QUESTION: Why does Israel Oppose the U.S. reentering the nuclear agreement with Iran?
President Biden has announced (February 2021) his intent to return to the Nuclear Agreement with Iran provided Iran comes into strict compliance with the terms of the agreement. His position is that once the agreement is back in place, the United States will be in a better position to negotiate further agreements to lengthen and strengthen the nuclear prohibitions and to curb Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region, both through its proxies and directly.
Israel has made it clear it opposes going back to the original nuclear agreement with Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated Israel would support entry into a new agreement with Iran that would be more realistic in stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons and would prohibit Iran from its aggressive behavior and support of terrorism. Israel has urged President Biden to consult not only with Israel, but with Arab allies in the Region before entering any agreement with Iran.
What is the nuclear agreement with Iran?
The nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) is an agreement entered into between Iran and the P5+1 in 2015 to limit Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. In exchange for Iran’s dismantling and delaying its nuclear program and permitting international inspections, U.S., EU and UN sanctions against Iran were lifted. The value of the elimination of sanctions was in the billions of dollars. Additionally, the U.S. and EU released about $100 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets. While the U.S. went into the negotiations with the goal of eliminating Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, the ultimate deal simply sought to delay the development of nuclear weapons and create a one-year window for their development once the agreement expired. A more detailed summary is below.
The key provisions in the agreement include the following:
- Until 2025, operating centrifuges for enrichment of uranium were to be reduced to 5,060. Over 13,000 excess centrifuges were to be dismantled and stored under the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) monitoring.
- Until 2025, there was to be no production of additional IR-1 centrifuges.
- Until 2030, uranium enrichment was only to be done at Natanz and was capped at 3.67% uranium-235.
- Until 2030, the stockpile of 3.67% enriched uranium was limited to 300 kg. Excess enriched uranium was to be either sold, shipped abroad for storage or diluted to natural uranium. Uranium enriched up to 20% was to be blended and fabricated into fuel, blended down or shipped out.
- Fordow was to be converted into a research facility for stable isotope production. Its 1044 IR-1 centrifuges are permitted to remain but with 700 remaining idle. No uranium may be introduced into the facility until 2030.
- Research with uranium was limited for 8.5 years (until early 2024)
- The original core of the Arak reactor was to be removed and disabled but could be replaced by a core to reduce weapons-grade plutonium output.
- Until 2030 there was to be no reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, no heavy-water reactors in Iran and no accumulation of heavy waters in Iran.
- Monitoring and verification is to occur for 10 to 25 years depending on the subject. US lifted economic sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sector (permitting release of funds frozen in the U.S.)
- U.S. sanctions on Iran targeting human rights, terrorism and missile activities remained in place.
What Did the JCPOA Fail To Do?
In an article in The Atlantic written in January 2021, Michael Oren and Jossi Harlevi argue: “The JCPOA didn’t diminish the Iranian nuclear threat; it magnified it.” They point to a number of issues in the agreement that would permit Iran to accomplish the three necessary steps to becoming a nuclear military power – highly enriched uranium; a functional warhead; and a missile capable of delivery. They point out the agreement allowed Iran to move forward working to develop its nuclear capability. While it limited Iran’s immediate ability to enrich sufficient uranium for a nuclear bomb, rather than dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the agreement permitted Iran to retain that infrastructure. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was “unnecessary for a civilian energy program, but essential for a military nuclear program.”
They specifically pointed out the following problems with the negotiations and agreement:
- The limitations on enrichment of uranium were not adequate.
- They were temporary – some expiring as early as 2024.
- The agreement did not shut down any nuclear facility or require the destruction of any centrifuge.
- The agreement permitted Iran to continue with its research and development including the authorization for the development of more advance centrifuges.
- Iran claimed it had suspended any efforts to build a nuclear bomb in 2003. However, Israel obtained evidence, shared with the United States, that secret efforts continued to develop and build nuclear weapons and Iran split those efforts into overt and covert ones. In 2018, an Israeli operation secured secret Iranian documents concerning its nuclear efforts and disclosed to the world, Iran had lied during the run up and negotiations for the JCPOA. Iran embedded their nuclear weapons research into universities with their nuclear weapons expert, Moshen Fakhrizadeh, overseeing both the civilian and military efforts. Fakhrizadeh stated the goal was to engage in the activities under “Scientific Development” that “leave no identifiable traces.”
The JCPOA devoted only one-half of a page to address Iran’s weaponization. It did not contain any mandate for international action; no provision for inspection of bomb-making sites; and no provision for punishing Iran if it indeed was discovered there were potential bomb-making sites. The agreement simply contains Iran’s declaration that it will not try to make a bomb – just as they had stated in 2003.
