbollah model in Lebanon. Iran’s goal is to surround Israel with its militias, proxies and allies, including Sunnis who are easily bought for money, bread or ammunition. Just think of the Sunni Arab Hamas terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip working with Persian Shi’ite Iran.

Alma, Israel’s best source for independent research on its northern border, has documented Iran’s support and control of Hezbollah, Shia militias, and now Iranian-controlled former rebel Sunni militias. This is groundbreaking information. The militias receive orders and salaries from Iran in conjunction with a well-thought-out civilian investment to support a long-term Iranian military entrenchment. In this way, Iran effectively takes control of weak nation-states like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. For example, Iran is heavily involved in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, buying agricultural land, establishing community and educational centers to promote the Islamic Revolution’s values among the local Sunni population.

One should bear in mind that the IRGC’s Quds force’s raison d’être since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s is to spread the Iranian revolution throughout the Middle East while backing almost every terrorist Shia militia to further its goal. Thousands of IRCG soldiers and commanders operate beyond Iran’s borders, leading and strategizing on how to get the United States out of the Middle East and put Israel out of existence.

This is based on the concept of velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist,” which gives absolute religious authority to the Iranian Supreme Leader, who is in charge of the world’s Shi’ites. Shias are thereby obligated to support the Islamic revolution everywhere in the world. The Biden administration should be cautious replacing radical Sunnis like ISIS and Al-Qaeda with extremist Iranian Shi’ism.

More than half of the pieces are in place to surround Israel. Next on the target list is the West Bank and Jordan to surround Israel with the threat of missiles and militias under Iranian control. All in preparation for a day when Islamist Iran unleashes its proxies to devastate Israeli civilians and destroy Israel’s infrastructure, with the hope that Israelis will abandon the Zionist experiment.

Going forward, U.S President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should make clear the obvious. Iran is responsible for Shia militias’ creation and actions that threaten Middle East stability and American soldiers’ lives, and that rejoining the JCPOA should not obscure that fact.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

A Return to the Iran Nuclear Deal Would Increase the Chances of War

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Report}

For the third time in 2021, the US recently flew B-52 bombers along the Iranian coast, in what The Wall Street Journal called “a show of the deterrence (to) reassure allies in the region.”

Unfortunately, both the supreme leader of Iran and America’s regional allies know this is more show than a serious threat. They know US military options under Biden are far off the table, as his administration has repeatedly telegraphed its intention to allow Iran to rejoin the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by merely returning to compliance with the flawed 2015 deal, without demanding any significant changes, despite Iran’s egregious behavior over the last five years.

The administration refuses to acknowledge that Iran desperately wants to rejoin a deal that was skewed in its favor. It will relieve the Iranians’ financial predicament, solidify the regime’s repressive grip on its people, while allowing the pathway to nuclear weapons capabilities the JCPOA granted over time. The administration’s analysis is that unless America enables Iran to return to the original deal, hardliners may be victorious in this year’s Iranian election, marching more quickly to a nuclear weapon. This completely misreads the situation. As Alexander Grinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security wrote, there is no difference between so called “moderates” and hardliners; both want to return to the deal. The only difference is their tactics to do it.

If you want to understand how Israel views the threat of an Iranian return to the JCPOA, just listen to the recent words of the IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Aviv Kochavi. In unprecedented public remarks, he said that if the US returns to the JCPOA, it will be considered an “intolerable threat… we cannot allow it.” He went on to state that he is ordering new operational plans to confront Iran this year. This is not bravado. After years of speaking to experts, military officials, politicians, and intelligence experts, I have concluded that a return to the original JCPOA means a likely regional war.

The only question is tactics. Mossad director Yossi Cohen, a hard-liner on the nuclear agreement and who has had an amicable relationship with Biden, recommends quiet behind-the-scenes lobbying in contrast to the more public approach of Kochavi. Yet both are close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is no wallflower in letting the world know that the current JCPOA is a deal breaker.

No nation, especially the US, should be surprised if Israel decides to act if the “new” version of the JCPOA does not indefinitely end Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. JCPOA opponents’ greatest fear is that Iran will return to the deal, knowing that it will become immune to a future attack from its enemies once it becomes a nuclear power. If the Biden team does not want the region to spiral out of control, they would be wise to listen to the words of one of Israel’s most astute military and intelligence experts, retired Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser, “In a situation where the United States returns to the old nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel will have no choice but to act militarily against Iran to prevent it from manufacturing a nuclear weapon,” he says.

