(February 3, 2021 / JNS) The question now is not if the United States will return to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but when. Notwithstanding reports that the Biden administration has too much on its plate right now to move up talks with Tehran as a priority, it certainly seems like that process is underway. That would send Washington back to the table for the first time since an agreement was concluded in 2015.
The Trump administration withdrew from the pact in May 2018, citing inherent weaknesses and loopholes on such issues as Iran’s ballistic-missile program, snap inspections of nuclear sites and sunset clauses, as well as its malign behavior in the region. In tandem with that decision, it imposed a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, including a series of sanctions on an array of Iranian political, quasi-military and commercial figures and front organizations.
The regime in Tehran has clearly been waiting for the day these policies will be reversed and has positioned itself steadily over the past few months by playing hard-to-get. Reverting to form and week by week, it has generated new developments designed to make Western negotiators (the “P-5+1” made up of the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, plus Germany) nervous.
First, it was increasing enrichment of nuclear fuel to the 20 percent level, followed by reports of the installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear installation. That was followed by reports that Iran had begun production of uranium metal, which can be used as a component in nuclear weapons.
All of these developments are in breach of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement touted as keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but in fact only sidelining it because of sunset clauses that are getting near to expiration by the day.
Less than two weeks ago, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on a list of seven conditions laid out by Tehran that must be met before it returns to a negotiating table. Among them, the demand that the United States lift all sanctions imposed against it; that there be no connection made between Iran’s nuclear program and other issues, such as its ballistic-missile program or its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; that it will not permit other regional actors to enter into the JCPOA discussions; and that it refuses to back a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Already, angst on the part of our P-5+1 partners is being felt. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Iran “is in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity,” due largely to the previous administration’s maximum pressure policy. He called for a quick resumption of the JCPOA talks.
That begs a question: If the original agreement, in which France was a participant, was as watertight as it was marketed at the time, why is Iran moving headlong into developing nuclear weapons?
The answer lies elsewhere, in plain view. As the treasure trove of documents on Iran’s nuclear program—ferreted out of Tehran by Israeli agents in 2018 show—the Iranian regime never had any intention of exiting the nuclear-weapons business to begin with. With stealth and a measure of patience unknown in the West, Iran has been willing to wait out “maximum pressure” while raising the temperatures of its threats and its international bullying, hoping that appearance of its headlong drive to produce a weapon will instill enough trepidation for the P5+1 to prematurely offer a basket of incentives, including the removal of sanctions, to return to the table.
The Biden administration has said that before there is any resumption of talks with Tehran, it must return to full compliance with its assurances on enrichment, the installation of centrifuges and the production of uranium metal, among other provisions.
But so brazen is Tehran in believing that the P5+1 is eager to have it back at the negotiating table that the leading Iranian nuclear official recently told the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) that in order to prevent “any misunderstanding,” it should avoid publishing “unnecessary details” of its nuclear program.
Much has been written of late about how much things have changed on the ground, and that lessons have been learned since the JCPOA agreement was announced five years ago.
Time passes quickly: Sunset clauses agreed to in 2015, after which Iran can proceed with its objective of producing nuclear weapons, are now five years closer to expiration. Iran continues to pursue a ballistic-missile program unfettered.
It also continues to build up Hezbollah’s arsenal with shipments of precision-guided missiles and to be present in Syria, where it has no business other than to expand it hegemonistic objectives. Its terrorist friends and proxies—Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen—are also beneficiaries of its cash and weapons. It is seeking to establish a naval presence in the Mediterranean. And the regime remains a serial abuser of the rights of women, LGBTI, juvenile offenders and, of course, its political opponents.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by that the Iranians are not making genocidal threats “to level Tel Aviv and Haifa,” and calling for the “Zionist cancer” to be excised. Policymakers in London, Paris and Berlin may pass this off as simply rhetoric for home consumption, but Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere take it seriously. If an Iranian bomb were to become a reality, these threats would dramatically affect the stability of the entire region.
