Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a similar case on Tuesday, lobbying visiting Secretary of State Antony Blinken not to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known. Last week, Ron Dermer, a Netanyahu confidant who stepped down in January as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, accused the Biden administration of engaging “in an accommodation of Iran at best, an appeasement of Iran at worst” and claimed that reviving the JCPOA would be “disastrous for Israel’s national security.”
I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble following the logic here. The negotiations to revive the nuclear deal are continuing. The Biden administration has not actually lifted sanctions on Iran. The “maximum pressure” campaign initiated by the Trump administration when it pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018 remains in effect. Those sanctions, combined with the covid-19 pandemic, have had a devastating impact on Iran’s economy. Iran’s economy contracted an estimated 4.99 percent in 2020.
But none of that hampered Hamas’s ability to rocket Israel. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are estimated to have fired 4,300 rockets at Israel over 11 days, roughly the same number that they fired over 50 days during the last Gaza war in 2014. Not only was the daily volume of fire more than four times greater than in 2014, but far more of the rockets were able to reach Israel’s two largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. (Luckily, 90 percent were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.)
What difference have the Trump sanctions made? It’s hard to see how the U.S. exit from the JCPOA has hurt Hamas in any way. Nor is there any evidence of a diminution in the threat from other Iranian-supported militias such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen or the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. The Houthis, in particular, keep targeting Saudi Arabia with sophisticated drone and missile strikes enabled by Iran. The worst attack, in 2019, temporarily shut down more than half of Saudi oil output. Again, all of this is happening since President Donald Trump left the JCPOA.
You know what else has happened since Trump exited a deal that had reduced Iran’s stockpile of uranium by 98 percent? Despite Israeli sabotage operations, Tehran has ramped up nuclear enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that Iran has stockpiled more than 10 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the 2015 deal. Moreover, it is now enriching at more than 60 percent purity — far higher than the JCPOA limit of 3.67 percent. “A country enriching at 60 percent is a very serious thing — only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi just told the Financial Times. “Sixty percent is almost weapons grade, commercial enrichment is 2, 3 [percent].”
So I am struggling to figure out how preserving the status quo is enhancing Israel’s security. Spoiler alert: It’s not. The Trump administration made a gamble that by exiting the JCPOA and imposing sanctions it could force Iran to agree to end not only its nuclear program but also its missile program and its support for regional proxies. That gambit has backfired badly. By any measure, Iran is more dangerous now than it was while the nuclear deal was still in effect.
Hard-liners in both the United States and Israel always insist that it’s just a matter of time before Iran runs out of foreign currency reserves and submits to the 12 demands made by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — which include not just dismantling its nuclear program but cutting off support for proxy forces. Dream on. U.S. sanctions over many decades could not force concessions from Cuba and North Korea — and those regimes don’t have Iran’s oil wealth. China is actually increasing its imports of Iranian oil and has agreed to invest $400 billion in that country over the next 25 years.
Given that a hard-liner is almost certain to be elected the next president of Iran on June 18, Tehran is unlikely to be in a mood to make concessions to the West beyond a possible rollback of its nuclear program — and even that is in doubt. There is no reason to imagine the “maximum pressure” campaign is going to force Iran to stop supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups.
A renewed nuclear deal won’t stop Iranian support for terrorism, either, but at least it would lengthen Iran’s “breakout” time to develop a nuclear weapon. That is very much in Israel’s interest — and the United States' — despite what Republicans and Likudniks say. Iran is dangerous enough as it is without nuclear weapons.