Will Iran pivot to the US and Israel?

Amid talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the American-Israeli-Iranian dynamic seems to be changing

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks with  Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz, at the State Department in Washington, U.S., June 3, 2021. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS
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The progress the Biden administration is seemingly making in its bid to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between the global powers and Iran – despite Israeli reservations – is remarkable. It raises questions about the nature of the US-Israeli relationship that, for the most part, has been steadfast for decades.

Curious, in this context, is the gradually unfolding US-Israel-Iran dynamic that has coincided with elections in all three countries within the span of a year. This is especially the case with America moving to the left, Israel lurching further to the right, and Iran cashing in on the investment it has made in its theocracy and in its nuclear weapons programme.

Former US president Donald Trump may have instigated these developments. Regardless of the merits of some of his policies, Mr Trump’s presidency was chaotic both at home and abroad.

His successor, Joe Biden, won the 2020 election partly because he appealed for calm amid the chaos. Today, it appears that a majority of Americans are reassured by Mr Biden’s focus on dealing with the pandemic and returning his country to normality. The US president also continues to emphasise a kind of monotony in domestic and foreign policies, despite momentous shifts taking place around the world, including with regard to US policies on Iran and Israel.

Mr Biden’s foreign policy priorities include reviving Nato and America’s ties with Europe, and taking on a rising China – all of which are intertwined. This much is clear, with Mr Biden scheduled to attend the G7 and EU-US leaders’ summits in the coming 10 days. It is this emphasis on favourable American-European relations that has led to the rapid rollback of Mr Trump’s hawkish policy on Iran. This shift is likely to culminate in an agreement with Iran, perhaps in two weeks’ time, before the Iranian presidential election is held later this month.

This policy shift isn’t surprising, given that the Biden administration includes key members of the Obama administration – beginning with Mr Biden himself – that signed the 2015 agreement with Iran. Both teams have also sought to separate Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme from its ballistic missiles programme and its “malignant” regional behaviour, as described by the Biden administration.

The mystery, however, lies in the intersection between American-Iranian and American-Israeli relations, which may have obscured the Israeli-Iranian dynamic.

There seems to be popular American amiability towards Iran, despite the fact Tehran essentially held US embassy officials hostage for 444 days shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution, and despite the overt animosity expressed by the regime towards the US. Whether Americans have forgiven Iran for the past or not, they fear its nuclear ambitions.

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear programme at the UN in 2012. Reuters
A demonstrator holds an anti-Israeli placard in a pro-Palestinians gathering in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Chief of the powerful Revolutionary Guard Gen. Hossein Salami said in the gathering that Israel has become weaker and the Palestinians have become stronger and more powerful. Iran does not recognize Israel and supports anti-Israeli militant groups like Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A demonstrator holds an anti-Israeli placard in a pro-Palestinians gathering in Tehran last month. AP Photo

Not long ago, Washington had sought to obliterate Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq for its own weapons programmes. Its invasion of Iraq in 2003 unwittingly led to overwhelming Iranian influence in that country. It also bears mention that, even as the US used the September 11, 2001 terror attacks as a pretext for this invasion, it ignored the Iranian regime's own transgressions in the West before 9/11.

Israel and Iran, meanwhile, never fought a direct war in all of their history, even though they have been longtime adversaries. All their battles have been proxy wars, primarily waged through Lebanon.

The nuclear issue first tested US-Israel relations under former president Barack Obama, who not only signed the nuclear deal but also recognised the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and chose not to interfere in Tehran’s expansionist policies inside various Arab countries. Today, the Biden administration is pursuing the same policy.

It will be crucial to watch what will happen after the nuclear deal is revived and sanctions against Iran are lifted

So the question is how, despite Israeli opposition to the agreement, the Obama administration was able to secure a deal with Iran, and how the Biden team is close to reviving that same agreement. Perhaps, Israel did not put its full weight behind its own opposition at the time – and it is probably not doing so now either. That Israel, supposedly a nuclear power in its own right, knows that the deal will do little to undermine America’s commitment to its military superiority in the Middle East is possibly why.

Moreover, in addition to its priority of “preventing” Iran from achieving nuclear breakout, the Biden administration may have offered Israel an assurance from Iran that the latter will under no circumstances heat up any of its fronts in Palestine, Lebanon or Syria – through its proxies – against the former.

If true, the question is what leverage the US and Europe will have over Iran after they lift sanctions, which will unlock funds for Tehran to use as it sees fit – including furthering its regional project. Perhaps, that is not even a matter of priority for the West.

Nor, presumably, is there any drive to resolve another longstanding issue: the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The US and Europe will, instead, focus on weakening extremist groups such as Hamas in Gaza and raising funds for the city’s reconstruction following 11 days of Israeli strikes last month. Despite increasing public support for a “two-state solution” between Palestine and Israel in the US and Europe, neither entity has a workable roadmap to achieve it yet.

A greater commitment to creating one will depend on whether increasing popular sympathy in the US for the Palestinian cause will evolve into a serious movement that forces Washington to review its Israel policy. In the meantime, to what extent will the Biden administration be able to contain divisions among Americans on Israel and Iran?

For now, it will be crucial to watch what will happen after the nuclear deal is revived and sanctions against Iran are lifted, as the regime gradually alters its relations with global powers, including the US, and its arch foe, Israel.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National