- There was no provision in the JCPOA limiting Iran’s ability to develop its missile program and it has continued to do so. The intelligence gathered by Israel demonstrates Iran’s intent to fit nuclear warheads on missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the Middle East and into Europe. Other intelligence sources confirm the ability of Iran to use rockets it has developed for its space program into ICBM’s that can reach the United States.
Thus, the JCPOA left all three of the necessary components in place that Iran needs to become a nuclear military power.
Oren and Harlevi also point to the economic sanctions relief provided in the JCPOA which immediately poured tens of billions of dollars into Iran. The money was not used for infrastructure development, badly need in Iran, but has been used to support Iran’s efforts “for regional hegemony.” It has been used to expand Iran’s international terror network, fund terrorist groups and expand Iran’s influence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza.
Oren and Harlevi conclude that “Reviving the JCPOA will [ensure] the emergence of a nuclear Iran or a desperate war to stop it.” Not only have flaws with the JCPOA been observed in hindsight, but issues were identified even before the agreement was signed. House Speaker John Boehner invited Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to address a joint session of Congress in March 2015 without consulting President Obama.
The White House question whether protocol had been violated. Netanyahu raised many concerns about Iran, including:
- Iran’s support of terrorists in Gaza, Lebanon and the Golan Heights, as well as in Yemen.
- Iran’s support of Syria in slaughtering its citizens and Iran’s backing of Shiite militia in Iraq.
- Iran’s carrying out exercises near Hormuz the previous week, blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier, at the same time as they were carrying out nuclear talks with the U.S.
- Iran’s attacks on America and its allies through its global terror network, blowing up the Jewish Community Center and Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires; supporting Al Qaida in bombing U.S. embassies in Africa; and attempting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, DC.
- Instead of joining the community of nations, “Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.”
- Iran continues to have a radical regime crying “Death to America” and calling America the “Great Satan.”
Netanyahu warned that the deal being negotiated “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” The deal being negotiated left Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure in place, leaving its nuclear facilities intact and its centrifuges either operating or being temporarily unplugged, but available. With an automatic expiration of the restrictions, he warned Iran would be able to quickly ramp up its production of nuclear weapons. He further warned that the failure to include Iran’s missile program in the deal would permit Iran to further develop its capabilities of creating delivery systems enabling it to threaten anywhere in the world with a nuclear attack, including the United States. Netanyahu believed entering into the agreement would further risk nuclear proliferation by other countries in the Middle East.
Netanyahu recommended that should a deal be entered into with Iran that eliminated the restrictions on enrichment of uranium, those restrictions should only be lifted if Iran meets three prerequisites:
- “stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East”
- “stop supporting terrorism around the world”
- “stop threatening to annihilate . . . Israel. . . .”
Netanyahu concluded by saying “. . . for over a year, we’ve been told [by President Obama] that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it. Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”
Once the JCPOA was announced, others joined in the opposition to it. For example, the Anti-Defamation League opposed the agreement for multiple reasons:
- By leaving the nuclear weapons infrastructure in place, when restrictions are lifted, Iran will only be weeks away from having nuclear weapons and there will not be sufficient safeguards to detect the activity in a timely manner.
- By the structure of the agreement, weaponization work may be successfully hidden by Iran.
- The agreement lacks adequate restrictions on Iran’s missile program.
- There are insufficient commitments to provide Israel with independent capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facility should that become necessary.
- The JCPOA does not adequately prevent or address Iranian-sponsored aggression.
- There is insufficient evidence that Iran can change its behavior by having the JCPOA in place.
Other organizations, including the American Jewish Committee also opposed the agreement as proposed and then entered. In an article titled Iran—A Threat to Regional and Global Peace and Security, the AJC reiterated the reasons it opposed the JCPOA:
- The JCPOA did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program
- With expiration dates to the limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities, the agreement provides “a pathway to a nuclear bomb no later than 2030, if not sooner”
- The inspection provisions are inadequate, particularly since inspection of military facilities are off limits
- The agreement does not address Iran’s efforts seeking regional hegemony and supporting terrorist activity and repressive regimes.
The Commitment of President Biden to Reenter the Nuclear Agreement with Iran
Both during his campaign and immediately after his election, President Biden committed to reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as promptly as possible. Vision for America's Future.
In a Foreign Policy Address in New York in 2019, Biden stated: If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, I would re-join the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran's other destabilizing activities.
President Biden has strong support to reenter the JCPOA from Democratic Congress Members.
