Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Washington Wants to Minimize the Risks with Iran

On August 24 John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program was closer than it had been in early August although there are still differences between the two sides.

The Biden administration is being careful about its language. There already are many critics of a new nuclear deal with Iran in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats. The new deal with Iran will not obtain the required support of two-thirds of the Senate to become an official treaty with the status of a law in the United States.

As Obama did, Biden will have no choice but to implement the agreement through the legal instrument of issuing executive orders that will last until another president can change or cancel, as Trump did with the old nuclear agreement in 2018. Tehran understands this, and it did not agree to longer restrictions on deployment of advanced centrifuges (according to press reports, the restrictions will end in 2025).

Press reports also indicate that the restrictions on Iran’s program to enrich uranium will end in 2030. It’s not a great deal for Washington and its allies since the Iranian nuclear program could grow again after 2025.

However, for the Biden administration the return of Iranian oil to world markets would help reduce the price of gasoline in the United States, reduce price inflation and give the American Federal Reserve less reason to continue raising interest rates and risk an American economic recession. At the same time, the war in Ukraine is becoming a long war of attrition and Ukraine will need more American aid as Ukraine’s military losses increase.

If America is not directly at war with Russia it at least is in a serious military competition with Russia. In addition, in early August we saw big Chinese military exercises around the island of Taiwan. Maintaining a balance of power in East Asia will require more American military deployments. It is not a coincidence that two American warships passed through the Straits of Taiwan August 28.

Events in the past six months have reinforced the American analysis that China and Russia are the biggest threats to American security. The Biden administration could strike Iranian nuclear facilities but Tehran, not Washington, would decide when the war would end. Starting a serious war now with Iran doesn’t fit with the Biden priorities.

The Biden administration also wants to maintain its forces in Iraq and Syria and not give Iran an opportunity to expand its influence in those two countries. The well-informed Politico news service reported August 27 that the White House carefully implemented the airstrikes against pro-Iran militias in eastern Syria last week so that the military operation would not sabotage the nuclear negotiations; the administration wanted to send a message to deter Iran from new attacks and at the same time not provoke Iran to escalate. For now, Washington can accept sharing eastern Syria with pro-Iran militias as long as the militias do not attack the Americans.

The airstrikes also aimed to send a message to Jerusalem. For months Israel has urged the Biden administration to prepare a military option against Tehran. Israel claims the threat of a military option will produce more nuclear concessions from Iran. Unlike Obama, Biden is trying hard to reassure Israel. Biden told an Israeli television network in July that he would use military force against the Iranian nuclear program if necessary.

An Israeli Defense official told the media last week that Israel has received “good hints” from the Biden team. And unlike Obama, the Biden administration consults with Israel about the negotiations. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Middle East policy coordinator Brett McGurk discussed the American response to Iran’s latest offer with Israel National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata on August 23, the day before the American response went to Iran.

On August 24 Israel Prime Minister Lapid said the Americans had accepted many Israeli requests in the negotiations, and Israeli media said these included tougher language on inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran’s undeclared nuclear activities, on the sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and on limiting immunity from sanctions for foreign companies that work in Iran.

The Biden administration understands that Israel will not be enthusiastic about the new, weak agreement. The Americans calculate that the Israelis will accept that a weak agreement now that forestalls an immediate war with Iran is the best approach. Without a reduction of tension between Israel and America on one side and Iran on the other, the risk of a war will remain high. Therefore, Washington also emphasizes to Israel its determination to cooperate with Israel urgently to build a regional military cooperation against Iranian military threats, especially Iranian missiles.