It is that simple, and Amidror also has Netanyahu’s ear. Israel takes Iran’s supreme leader at his word. His goal is the “elimination” of the Zionist entity that must “be uprooted and destroyed.” To Western sensibilities, this seems just incendiary rhetoric. US President Joe Biden must think again about how his decision about how to reenter the JCPOA can make all the difference in the world. No one wants a regional war, least of all Israel. But when faced with the potential for another Holocaust, Israel will not shy away from preemptively acting. To avoid conflict, Biden should not dismiss Israel’s red lines like US president Barack Obama did, paying lip service to their legitimate security concerns.

In 1981, Israel struck the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak. In 2007 Israel struck the North Korean-built Syrian reactor that was undetected by America. Today, Iran can enrich uranium to 90%, deliver a nuclear warhead on its advanced missile system, and is working on compartmentalizing the core of a nuclear warhead. Today America has little idea how far along Iran’s weaponization program is, as the JCPOA didn’t allow intrusive inspections in its military facilities. In fact, the JCPOA didn’t require a single centrifuge or nuclear facility to be destroyed, something JCPOA advocates fail to acknowledge but which Israel is well aware of.

If Biden signs onto a JCPOA agreement that does not significantly change the agreement’s sunset provisions, it will tie Israel’s hands. It will then be forced to make a fateful decision to either live with a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, hoping mutually assured destruction will be a deterrent, or preemptively attack Iran and bear all the risks of retaliatory attacks. The international diplomatic fallout resulting from a preemptive attack will be led by the West, sanctioning Israel for its aggression.

The refrain of the Obama-Biden administration officials is the choice is binary: return to the JCPOA or you are asking for war. They have it backward; returning to this deal without significant improvement means war. They just don’t get it. As Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Atlantic, “Reviving the JCPOA will ensure either the emergence of a nuclear Iran or a desperate war to stop it.”

During the years after the agreement went into effect in 2015, the same team that is now in place in the Biden administration did not enact a single new sanction for their miserable human rights record, growing missile development, support of terrorism, or support of Islamists, despite promises to the contrary. Sanctions relief today will support clandestine nuclear work in uninspected military sites and support Hezbollah and Iranian controlled militias throughout the Middle East. Billions of dollars will return to the coffers of the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Is there a plan to deal with this beyond the hope for diplomatic engagement where the US would have lost its leverage?

Let’s take the Biden administration at its word – that it will rejoin the JCPOA. What does that mean?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that there will be “no significant amendments added before rejoining the agreement.” Translation: the old deal is back with the hope that someday the Iranians may grace the Biden administration with another negotiation to address the failings of the JCPOA and their bad behavior. If you have seen the North Korean-American nuclear negotiations, don’t watch this sequel, it will be the same sad story, undermining American interests and increasing the chance that Israel will preemptively attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israel has contemplated preemptive attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities many times over many years. Some thought it would act in 2007 when a politically manipulated American National Intelligence Estimate claimed Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program, something disproved when Israel stole the Iranian secret atomic archive in 2018. As Oren and Halevi wrote, “The archive confirmed that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program did not stop in 2003 but was merely split into overt and covert channels.” Netanyahu and his former defense minister Ehud Barak were reportedly in favor of an attack in 2012 but were thwarted by their security cabinet.

There should be little doubt that no matter who is prime minister after Israel’s fourth election in two years, the decision on a pre-emption strike will rise to the top of the agenda if the US returns to the deal it struck in 2015. That deal was not popular with Israelis, the American people, or Congress at the time, as evidenced by the fact that Obama never submitted it to the Senate as a treaty, knowing he was 24 senate votes short of approval. So it remains an unsigned document, not a treaty, to this day.

Fast forward to 2021’s hyper-polarization. You may find some Democrats in the Senate who were against the JCPOA in 2015 but may now be more likely to find some rationale to favor the JCPOA, even though its flaws remain while Iran has become an even more dangerous and authoritarian state. Will Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who voted against the original deal, claim in 2021 that some minor reform by the Biden team that does not substantially change the agreement’s essence allow him to vote in favor of a “new” JCPOA agreement? In 2015, he chose not to lobby a single senator against voting in favor of the deal despite speaking an excellent game to anti-JCPOA constituent groups. Will he choose politics over principle this time?

Iran is a revolutionary Islamist country whose core beliefs demand the extermination of the Jewish state. To western ears, this is unfathomable, but it is nevertheless true. Failing to understand the foundational core of Iran’s regime’s founding and beliefs dramatically increases the chance that Israel will need to strike Iran with all of the profound and dangerous consequences it will produce for the region and the world.

So will Israel strike? When will it strike? How will it strike?

