Since Israel’s Nov. 1 election — the fifth in under four years — it has been hard to miss the online and on-air angst about Benjamin Netanyahu’s illiberal coalition partners, his controversial domestic agenda, and Israel’s relations with the United States. Yet, for all the discussion about LGBTQ+ rights, legal reform in Israel and the 40-year chemistry between Netanyahu and President Biden, the leading issue on Netanyahu’s agenda is Iran’s nuclear program. More than anything else, Washington’s next moves toward Tehran are what will set the tone for relations with Jerusalem.
In the seven years since the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Netanyahu’s warnings have proved prescient. With the agreement’s implementation, Iran became more, not less, aggressive across the Middle East. The nuclear infrastructure the JCPOA guaranteed Iran enabled the regime to move closer to nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing. Rather than preventing proliferation, the JCPOA sparked a regional nuclear arms race, as Iran’s neighbors now seek the same weapons-relevant nuclear capabilities the agreement allows Iran.
At the same time, the United States and Europe have responded to increasingly grave violations of Iran’s nuclear obligations — some of which are separate from the JCPOA — with toothless expressions of concern and intensifying efforts to appease the regime.
Starting in late summer, the conventional wisdom suggested that nuclear negotiations with Iran were suspended until after the midterm elections. But the regime continues to increasingly and irreversibly violate the JCPOA’s terms, while it stonewalls three international investigations into undeclared nuclear materials and activities. A women-led uprising rages in Iran’s streets, despite the regime henchmen’s brutal efforts to put it down. Iran is now giving Russia the same drones and missiles that Tehran has given to Hezbollah, the Houthis, and others to menace America’s allies in the Middle East. Providing the Iranian regime with hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and legitimizing the expansion of a uranium enrichment program that has no peaceful justification makes less sense than ever.
The week before Christmas, a video appeared of President Biden saying that the JCPOA is dead, though he would not make an announcement declaring it so (“Long story,” he said). This is a promising development, mostly because the JCPOA was never a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. Additionally, if Biden were to continue pursuing a futile return to the JCPOA, Israel’s government and neighbors would conclude that they must fight Iran and do so alone. Netanyahu has always argued that the nuclear deal made war more likely. It should be clear to U.S. policymakers that a nuclear-armed Iran is an outcome Israel cannot accept and will fight to prevent. Yet, until now, the administration’s approach has been pointing directly toward such a conflagration.
The new year opens with a new Israeli government and a historic opportunity for Biden. If his remarks reflect a change in course, if he is prepared to pressure rather than placate Iran and to develop a “Plan B” to genuinely prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he will make both a nuclear arms race and a war to prevent it less likely. Standing against Iran with Israel and America’s other Middle Eastern partners will demonstrate U.S. leadership, stymie Russian and Chinese efforts to supplant the U.S. in the region, and improve the prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors.
The question is, will the president change direction in 2023 to the only practical path offering a chance for peace? If he does, he undoubtedly will find in Netanyahu a willing, capable and creative partner.