This is a crucial moment, perhaps even the last chance, to salvage the Iran nuclear deal and to weatherproof it against future political storms. That’s true despite the news that Iran is planning to provide Russia drones for use against Ukraine, something the Biden administration recently revealed.
If Iran does so, that may well prove an insurmountable political obstacle to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the nuclear pact the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia struck with Iran in 2015. But if, by making public that intelligence and maneuvering behind the scenes, the Biden administration manages to forestall that weapons transfer, there’s still a path forward here — and it’s still worth pursuing.
Given Iran’s conception of its regional and religious interests, it would be nigh unto impossible to strike an agreement curbing all conduct the United States or our Middle East allies find objectionable. But resurrecting the nuclear accord and then attempting to lengthen its timelines would render this rogue actor Iran less dangerous by keeping it from becoming a nuclear-armed nation.
When the nuclear agreement was in place, Iran was honoring its terms, as the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly certified. It was providing the agreed-upon access to the IAEA to inspect its nuclear and military facilities, restricting both the level of uranium enrichment and the stockpile of those supplies, and was granting inspection access to the entirety of the uranium mining, milling, conversion, and disposal process. That latter concession, which would endure until 2040, would in and of itself provide valuable clues to any diversion of uranium to illicit purposes. As part of the concessions offered for sanctions relief, Iran had also altered its heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce plutonium, the fuel for the most powerful kind of nuclear bomb.
For months, the prognoses for a return to the deal have oscillated between hopeful and grim. We are now in a grim period, with a recent European Union-mediated negotiation session in Qatar having failed to produce the hoped-for progress. Yet we are also witnessing several diplomatic and intelligence-sharing developments that could help reduce Israel’s skepticism about the agreement and has already done so with Saudi Arabia, two former opponents of the deal.
Both have long histories as US allies in the region, despite the recent strains with Saudi Arabia over de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman having ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a long-time US resident.
Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a polarizing demagogue, was a vehement opponent of the pact. He urged Donald Trump to abandon the deal and then took credit for Trump’s 2018 action to curry favor at home. Yet Netanyahu’s opposition notwithstanding, in the last six months or so, a number of high-ranking Israeli political, military, and intelligence figures have declared that the Iran deal was an overall positive for Israel.
“Over the last few months, especially as Iran continues to achieve very significant advances in its nuclear capability, more and more of the Israeli security establishment have come to the conclusion that the situation of no JCPOA is much worse than having a JCPOA, even if that was a flawed deal,” Raz Zimmit, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, think tank and a former Iran watcher for the Israeli defense establishment, said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has signaled several times that he would be open to a return to some sort of pact. That comes even as Gantz has confirmed that Israel, in concert with some Arab neighbors, is part of a nascent regional air-defense coalition focused on Iran. That usual Arab-Israeli effort has apparently been catalyzed by the US military, which recently convened talks among Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile has also begun Iraq-sponsored talks with Iran aimed at easing tensions between the two archrivals.
Add to that a renewed Iranian nuclear deal and the result could markedly lower tensions in the region.
Although it would be in Iran’s overall interest to re-enter the deal, Iran negotiators aren’t acting that way, but instead seem to be erecting new obstacles, noted Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East diplomat and former ambassador who has served under both Republicans and Democrats.
“They should have an interest in concluding it, but at this point they are not acting as though they do,” Ross said of Iran. “My own sense is that that’s a negotiating tactic, but the odds of it being restored look longer than they did before.”
Iran’s ambivalent posture may be partly because, though reimposed US sanctions have hurt the Iranian public, Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard has seen its influence grow under the sanctions regimen. Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, looks askance at the prospect of better commercial relations with the West, believing more Western investment means more Western values. In Ross’s view, Iran’s incentives to rejoin are mainly to obtain world markets for their oil and fear of military action against their nuclear facilities. Perhaps to heighten such a fear, President Biden just declared that he would, as a last resort, use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Israel, however, is pushing for a commitment to earlier action against Iran’s nuclear program.
The current difficulties underscore what a blunder it was for this country to abandon the deal.
“It was a huge mistake,” said Ross. “We left with no plan and we left alone.”
It’s lamentable that a wider recognition of the JCPOA’s value couldn’t have come sooner. But better late than never. European Union envoys are doing what they can to push Iran forward on re-entering the nuclear deal.
If the Biden administration can bring to more formal fruition a regional Israeli-Arab air defense pact and resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, those would be major foreign-policy accomplishments. Should all this come together, politicians here and in Israel must act in a further-sighted way. This is too important for conservative hardliners to upend things again.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.