Israel knows it will face a multi-front war and need to figure out how to survive a conventional missile onslaught from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iranian controlled Syria and Iraqi militias, and from Iran itself. We saw how devastating the Iranian cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities was last year, and Israel fears these capabilities even with its multitiered anti-missile defenses.

How would the Biden administration respond to a preemptive Israeli attack? Would they act like Henry Kissinger in 1973, telling associates to let Israel get a bloody nose before resupplying to gain leverage for the future?

Israel’s preemption would not necessarily be immediate as it would need to monitor the Iranian nuclear timeline, but once Iran gets close to that line in the sand, it will act. Cyber and clandestine attacks will continue. But conventional wisdom says Israel will need a kinetic attack in Iran to delay its program and repeat when it again comes close to crossing the nuclear weapons threshold again. The new variable is the Abraham Accords and the open relationship between Israel and Sunni states. Israel would likely coordinate defense and intelligence sharing, as the Gulf states share the same mortal threat, but Israel will fear its plans could be leaked and will keep its timing close to the vest.

Administration officials claim that the maximum pressure campaign has failed because Tehran has not rolled back its nefarious activity. The problem with this logic is that for the two and a half years Obama remained in office after the JCPOA went into effect, none of the moderation Obama anticipated happened. Iran became an emboldened hegemon. Today Iran deserves maximum sanctions for its clandestine nuclear work, to keep maximum leverage to negotiate a better deal, and impose a cost on their worsening human rights abuses and their support of terrorism.

Biden has the power to set the region on its course. What will he choose?

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House of Representatives and their foreign policy advisers.

Will Riyadh, Manama be Iran’s next targets?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

It has been seven years since an Iranian member of parliament, who reportedly was close to the Supreme Leader, claimed Iran already controlled four Arab capitals. This occurred after Iranian supported Shia rebels, the Houthis, conquered the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. So what are Iran’s next targeted Arab capitals? 

Iran is more patient than the West, willing to wait years for the right opportunity to pounce. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the capital of the desert Kingdom, is undoubtedly high on the theocratic Islamist Republic’s list, especially as the holiest cities in the Islamic world, Mecca and Medina, are ruled by their rival, the Sunni Saudis. American policy makers underestimate Iran’s desire to export its revolutionary message; rejoining the JCPOA will do nothing to moderate their determination to change the face of the Islamic world by in effect conquering the region.

Today, Iran effectively controls Beirut, Lebanon through its Hezbollah division. Baghdad, Iraq is under Iranian influence through control of the Iraqi Parliament’s pro-Iranian majority, and their affiliated Iraqi militias under the Iranian Republican Guards Corps’ authority. Damascus, Syria is in the Iranian camp because Syrian President Assad acquiesces in Iranian control throughout southern Syria being grateful for them saving his despicable regime, and also powerless to resist their entrenchment there anyway. 

And in Sanaa, Yemen, the Iranian proxy Houthis are on the march again, looking to permanently control the vital Bab El Mandeb passage between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This strategic choke point connects the Mediterranean Sea with South Asia and the Far East through the Suez Canal. 

The Iranians next Arab capital to target could be Manama, Bahrain. Iran considers Shiite majority Bahrain its own. If the Iranians feel empowered by American weakness over time, Bahrain may be targeted by Iran to test America’s resolve to curb Iran’s imperialist ambitions. If this occurred and America did not back Saudi efforts to fight an Iranian incursion on the western bank of the Persian Gulf, a stone’s throw from Saudi territory, it would be a major destabilizing development for the region. The JCPOA’s sanction relief fuels the fire.

The Biden administration is gaining a reputation for itself in the Middle East as willing to talk the tough talk against adversaries, but America’s Sunni Arab allies don’t believe Biden’s crew are willing to walk the walk of tangible actions that match their rhetoric. Timothy Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen said the US is “not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice,” reacting to the recent increase in missile and drone attacks against the kingdom. Yet White House spokesperson Jen Psaki undermined the credibility of that support by saying, “We’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” The Iranians are loving it.

Noting more contradictory messages, according to AP, the State Department warned Houthi rebels to stop killing civilians, “just 48 hours after moving to strike the group from a terrorism blacklist.” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, We urge the Houthis to refrain from destabilizing actions.” I am sure they and their Iranian patrons are shaking in their boots. 

The message is clear to Iran: rejoin the JCPOA, and we will only challenge you rhetorically. In reality, we will turn a blind eye on your missile development, attacks on US allies, undermining Iraq, and your human rights behavior, from targeting gays and women who don’t toe the line, to assassinating your political opponents. Empty rhetorical warnings. Sounds like the Obama administration all over again. 