Iran’s intentionally ratcheting up its threats and its nuclear program tells us precisely about its real intentions. If it feels pressure to agree to talks on an “improved JCPOA agreement,” in its mind it needs to be wired in such a way as to repeat what happened in 2015—gain advance concessions in exchange for talks, and then to prevaricate and obfuscate its way into another loophole-filled agreement that will be just enough to satisfy our nervous partners in Europe.
Iran has demonstrated—and not only in these past five years—that it cannot be trusted. Our objective should be to put it permanently out of the nuclear-weapons business. It is on that objective that our eagerness should be focused.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis on JNS.org.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
The U.S. killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s subsequent mishandling of its Covid-19 response have left the country in political and economic disarray as its flailing regime gropes for answers.
Two years into a deep recession triggered by the return of U.S. sanctions, Iran is facing further economic struggles as the Coronavirus promises to shrink the country’s trade and slow its production and services. The death of Soleimani and his close advisors, meanwhile, has left a power vacuum in Iran’s military that has weakened Iran’s momentum in Iraq and in its other spheres of influence, such as Lebanon and Syria.
When Iran first began to exhibit an outbreak of the virus in late January, the regime responded with denials of the pandemic’s scope and predictable accusations that the U.S. both created the virus and attempted to spread it further through medication and equipment. Iran continued to encourage large religious gatherings, continued flights to China, and diverted funds and medical supplies that could have been used to contain the virus. With accurate numbers hard to gauge because of the regime's obfuscation, Iran to date has sustained at least 86,000 cases of Covid-19, more than China and more than any Middle Eastern country other than Turkey. A number of senior officials have tested positive for the virus and at least two members of parliament have died of it. To exacerbate matters, more than 300 Iranians have died after consuming methanol in response to a fake remedy that has spread across Iranian social media.
Soleimani, Iran’s second most powerful figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, had used brutal violence to repress civic movements in Iraq and Lebanon that threatened Iran’s grip on their legislatures. He had also used his security machinery to consolidate a land corridor through Syria and steer the course of the war in that country.
Iran’s recent antagonistic naval maneuvers around U.S. warships demonstrate a desire to project strength in the wake of the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani and his core power structure. Eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) speed boats with mounted machine guns harassed American ships in the Persian Gulf. The IRG also launched its first ever space launch as part of a program that could hasten the country’s ballistic missile development. But without the onerous sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran, the regime would undoubtedly have poured tens of billions more dollars into military spending, as evidenced by the dramatic spike in their military budget in the years following the 2015 nuclear deal.
These crises have thrown into sharp relief some of Iran’s most habitual tendencies: seizing political opportunity rather than improving conditions for their own population; deferring to the religious establishment, including religious practices that ignore social distancing; and, invariably, propagating anti-Semitism. Iran’s health ministry this month sponsored a Coronavirus cartoon contest in which ghastly anti-Semitic illustrations figured prominently.
Meanwhile, the Iranian press has promoted reports claiming “Zionist” culpability for the virus. “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of Coronavirus against Iran,” state-run Press TV asserted last month. Of course, this did not stop Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi from conceding that Iranians would be permitted to use a Coronavirus vaccine developed by Israel if “the treatment is unique and there is no substitute.”
Prior to the eruption of the virus, protests swept the country in the wake of the IRG downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January. The following month, parliamentary elections devolved into chaos after the hardline Guardian Council barred thousands of moderates from running. As the crises in Iran mount, the country’s economic, political, and health security may continue to founder. Given the uncertainty of Iran’s future and the threat the regime poses to Middle East stability and Israel’s existence, much hangs in the balance.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
The European Commission - the European Union’s powerful executive body, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding E.U. treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the E.U. - is being confirmed this week by the European Parliament. Earlier in July, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was appointed commission president. Over the summer, she assembled a team of 27 commissioners nominated by the E.U.’s member states to be put forward to Parliament for approval. The U.K., currently in the midst of Brexit, has opted not to nominate a commissioner.