- New House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Gregory Meeks, has stated his belief the U.S. “must” reenter the JCPOA without further negotiations. He goes on to state his belief the other “nefarious acts of Iran” can be dealt with through other means.
- One hundred fifty House Democrats have issued a letter stating “We are united in our support for swiftly taking the necessary diplomatic steps to restore constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and return both Iran and the United States to compliance with the [JCPOA].”
There are other indications of President Biden’s support for re-entering the JCPOA.
- Shortly after the election, one of President Biden’s former senior aides, Amos Hochstein, indicated during an interview with Israeli television that rejoining the nuclear deal was high on Biden’s agenda and he intended to move to do so shortly after his inauguration.
- In describing Biden’s approach, Hochstein said to expect to either see him rejoin the deal fully or to lift sanctions for Iran suspending “some” of the nuclear program they have been developing over the last three years.
- In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Antony Blinken told Committee Members that “If Iran comes back in compliance we would too.” He went on to testify that the new administration sees getting back into the JCPOA “as a platform . . . to seek a longer and stronger agreement.”
- In the first press conference immediately following the inauguration, Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that once Iran resumed “compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal [JCPOA],” the President would “[t]hrough follow-on diplomacy . . . seek to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern.” She also signaled, President Biden would be talking with partners and allies about these issues.
Since taking office, President Biden’s stance with respect to simply re-entering the JCPOA and then dealing with some of the problems in the original JCPOA has softened slightly.
- On February 18, 2021, President Biden offered to join European nations to seek to restore the JCPOA. According to his Secretary of State, President Biden believes simply restoring the JCPOA would be insufficient. The United States would like to extend the agreement and seek to curtail Iran’s missile ability and Iran’s support of terrorist groups and the Syrian government.
- During her Senate confirmation hearing, Wendy Sherman, one of the negotiators and architects of the JCPOA and a nominee for Deputy Secretary of State, testified it is necessary to look at the current “facts on the ground” now versus 2015. With very little defense of the original agreement, Sherman indicated that because “the geopolitics in the region have changed . . . the way forward must similarly change.” She vowed that in seeking a new agreement with Iran she would work toward both lengthening and strengthening the agreement.
- In March 2021, a bipartisan letter was signed jointly by seventy Republican and seventy Democratic members of the House of Representatives that urges President Biden to address not only Iran’s nuclear program, but also its ballistic missile program and its funding and support of terrorism in the region. The letter strikes a decidedly different tone than the one sent in late December by 150 House Democrats.
In response to the U.S. offer to restore the JCPOA, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, stated Iran will only reverse its course of action, which included enrichment of uranium, after the U.S. lifts its sanctions.
After Iran acted to curb UN nuclear inspections in late February 2021, the U.S., with support from Britain, France and Germany, pressed for a U.N. resolution criticizing Iran for eliminating its cooperation with the IAEA.
Israel’s Response to the U.S. Announcement of
the Willingness to Reenter the Iran Agreement
- Within weeks of the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.”
- Netanyahu emphasized the need to stop Iran’s support for terror and its other aggressive behavior in the region.
- He also pointed out that the success Israel has had in reaching the Abraham Accords and normalizing ties with Arab states was because of Israel’s strong stand against the nuclearization of Iran and its “opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran.”
- In a television interview in early December, Prime Minister Netanyahu again warned it would be a mistake to reenter the “flawed” JCPOA. Netanyahu said the original deal gave Iran the funds that permitted it to put its forces in Syria and Iraq and to fund terrorist proxies throughout the region.
- In mid-December, it was reported Israel signaled it would not publicly oppose President Biden’s intention to return to the JCPOA but would urge the new administration to enter a new agreement which would include prohibitions against Iran’s aggressive actions in the Middle East both directly and through its proxies.
- The Prime Minister’s Office released another statement at the end of December expressing that “Israel firmly believes that there should be no return to the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015 – a deal which is flawed to its foundation.” The expressed concerns included:
- The original agreement created a pathway for Iran to build the infrastructure critical to having an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.
- The original agreement provided resources which Iran used to escalate its aggression and support terror throughout the Middle East.
- When originally adopted the nuclear agreement with Iran started a nuclear arms race among nations in the Middle East.
- In early March 2021, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, discussed the understanding that had been reached between Israel and the United States regarding Iran. He indicated neither country would make decisions regarding either the nuclear deal or Iran without advising each other in advance. He went on to state there would be “non-oppositional” dialogue to “discuss Israeli interests and how to forge a great agreement that will safeguard Israeli and regional interests and prevent a nuclear Iran.”
