A Region on Edge as the US Considers Its Approach to the Iran Nuclear Deal

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


It was understood from the beginning that one of US President Joe Biden’s greatest foreign-policy challenges would be a return to the negotiation table with Iran. Mr. Biden has indicated that his administration would be interested in rejoining the JCPOA, an Obama administration-era agreement struck in May 2015 between Iran and the 5+1 nations–the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, the US, Russia, and China) plus Germany– but has so far kept the cards close to his chest, continuing to put pressure on the Iranian regime. To complicate matters further, US allies in the region have demanded that any return to the negotiation table should take place with their participation and reflect their concerns.

Iran, according to a recent report by The National, has already made clear that they will not stand by as the Biden administration considers the next steps, signaling that they will move forward with the production of new centrifuges: “Iran now has two cascades of advanced centrifuges with almost four times the enrichment capacity of earlier ones running at its Natanz nuclear site, its envoy to the UN’s atomic watchdog said on Tuesday…. The announcement, likely intended to accelerate talks on a potential nuclear deal, could backfire on Tehran if Washington perceives the move as tantamount to blackmail, something the former administration of Donald Trump said was one of the goals of the Iranian regime. The move to accelerate uranium enrichment has been some time in the making. In 2019, the IAEA said Iran had begun enrichment with advanced centrifuges at an above-ground pilot plant at Natanz. A part of that site was destroyed in July, an act of sabotage that analysts and the Iranian government say was conducted by Israel.”

Arab News’ Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg argues that the United States must address regional demands for expanding the scope of the original agreement to include Iran’s behavior in the region and reflect the concerns of the Arab countries: “For the region, the most immediate threat is Iran’s regional conduct, i.e., supporting sectarian militias regionally and all types of terrorists globally…. All of these issues are urgent and need to be addressed in the talks with Iran: Its rush to acquire military nuclear capability, a runaway missile program, expanding rogue regional activities, and nuclear safety. There appears to be a regional and global consensus that any future talks should have a wider scope to include most of these issues. There is also a growing consensus to include regional actors, although no agreement yet on the shape of that participation…. The US and other parties to the original JCPOA agreement should avoid its shortcomings and its side effects. The deal was strongly opposed by regional actors and eventually failed as a counter proliferation instrument.”

In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed pushes the argument further, tying the nuclear-deal negotiations directly to the major developments and challenges in the region: “The outcome of these negotiations will play a key role in determining how the situation is going to unfold in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine as all these countries have turned into bargaining chips for Iran to use by threatening to escalate tensions through its proxies of local armed groups and militias. The question we should be asking ourselves is, will President Biden take the same firm stance as his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, against the Iranian regime?… All statements issued by the Biden administration pledge to amend the Iran nuclear deal to the satisfaction of the allies; however, Tehran has firmly announced that it will not accept any amendments.”

However, some believe that Iran is unlikely to give in to US pressure, and that the new administration will be unable to overcome domestic and international pressure with regard to easing the sanctions regime on Iran. That has led some, like Jordan Times’ Osama Al Sharif, to conclude that we will probably not see much forward progress at all: “The stalemate over the nuclear deal may deepen as Iran prepares to hold elections in five months, one that analysts believe will deliver a more hawkish parliament and president. On the other hand, Biden’s foreign policy team will have to navigate through diplomatic hurdles both internally and abroad in a bid to reach a consensus on a valid strategy that paves the way to salvage the nuclear deal…. As things stand today Biden’s mission to unravel the complex Iran nuclear challenge seems almost impossible. Israel and its lobby in Washington will make his mission even harder. Meanwhile, as Iran inches closer to abandoning the deal altogether, the risks for the region emanating from such a move will be difficult to avoid.”

Iranian intransigence with regard to the possible renegotiation of important elements of the nuclear deal or the inclusion of new parties to the 5+1 treaty has been made clear in various statements recently published by Tehran Times: “Rouhani was in fact responding to Saudi Arabia, which has said if the new Biden administration plans to rejoin the JCPOA, its country should also be included. French President Emmanuel Macron has also called for inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the agreement…. Iran has been insisting that it will not renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal. ‘The deal is not a thing that is easily gained. Nobody can tear the deal. If they want (the deal), they can fulfill their commitments. If they don’t, they can do their own business. We also do our own business’, Rouhani pointed out.”

Because of Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu’s close relationship with former US President Donald Trump, many Israelis are worried about a possible cooler relationship with the current White House. That is why, in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed, Amos Yadlin—executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and former IDF chief of Military Intelligence—urges Israeli officials to earnestly reach out to Mr. Biden: “Israel and the United States have one common strategic goal: to prevent the radical regime in Iran from achieving nuclear capability. This is usually where agreement between the two countries on this subject ends. Each of these two close allies holds a completely different position regarding the path that is leading toward achieving their common objective. Over the past decade, Washington and Jerusalem have disagreed substantially…. It’s important that Israel and the US engage in honest and professional dialogue about the issues that must be amended in the agreement, including removing the section regarding the date the agreement will expire; supervision anywhere and at any time; stopping nuclear research and development; and a reexamination of weapons activity.”

Others are not as concerned about the prospects of an unconditional return of the US to the nuclear deal, or about the Biden administration’s freezing out the Israeli government. That is the message shared by long-time Globes contributor Norman Bailey, who argues it is true that in some areas: “It is likely that the Biden administration will take a harder line with both Russia and Turkey than Trump did, who showed a quite remarkable affinity for both Putin and Erdogan…. In the Middle East, Iran will be the focus, and in this regard, testimony by both the incoming secretary of state and the incoming head of the CIA indicates that the announced intention to reenter the infamous ‘deal’ of 2015 will be neither easy nor rapid, with conditions placed on re-entry making it unlikely to take place at all….  [A]ssuming Biden demonstrates the fortitude to hold off the extremists in his party, not a bad prospect, for the US, for the world, and for Israel.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top