Just think of the chemical weapons red-line that Syria crossed and Obama blinked, undermining American credibility throughout the world. Biden’s resurrection of the Obama administration’s Middle East team sends at best mixed signals to Israel, while making our Gulf allies feel more vulnerable to abandonment. 

As the former director general of the Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs General Yossi Kuperwasser said, Iran doesn’t believe President Biden would put all military operations on the table. Iran is a good poker player and they know the current administration is bluffing.

BUT THE most prized Iranian Arab capital is Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Supreme Leader and his Shiite revolutionary regime’s primary desire is the Arabian peninsula where Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam are located, and it galls them that are under Sunni control. Shiite Iran believes, and with some justification, that Shiism has been delegitimized by Sunnis over the centuries. The Islamic Republic of Iran believes its destiny is to control the Middle East and beyond, based on a dangerous mix of modern political Islamism with ancient Persian imperialism.

Last year’s devastating cruise missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, emanating from Iranian-controlled proxies in Iraq and Yemen, exposed the soft underbelly of Saudi defenses. Despite its size and strategic depth, Saudi Arabia’s vastness is also a vulnerability where anti-missile and drone defense is a more complex challenge than in Israel, whose Achilles heel is the opposite, having too little strategic depth. 

The message Iran hears from America is that the US is distancing if not abandoning Saudi Arabia. Based on this assessment Iran is going to test American limits to see how far it can go before the US is forced to act and support its Sunni allies. Nothing makes this more explicit then when the administration repeatedly says the nuclear agreement is entirely separate from all of Iran’s other malevolent activity, and sanctions will be rescinded by simply returning to the JCPOA. 

Iran’s strategy is to increase their provocative behavior as a bargaining chip to gain leverage in negotiations with America. For example, Iran will be rewarded in negotiations for stopping Iranian-controlled attacks against Saudi Arabia, knowing that billions of dollars are on their way into the Supreme Leader’s and the Republican Guards’ coffers. They can always return to their aggressive behavior at a more opportune time when America is distracted with other foreign policy challenges. 

Saudi Arabia is a flawed ally seen by the Biden administration as murderers in light of the Khashoggi assassination. In the words of President Biden, it is a “pariah” nation. Yet its strategic location and the free flow of oil is still a Western priority for the stability of the world economy. 

The best way to change the Saudis’ human rights behavior and curb its nuclear ambitions in response to the JCPOA is to quietly pressure the Kingdom behind the scenes, with an implied threat of a distancing of relations if it doesn’t improve its behavior. However, the Biden administration’s public chastisements and public abandonment threats only embolden the Iranians, destabilizing the region by inviting Iran to take more risks against Saudi Arabia through their proxy network. And it will force Saudi Arabia to turn to China as their superpower friend, something not in America’s national security interest. The Chinese are already binding many of the region’s players through their Belt and Road economic initiative.                                                                                                                                                 
It was music to the Iranian Supreme Leaders’ ears when Biden said he “would make it very clear we were not going to … sell more weapons” to Saudi Arabia.” 

Biden has already snubbed the Crown Prince (MbS), stating that he will not speak with him directly, only his ailing father. But MbS is the de facto leader and will likely control Saudi Arabia for the next 50 years.  

But just as I would recommend that Biden speak to MbS, I even more strongly recommend that he talk directly to the only real power in Iran, the Supreme Leader. The claim that the Iranian President has independent decision-making power is ludicrous. It plays into their negotiating strategy, which they used brilliantly to their advantage from 2012-2015 with John Kerry, Robert Malley and Wendy Sherman. 

America’s goal for the Middle East is stability, not the virtually impossible resolution of it many age-old conflicts. The best path for American, Israeli, and allied national security interests is to encourage and nurture the Abraham Accords, which are the most effective non-kinetic counterweight to Iran at this time. 

Desperately trying to revive the current form of the JCPOA without concurrently prioritizing the normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia sends the wrong message to Iran. American weakness increases the chance for Iran to take aggressive actions and the possibility of Shiite control of Saudi Arabia in this generation. That is something not in American national security interests, unless we want to be pulled back into another Middle Eastern conflict.

The writer is the senior editor for security at The Jerusalem Report. He is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House of Representatives, and their foreign policy advisers. His work appears in The Hill, RealClearWorld, Defense News, JNS, Thinc., JTA, the Forward, Israel-Gulf Report, and Israel Hayom among others.