- Also in early March, Israel’s Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, indicated Israel had identified multiple locations in Iran that if targeted would affect Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear bomb. He stated Israel was prepared to act on its own to strike nuclear sites in Iran to protect Israel’s interests. Gantz was quoted by Fox News as stating: “The American policy should be American policy, and Israeli policy should stay Israeli policy.”
- Shortly after Gantz’s interview, President Biden warned U.S. Middle East allies to not act against U.S. interests in the region. In a policy document on National Security the U.S. administration stated: “We will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values.”
The Reaction of Others to the Possible Reentry into the JCPOA by the U.S.
- Not only has Israel expressed concern about the U.S. reentering the JCPOA, but other countries have also raised concerns about reentering the original JCPOA.
- Saudi Arabia has indicated it needs to be consulted before the U.S. reenters the JCPOA and that the agreement needs to be strengthened to both prevent Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region and to stop its ballistic missile program. The Saudi ambassador to the United States was even more vocal when he stated the JCPOA had “proven its failure to the entire world.” In commenting on President Biden’s statements about rejoining the JCPOA, he stated: “I don’t believe that anybody is going to be naive enough to go back to the same deal.” He noted that any new deal would need to correct the shortcomings of the original agreement. Saudi Arabia%u2019s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Abdel al-Jubeir, has warned the country may seek a nuclear bomb itself, if there is not an effective end to Iran’s nuclear efforts.
- The Bahraini Ambassador to the United States, Abdulla al Khalifa, told The Economic Club of Washington, D.C., that he was concerned that countries around the world did not realize how harmful Iran’s policies were not only in the region, but around the world. He stated the need for any agreement with Iran to consider regional challenges including the ballistic missile program, the proxy terrorist activities and the vision of Iran to reestablish the Persian Empire in the region.
- According to an article in Politico on December 22, 2020, Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE%u2019s ambassador to the United States complained that in the negotiations for the JCPOA in 2015, the United States froze out its Middle Eastern partners.
- The UAE was one of several Gulf countries concerned about the lack of consultation with those countries on the frontline of Iranian aggression and the need to forge a new agreement that would include elimination of Iran’s non-nuclear programs. The UAE continues to push for a seat at the table of future negotiations with Iran over the JCPOA. During a CNBC interview in January 2021, Assistant Minister of Culture and Public Diplomacy at the UAE Foreign Ministry, Omar Ghobash, stated the need for the UAE to engage both President Biden’s administration and the Iranians regarding any new nuclear agreement. He stated his belief the problem with JCPOA was the failure of the negotiators to take UAE and other regional concerns into account. Ghobash stated the UAE does business with Iran and has a significant Iranian population in the Emirates. He noted the UAE’s relationship with Israel and common interest in stopping nuclear proliferation would serve all of the parties well if the UAE was included in the negotiations.
- United Kingdom's Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee called the JCPOA “a shell of an agreement” which does not serve its intended purposes and needs to be replaced with a more comprehensive agreement. “Despite good intentions, the JCPOA was an agreement built on weak foundations. The slow death of the nuclear deal seems to have been inevitable. . .”
- Similar to the UK Parliament’s statement indicating an expanded agreement with Iran is necessary, the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, called for a new nuclear deal with Iran to stop is ballistic missile program, saying: “We have clear expectations for Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic rocket programme [sic] which threatens the whole region. . . We need this accord because we distrust Iran.”
- In November 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron, said that any new talks on the JCPOA will need to have Saudi Arabia’s participation as well as other countries in the region. Macron indicated it had been a mistake to sign the JCPOA without having regional powers participating.
- On February 4, 2021, Macron renewed his proposal for Saudi Arabia and Israel to be involved in any renewed negotiations with Iran over the JCPOA.
- Various Arab countries have expressed concern that the Biden administration is appeasing Iran and awarding its intransigence while antagonizing its allies in the region.
- There is other prominent opposition to reentering the JCPOA:
- Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has expressed concern that a return to the JCPOA could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. He stated “I don’t believe that the spirit [of the Iran deal], with a time limit and so many escape clauses, will do anything other than bring nuclear weapons all over the Middle East and therefore create a situation of latent tension that sooner or later will break out.” He does not believe Iranian leaders are able to give up their imperialistic goals.
- The Jerusalem Post published an opinion on December 27, 2020 giving reasons why the U.S. should not reenter the JCPOA. They outline what they see as major flaws:
- The sunset clauses create a path to nuclear weapons. By October 2023, Iran is permitted to manufacture advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium faster than current ones. In 2026, Iran can begin operating those centrifuges. The result is the shortening of the breakout time to acquire nuclear weapons.