The team is gender-balanced, has an average age of 55.9 years and is mostly derived from Europe’s three largest political families (conservatives, social democrats and classical liberals). However, the proposed commissioners are not without controversy: At least four candidates are facing corruption allegations, and two of them, the Hungarian and the Romanian candidates, have already been rejected by committee in the initial rounds of hearings.
With eye-catching figures, murmurs and rumors in every corner, the question to keep in mind is, what does this mean for the issues important to us?
In short, three takeaways stand out. Two are good news, while one is not:
But before jumping to the implications of the new makeup of the commission, let’s open a bracket and look at the inventory the outgoing commission leaves for the new team.
The E.U.’s feeble, reluctant and occasionally one-sided involvement in the Middle East Peace Process was an object of criticism in the last mandate. Outgoing High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has been herself a strong supporter of the Iran Deal, has withstood calls to add Hezbollah in its entirety to the list of terrorist organizations and has, consequently, often been deemed by Jerusalem as anti-Israel.
Beyond E.U.-Israel relations, though, much work has been done on combating anti-Semitism at the domestic level. While one could justifiably argue that it’s hard to speak of one thing without the other, the outgoing commission does deserve props on this front. Under the auspices of its first vice president, Frans Timmermans, and overseen by Jourova, Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein, was appointed in late 2015 and since then has moved from success to success. Among other things, she pushed for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti--Semitism, brought about the second and largest-ever survey of perceptions and experiences of anti--Semitism among European Jews and the first-ever report of perceptions of anti-Semitism among young Jews and put in place a Commission Working Group on Anti-Semitism. The working group was mandated by a declaration forwarded unanimously by the 28 E.U. member states in December 2018.
Beyond these necessary and important structural advancements, which signaled a significant change of pace in relation to past efforts, a strong narrative about Europe’s Jewish heritage and the place of the Jewish community in Europe today anchored the work on anti-Semitism.
What to expect next?
As Jourova assumes her role as commission vice president for values and transparency, she will be in charge of dialogue with religious organizations and communities, among her other duties, and thus is likely to continue her work on Jewish issues. She will oversee the Commissioner-designate for justice, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, a friend of the Belgian Jewish community who, by the way, on the day of his nomination attended a B’nai B’rith Rescuers Citation event. If the previous commission is any indication, the topic of antisemitism and the protection of Jewish life in Europe will fall under their purview.
Also of interest: Vice President-designate from Greece Margaritis Schinas, a former commission spokesman, was caught in a storm of criticism about the title of his portfolio, “Our European Way of Life”. While some appreciated the not-so-veiled concerns over migration, others - myself included - were left wondering what this even means, and whether this title included the Jewish way of life and that of all other minorities, or was just meant as reassurance for the right--wing Christian conservatives that form the political home of the new commission president. Vice President Schinas will oversee Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, who is known in Malta for pushing through marriage equality in one of Europe’s most conservative countries. She will lead the fight against discrimination and thus may also be dealing with issues of antisemitism, although it remains unclear how responsibilities will be split between the equality and justice portfolios. Without much background of work either with the Jewish community or on matters relating to Israel, it seems a clean slate awaits us for both.
On foreign policy, those hoping they could finally sigh in relief over Mogherini’s concluded term ought to think again. Borrell, a former President of the European Parliament, comes in as high representative-designate with decades of experience as an outspoken and often polemic politician, with some troubling baggage regarding Israel and the region.
Although Borrell lived in Kibbutz Gal On shortly after graduating, where he met his first wife, he seemingly holds on to no positive feelings about Israel - at least as far as his foreign policy positions go.
He has spoken with some praise of the progress made by Iran since the Islamic revolution and Iran’s own state propaganda has described him as tough on Israel and fond of Iran, adding that “the Zionist entity is “wary” of the incoming E.U. foreign policy chief.” A keen supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he warmly welcomed Mahmoud Abbas to Strasbourg in 2006. We can only hope he will continue to hold the flimsy E.U. line on the conflict. It is worth noting that Borrell has met with B’nai B’rith leadership on the side of the U.N. General Assembly, which is hopefully indicative of his future receptiveness to our concerns.
