In his first foreign policy speech since entering the White House, President Joe Biden’s message was clear: “diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy”. These are welcome words for the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) as they begin working with the new US administration to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran. But, even with reinvigorated transatlantic cooperation, they will still face significant obstacles – not least of which will be the responses of Israel and its Gulf Arab allies, which have shown varying degrees of opposition to any international compromise with Iran.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, took a hardline stance against the original agreement, enlisting the US Republican Party in his efforts as he repeatedly clashed with President Barack Obama. Six years on, there is a sense of déjà vu. Netanyahu’s government is once again gearing up to oppose the revival of the deal and seems set to lead a concerted campaign to disrupt the talks, potentially alongside his new Gulf Arab friends. This is a challenge that the US and E3 governments will have to manage carefully if they are to restore the nuclear deal and prevent further escalation in the Middle East.
These complexities are underscored by renewed Israeli threats to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran. For now, such signalling is likely designed to increase Israeli leverage over Washington. However, future military action by Israel cannot be entirely discounted, given its long-standing operational planning and its track record of military intervention throughout the region.
Instead of removing US sanctions in return for Iran coming back to full compliance with the nuclear deal – as envisaged by Biden – Israeli officials are pushing for the continuation of the Trump-era maximum pressure campaign to force stricter limits on Iran’s nuclear programme and to curb its regional activities and development of missiles. These sweeping demands have been driven by Netanyahu’s deep-seated opposition to Iran and his domestic political calculations ahead of Israel’s upcoming elections. But such demands have also been made by actors across most of the Israeli political spectrum, and by many Israeli security officials.
While Israeli officials concede that US sanctions have not changed Iran’s behaviour as intended, they point to its growing economic pain and decreasing funding for Middle Eastern non-state armed groups as a sign of progress. From this perspective, the problem is not the underlying strategy of maximum pressure, but the lack of sufficient time to force Iranian concessions. It is widely believed that, in the final months of the Trump presidency, Israel engaged in a series of covert operations to increase the pressure on Iran and complicate future efforts to revive the JCPOA, through assassinations, sabotage, and cyber attacks.
But this is a high-risk strategy. So far, the main result of the maximum pressure campaign has been to spur Iran to accelerate the nuclear programme that so worries Israel. By seeking to sustain this campaign and block the diplomatic process, Israel is creating a dangerous race to force Iranian leaders to capitulate before it needs to act militarily to halt the programme.
US and European officials rightly see engagement with Israel and other regional allies as an important means of avoiding further escalation and gaining Middle Eastern states’ support for a sustainable nuclear deal. Therefore, their initial instinct will be to mollify Netanyahu. But they need to be clear-eyed about what engagement with Israel can realistically achieve beyond damage limitation.
There is little to indicate that the Israeli government will play a constructive role in support of the nuclear negotiations. In fact, the debate in Israel currently centres on how best to block efforts to revive the JCPOA – with some officials and analysts arguing that engagement with Biden will provide Israel with the most leverage, and others advocating a more confrontational strategy to block American efforts. The Israeli government has yet to decide. But, either way, it will likely remain deeply intransigent, given the mixture of domestic politics and the sense of empowerment Israel has gained through its newfound partnerships with Gulf Arab countries.
To contain the more disruptive instincts of the Israeli government, the Biden administration should privately relay its preparedness to deny offensive weapons to Israel that could enhance its operational capacity in a strike against Iran – such as GBU-57 ‘bunker buster’ bombs – and slow the delivery of KC-46 aerial refuelling aircraft to Israel. The US can maintain this position while continuing to bolster Israel’s defensive capabilities. In addition, US and European officials should be prepared to call out potential future Israeli covert actions inside Iran that undermine their diplomacy (something they were unwilling to do in response to the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist in November – which was widely attributed to Israel).
Alongside this, they should privately make clear that any unilateral Israeli strike on Iran would have a negative impact on bilateral relations, and that the US and the E3 have no interest in being dragged into a military conflict between Iran and Israel that could have been prevented through diplomacy.
In parallel, the US and the E3 should circumvent Netanyahu to engage directly with Israeli security officials. This could include discussions on how best to address Israel’s regional security threats, including those in relation to Iranian positioning in Syria and – in the case of the US – continued support for Israeli defensive systems (which are already among the most advanced in the world). Such engagement will be far from simple, given that the Israeli prime minister has marginalised dissenting views in the security establishment and kept a tight grip on the Iran file with the help of Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, one of his allies. However, there is also a pragmatic instinct within the security establishment and a shared concern that Netanyahu is putting politics ahead of security – which US and European officials should tap into.
Many of those within the security establishment who today criticise the nuclear agreement once supported it as a preferable, if flawed, alternative to military action. While the domestic and regional landscape has changed since then, there is some openness to exploring the sort of two-phase negotiating process for restricting Iran’s nuclear programme that is supported by US and European officials. This approach would position the revival of the 2015 JCPOA as a step towards a broader nuclear agreement that would address other Israeli concerns, including the extension of some technical restrictions on Iran that start to expire from 2023; managing the research and development knowledge that the country has accumulated in the last year; and clarifying past Iranian nuclear activities exposed by Mossad.
In the coming weeks, as the US and the E3 consult with Netanyahu and Israel’s political and security community, they should make clear that reviving the original nuclear deal is still the best means of addressing Israel’s immediate concerns about the expansion of the Iranian nuclear programme. They should also signal their commitment to a separate process to address other shared concerns about Iranian activities in the Middle East. But the US and the E3 should stress that making additional demands in the JCPOA negotiations – as Israel wishes – would only derail the talks. And while the Israeli government may push to continue the maximum pressure campaign, Western officials need to emphasise that this approach has only ever been counterproductive – as demonstrated by the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear programme in the past four years.
An accompanying effort to win over Gulf Arab states, who have similar concerns to Israel, will be another important component of any strategy to contain Israeli opposition. This effort should reflect a desire to prevent Netanyahu from establishing a regional alliance in opposition to the nuclear negotiations, a factor which will influence his willingness and ability to challenge international diplomacy.
Reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme that prevents a regional arms race must remain the immediate focus any international diplomatic effort, given its strategic importance. It is also a more attainable goal than changing Iran’s regional behaviour or halting its missile development. Dealing with Israel will be a complex and, at times, thankless task. But Western capitals should prepare for this effort, looking beyond current Israeli sabre-rattling to make a case for a stand-alone nuclear agreement that can help prevent direct conflict between Israel and Iran.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.