- By 2031, the limitation on enrichment of uranium to any level is eliminated.
- The restrictions on heavy water reactors will also be terminated permitting Iran to produce enough plutonium for numerous nuclear weapons.
- While the inspection process has been highly touted as being anytime/anywhere, that is not accurate. Military facilities are off limits for inspections. Moreover, the agreement requires a 14-day notice to Iran of an inspection. Iran may object and the question is then taken up by a commission on which Iran sits. If the Commission rules against Iran, it is given three additional days to comply with inspection request. In all, it delays an inspection by 24 days, time enough to conceal, remove or destroy evidence of any illicit nuclear activity.
- The JCPOA does not cover ballistic missiles. Those are covered by a much weaker U.N. Security Council Resolution, which has not been enforced. Since the JCPOA was signed, Iran violated the U.N. Resolution on more than thirty occasions with no consequence.
- The JCPOA does not address Iran’s support of terrorism and terrorist organizations. After the influx of cash with the lifting of sanctions by the JCPOA, Iran substantially increased its support of terrorist organizations and its own operations to support Syria. When sanctions were reimposed after the U.S. withdrew from the agreement, Iran was required to cut its military budget by about 25% in 2019. If sanctions are removed again, it is likely terrorism around the region and the globe will increase.
- In The Daily Signal, Peter Brookes warns it would be a “dangerous mistake . . . returning to the Iran nuclear deal as currently constructed.” He warns that Iran has the largest missile arsenal in the Middle East and they have used those missiles to attack U.S. bases in Iraq. With the missile program Iran has in place he states it “is a clear national security imperative for the United States” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapon delivery systems.
Was the JCPOA Working?
As might be expected there are differing schools of thought on whether the JCPOA was working prior to Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement. Supporters of the JCPOA argue that the agreement was working as evidenced by the reports from the IAEA. They believe the breakout time for development of nuclear weapons has been lengthened by the agreement and that Iran remained in compliance until Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. Supporters of the JCPOA do not address Iran’s support of terrorist activities nor its support for the Syrian regime, nor do they address other efforts by Iran, outside of the terms of the JCPOA, to engage in the activities necessary to develop a nuclear weapon -- research and development, the development of fissile material, weapons systems and the means of delivery. Supporters do not address the cache of material secured by Israeli intelligence evidencing Iran’s lies over time and leading up to the entry into the JCPOA. Supporters argue that by withdrawing from the agreement, the Trump administration opened the door for Iran’s current increased activity in working toward achievement of its goal of having nuclear weapons. They believe only reentry into the JCPOA can prevent that result.
Opponents of the JCPOA point to the weaknesses in the agreement and claim there have been violations of the agreement, if not in fact, certainly in spirit. Opponents point to the shortcomings in the agreement in its failure to address Iran’s desire for hegemony in the Middle East. Opponents argue other Middle Eastern countries have taken steps to acquire nuclear capability leading to nuclear proliferation and further potential destabilization of the region rather than a more desired peace or at least coexistence.
What are some of the facts reported?
- In January 2021, Honest Reporting outlined what it saw as repeated violations of the JCPOA after its implementation in January 2016.
- In 2016, the spirit of the agreement was violated by testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads. The tested missiles were marked with slogans calling for Israel’s destructions. Tests have continued throughout the last five years, all in violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution.
- The IAEA reported violations of the JCPOA by Iran on two separate occasions in 2016 of exceeding the negotiated heavy water limit.
- In July 2016 Germany’s security agency found Iran had continued to acquire materials that could be used to develop illegal weaponry, particularly in the field of nuclear technology.
- Also, in July 2016 a confidential Iranian memo was discovered which indicated Iran’s intent to replace the current centrifuges with more advanced ones as early as 2027. By doing so, it would enable enrichment of uranium at more than twice the speed in place before the JCPOA.
- Documents recovered by Israeli intelligence revealed Iran had lied about its intent to build nuclear weapons.
- Iran lied about having a nuclear weapons program.
- The Fordow plant was designed from its inception for nuclear weapons.
- Iran did not shutter its nuclear program after the agreement but continued “to secretly preserve and expand nuclear weapons know-how for future use.”
- Iran never admitted prior activities even though the JCPOA was conditioned upon an IAEA report clearing Iran of prior nuclear activities for military use.
*Any opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee or of the Community Relations Committee.
1The P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China, France, Russia, UK and US, with Germany as the +1. European countries frequently refer to this group as the E3+3.