So as the pieces of the puzzle start coming together and final confirmations of portfolios are announced, it’s sure that we’re entering a new chapter of Jewish and Israel advocacy here in Brussels. As the new B’nai B’rith Director of E.U. Affairs, I’m excited to tackle it all head-on.
Alina Bricman is the Director of E.U. Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
Nearly four years ago, at around the time that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or as it more commonly known, “the Iran deal”) was reached, I wrote a post for this blog on the “snapback sanctions” part of the deal. The biting U.N. Security Council sanctions—which had brought Iran to the table in the first place—were supposed to be snapped back into place if Iran was not living up to the deal. The snapback sanctions were meant to mollify critics and skeptics who questioned the wisdom of so quickly reversing sanctions on a country that had been found to be cheating on numerous commitments.
My original post went into the cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles that would be necessary before the sanctions could be reinstated. This is the key paragraph:
“Aside from unnecessary bureaucracy, the more serious problem is that the language in the nuclear deal and in the subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution state that it must be a ‘significant’ compliance issue. This is vague—what exactly constitutes ‘significant non-compliance?’ The fear is that the tendency of the world powers will be to minimize or ignore non-compliance issues as not ‘significant’ enough to rise to the level that would require ‘snapback’ sanctions. Why? Because once the U.N. sanctions are re-introduced, the U.N. Security Council resolution ‘noted’ Iran’s stated position that Iran would stop living up to its commitments in the nuclear deal in full. Essentially, the Security Council resolution allowed the ‘snapback’ sanctions to be held hostage by the deal. “
Much has happened in the meantime. The U.S., led by a new administration, pulled out of the JCPOA and re-imposed U.S. sanctions (which are extremely tough, but not as far-reaching as Security Council sanctions could be) and added new sanctions as well. The Europeans have been trying to get around the U.S. sanctions by creating a loophole for companies to do business with Iran. Iran, feeling the bite of the U.S. sanctions on its weak economy, has been trying to extort the Europeans—who are desperate to save the JCPOA—into giving it more money through nuclear blackmail. Iran has already exceeded the limit of enriched uranium allowed under the deal and is increasing the percentage of enrichment on its stockpile of uranium, two steps on the road towards building nuclear weapons. Iran has also been trying to wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, threatening the oil supply from some of the world’s most productive oil fields.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombshell news conference displaying evidence seized by the Mossad in a daring raid on the Iranian regime’s clandestine atomic archive in Tehran, which showed that Iran had deceived the international community by not declaring the true extent of their advanced nuclear weapons program, was greeted with a shrug by the international community. We were told that everyone knew that Iran had a nuclear program, that this was the point of the JCPOA—to stop it. But Iran’s declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were to be the baseline of the deal. If the international community is so willing to accept a lie as the baseline to the deal, what else will Iran be allowed to get away with?
Following the press conference, Netanyahu presented at the U.N. General Assembly evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear warehouse in Tehran. As this, too, was undeclared to the IAEA, it would also be a breach of the deal, and a grave one at that. The international community initially shrugged this off as well. However, months later, the IAEA inspected the warehouse and reportedly found radioactive traces. If the reports are true, this is yet another undeclared violation, to go along with the declared violations that Iran has now begun to openly tout.
In the face of Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA, the countries party to the deal (minus the U.S., of course) met to discuss the violations. The verdict? Iranian non-compliance was not “significant” enough to warrant even starting the bureaucratic complaint process.
The fears that many Iran deal skeptics had regarding the JCPOA—that the deal itself would end up becoming more precious than the goal of a de-nuclearized Iran—are sadly being borne out by the behavior of the countries party to the deal. What does Iran have to do before the international community will decide that a “significant” breach of its nuclear commitments has been made?