Republicans Should Insist Biden Submit the JCPOA as a Treaty to the Senate

{Previously published by the JNS}

The Obama-Biden administration claimed in 2015 that the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—was a non-binding agreement requiring only executive action. Critics claimed that it was consequential enough that the U.S. Constitution required that it be submitted to the U.S Senate as a treaty. A CNN politics article at the time asked, “If it looks like a treaty, walks like a treaty, and talks like a treaty, is it a treaty? According to the White House, only if the president of the United States says it is.” The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was blunter: “This is clearly a treaty. They can call it a banana, but it’s a treaty.”

So does it still matter that political sleight of hand was needed because the Obama-Biden White House was more than 20 Senate votes short of being able to pass it as a treaty in 2015? The answer is yes. Joe Biden, now U.S. president, intends to fast-track rejoining the JCPOA as one of his major foreign-policy priorities, only requiring Iran to return to compliance with the agreement, acting under the same executive prerogative that former President Barack Obama used.

What is not reported but must not be forgotten is that if Iran re-enters the JCPOA in 2021, it will have no limitations on uranium centrifuge use in just five years’ time (2026). It will have the ability to enrich uranium to 90 percent weapons-grade with international approval in just 10 years’ time (2031). And the pièce de résistance for the Supreme Leader is not a single U.N. nuclear inspector will be allowed at an Iranian undeclared nuclear site in just nine years’ time (2030).

That’s a far cry from the Obama-Biden administration’s promise when they said repeatedly, emphatically, they would not sign a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Let’s leave aside the elephant in the room: that the Obama team chose not to address development of nuclear-capable missiles—one of the three pillars of a nuclear-weapons program.

Just because Republicans don’t have a majority in the Senate in 2021 and failed to stop Obama from implementing the 2015 deal by executive action doesn’t mean they should be mute. They need to follow their constitutional responsibility and point out to an uninformed American public that constitutional issues were sidestepped six years ago and are even more relevant today for our nation’s security, as we are that much closer to the dates the agreement permits the Iranian regime to become a nuclear-armed bully, immune to attack.

Republicans should ask Biden to follow the Constitution’s intent and finally submit the JCPOA for Senate ratification as a treaty. It should not outsource American security interests to the United Nations as was done in 2015, when the Obama White House used a U.N. Security Council Resolution (2231) to bind America to the agreement, which the legislative branch of the American people had not been given its proper opportunity to consider. It may not make a difference, but it will make an important point.

This is not about politics; it is about the rule of law. According to the U.S. Senate website, “the Constitution provides that the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur” (Article II, section 2). The Constitution’s framers gave the Senate a share of the treaty power in order to give the president the benefit of the Senate’s advice and counsel, check presidential power, safeguard the sovereignty of the states by giving each state an equal vote in the treaty-making process,” ensuring that the arguments pro and con would be made openly.

Two wrongs never make a right. Like Obama, Biden is subverting the intent of the Constitution by not submitting the most critical American international agreement of the 21st century to the Senate as required.

So why did Obama not submit the JCPOA to the Senate? According to former Secretary of State John Kerry, answering a congressional question under oath, said that the administration did not do so because, “I spent quite a few years ago trying to get a lot of treaties through the United States Senate. … And frankly, it’s become physically impossible. That’s why. … So we thought that the easiest way to get something that … could achieve our goal was through a political agreement.”

According to Kerry, “We’ve been clear from the beginning. We’re not negotiating a ‘legally binding plan.’ ” This was outrageous then, and it still has relevance today as the Biden administration has said it will return to the same JCPOA without any plans to amend the profound flaws that have become self-evident in the past several years. Republicans should take the constitutional high road and again demand the president submit the JCPOA to the Senate. There should be no political loophole for something so crucial to American national security.

In 2021, much like as in 2015, the mainstream news media has not done their job, educating the public about the constitutional implications of the approach both administrations have chosen. Instead, they have obscured the constitutional argument because of their political sympathy for the merits of the nuclear deal.

As David Rivkin, a constitutional law expert who worked for former President George H.W. Bush, said: “Any international agreement requiring major undertakings on the part of the United States, such as the proposed Iran deal, must be sent to the Senate for advice and consent. …The Constitution is quite clear.”

In 2015, the administration outplayed the Senate leadership in not demanding a treaty vote, turning the “legislation treaty ratification process under the Constitution upside-down. Instead of 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, the bill would require 67 votes to block Obama from carrying out any agreement.”

That’s impressive on a political level, but at the very least, constitutionally challenged. Presidents of both parties over the years have on occasion been autocratic on foreign affairs, asking Congress to give a rubber stamp to the executive branch. However, when something as important and controversial as a nuclear agreement with a leading state sponsor of terror comes to the fore, the correct choice then and the correct choice now is submitting it to the Senate as a treaty, even if the chance to convince Biden is remote.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”