President Biden’s private meeting Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid will likely become one of the most consequential conversations of his presidency. After 18 months of failed diplomacy that allowed Iran to advance its nuclear program to the brink, Washington and Jerusalem face the increasing likelihood that the Iranian threat can only be solved by military means. The president should use his time in Israel to chart a coordinated course to destroy or severely degrade Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Tehran revealed this week it is for the first time producing highly enriched uranium using advanced centrifuges at a nuclear site buried deep within a mountain. Last month, the UN’s top nuclear watchdog warned his agency would be unable to fully verify Iran’s nuclear activities by mid-July.
No one will ever know what would have happened had Biden picked up where his predecessor left off, strangling the mullahs’ access to cash, pressuring the regime in every diplomatic arena and demonstrating a willingness to use the US military to remove threats as they appear. But Biden instead pursued a strategy of accommodation and deference, believing maximum pressure made a diplomatic solution less likely and Iranian nuclear brinkmanship more so.
Tehran predictably responded to lax enforcement of sanctions, a pull-back in diplomatic pressure and a lack of military deterrence with an unprecedented expansion in its nuclear activities.
That Iran’s leap forward in nuclear threats occurred under Biden and not Trump should be instructive. Tehran exploits weakness but retreats in the face of military strength. That was true in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan ordered the Navy to fire on Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf. It was true in the wake of the US killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassim Soleimani followed soon after by the Israeli assassination of Iran’s nuclear weapons architect Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. And it’s still true today.
Flaws of nuclear deal
It is the credible threat of force that allows economic and diplomatic pressure to advance with success. And it is the lack of such a threat that gives way to deeply flawed agreements that provide Iran pathways to nuclear weapons.
Biden yesterday reaffirmed his commitment to returning to the 2015 nuclear deal — an agreement that offers more policy challenges than solutions.
Under the deal, Iran gets a financial package worth up to $275 billion in the first year and as much as $800 billion over the next five. With a trillion dollars available by 2030 for Iran’s missile program, sponsorship of terrorism and Revolutionary Guard, the agreement enables Tehran to set a dozen more fires around the Middle East that force a US response to defend American citizens, embassies and allies. And in the end, without demanding a full accounting of Iran’s nuclear activities or destroying a single centrifuge, the deal’s expiration dates all but guarantee Iran will still cross the nuclear threshold at a future time of its choosing.
To be sure, Russia and China would like nothing more than to see an America bogged down by never-ending Iranian nuclear extortion and escalation. That is why they are the strongest proponents of a nuclear deal with Iran. They know that the more money Iran has available for terrorism, missiles and nuclear expansion in the Middle East, the more American time and resources will consistently be diverted from Asia and Europe to mitigate the latest Iran-sponsored crisis. That, unfortunately, is a strategic reality supporters of an Iran nuclear deal fail to grasp.
Facing reporters in Israel, Biden reluctantly stated he would consider military action against Iran as a last resort. But given his commitment to the Iran deal and aversion to combat operations in the Middle East, it is more likely Iran acquires nuclear weapons than Biden orders a military strike.
Plan of action?
That leaves Israel as the world’s last line of defense. Over the past weeks, Jerusalem has widened its covert campaign against Iran — conducting clandestine strikes, cyber-attacks and assassinations deep inside the Islamic Republic. At a minimum, Biden should commit to his counterpart that the US will not get in Israel’s way. Better though would be an offer of US support through a combination of intelligence coordination, expedited defense transfers, and covert action — while simultaneously ratcheting up economic and diplomatic pressure to further weaken the regime, even as the president insists publicly his goal is a return to a nuclear deal.
Biden doesn’t want to make the difficult decisions necessary to stop Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons. Hopefully he’s willing to let Israel save America from years of Middle East quagmires.
Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as a National Security Council official, deputy chief of staff to former US Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and US Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer. He was sanctioned by Iran in 2020.