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
This week, United States sanctions that were lifted after the signing of the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program began to be reimposed following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, whose other signatories were Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. With saber-rattling renewed between Tehran and Washington — but economic stress in Iran prompting some Iranians, if not yet their leadership, to consider President Trump’s offer to negotiate with “no preconditions” — a review of the original deal’s terms and pitfalls is in order.
The 2015 agreement required Iran to give up and limit or suspend a substantial part of its nuclear material and activity: Iran was obligated to eliminate roughly 97 percent of its uranium stockpile, dismantle and put under seal two-thirds of its centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment at levels considerably below weapons grade and remove the core of its plutonium reactor. The deal also required Iran to accept extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it required Iran to pledge never to obtain a nuclear weapon.
But, of course, the deal was very far from air-tight:
While the IAEA has reported finding no evidence of major Iranian noncompliance with the deal thus far, Tehran has a long record of able deception and of violating commitments — as reconfirmed in the extensive intelligence material recently made public by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, refuting Iran’s claim that its supreme leader forbade outright any pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
One significant and underreported reality about the U.S. pullout from the deal is that it reflected, and solidified, growing Arab-Israeli alignment focused on containing the Iranian threat. This, if nothing else, is a silver lining to the Iranian problem, and the U.S. is a critical partner in encouraging Arab-Israeli reconciliation and cooperation.
At the same time, does the potential unraveling of the nuclear deal help or hurt the most extreme elements in Iran? It isn’t easy to say. The hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which maintains significant power in Iran’s economy, finds ways to benefit from especially difficult times, and the nuclear deal was associated with the relative “moderates” in Iran. At the same time, economic strain in Iran builds pressure against the regime — as seen in the most recent popular protests calling for an end to corruption and an end to the foreign adventurism that has made Iran the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror.
Global observers continue to assess the initial U.S. nuclear talks this year with North Korea. How are those negotiations influencing, and also being influenced by, the Iran experience? Iran has told North Korea that it can’t trust the U.S. to stay in a deal — though American firmness on Iran had at least set a high bar for the North Korean process. On the other hand, North Korea, unlike Iran, is already known to have nuclear weaponry. Will Iran be tempted to follow Pyongyang’s lead in engaging in new talks, or, prioritizing its saving of face, will it refuse to renegotiate the deal of 2015?
In the meantime, primary focus has been on the response by European allies to the U.S. withdrawal. While the Europeans became politically and economically wedded to the deal — and have already now been reeling over separate disagreements with the U.S. over the Paris climate accord, free trade agreements, tariffs, and NATO and other coalitions — European government officials have started acknowledging that it will be difficult to maintain the deal without American participation, since European companies will not want to lose access to the U.S. market by violating Washington’s reimposed sanctions on Iran.
If, in fact, Europe is unable to preserve the economic incentives needed to keep the Iranians themselves in the nuclear agreement, and it collapses, the question is: what happens next? Russia and China would likely veto attempts to reinstate U.N. sanctions. Iran, perhaps just short of provoking outright war, will almost surely make a point of ramping up nuclear activity. Iran will also continue to want to extract a price from Israel for the U.S. pullout —just as it and its proxies such as Hezbollah are already keen to undermine Arab-Israeli partnership and to recoup popular credibility among Arabs, lost in the bloody sectarian war in Syria, by again attacking Israel. And Israel, for its part, has made clear that it will act against the build-up of Iranian military positions in Syria to match those it established in Lebanon along the border with Israel. Russia has reportedly signaled that it will help maintain distance between the Iranians and Israel’s boundaries, although both Russia and Iran have served as critical allies preserving the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Only time will tell whether a more dependable, comprehensive and lasting resolution of Iranian nuclear and other destabilizing activities will be achieved. However, to achieve it, common purpose will be needed. If such commonality can be reached by many Arabs and Israelis, it should be between the U.S. and Europe, as well as India, Japan and others who are being pressed to wean themselves off of Iranian oil. No less, commonality can and must be reached between Republicans and Democrats, who long shared a bipartisan recognition that the Iranian threat is an existential one for indispensable allies of the United States.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
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