For all of his disorganization in other policy areas, Donald Trump had a pretty clear vision for Mideast policy: The U.S. would become closer to its allies and more hostile toward its longtime adversary, Iran.
The Trump administration embraced Israel and Saudi Arabia, avoiding almost any criticism of their governments. That part of that strategy seemed to work. The new diplomatic closeness helped lead to the Abraham Accords, in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain became the first Arab governments in a quarter-century to recognize Israel.
Trump’s ambitions with Iran were also grand. He scrapped Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, claiming that it was too weak and wouldn’t keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In its place, Trump imposed harsh sanctions, predicting they would weaken Iran’s leaders, strengthen their domestic opposition and eventually cause Iran to come begging for a new (tougher) deal.
Virtually none of that has happened.
“Iran never once came begging for a deal. They never even came to talk to the U.S.,” as the Times’s David Sanger, who’s been covering Iran policy since the 1990s, told me. Instead, Iran ramped up its nuclear program during Trump’s presidency, potentially bringing it closer to having a weapon.
The failure of Trump’s strategy helps explain why Iran has been in the news so much this week. On Sunday, an explosion — apparently caused by an Israeli attack — damaged Iran’s main nuclear enrichment site, in the city of Natanz. Today, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, involving multiple countries, are scheduled to restart in Vienna.
The key question for the Biden administration is whether it can put a nuclear deal back together — and, if it can’t, how it will try to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, with the ability to threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
‘A really hard calculation’
To help you make sense of the Iran story, we have put together a quick guide:
Why can’t President Biden simply rejoin the deal? For one thing, Iran is holding a presidential election this year, and making concessions to the U.S. is not exactly a popular position. Many Iranians reasonably wonder whether the next Republican president will pull out of any new deal. Other participants in the talks, like the European Union, have similar concerns. “Who wants to make a deal with us now when Trump has shown how the next president can simply yank the plug?” Michael Crowley, who covers the State Department, asks.
Trump also took steps that make a new deal tricky. He imposed new sanctions that cite factors other than Iran’s nuclear program, like its support of terrorism. As part of any deal, Iranian leaders want the U.S. to lift these additional sanctions. But, as David Sanger points out, “it would be politically very difficult for Biden to say we are now going to lift these sanctions because we have determined that Iran no longer supports terrorism — of course it does.”
So is there any chance for a new deal? Yes, because every participant in the talks has something to gain.
The U.S., Europe and China would all like to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and a deal would force Iran to submit to international inspections. Iran, for its part, would like to have the sanctions — which restrict its ability to sell oil, among other things — lifted. (The economic toll on Iranian women has been particularly severe, Azadeh Moaveni and Sussan Tahmasebi have written in The Times.)
“This is a really hard calculation for the Iranians,” David says. “If they don’t do a deal, they don’t get their oil revenue, and they desperately want their oil revenue.” The recent surge in oil prices, which are up more than 50 percent since last fall, strengthens Biden’s hand.
How close is Iran to having a nuclear bomb? Probably not close, David says — months if not years away. That buys Biden some time.
Iran does seem to be making progress toward enriching uranium to a level that a weapon requires. After that, the program would need to build a weapon, which would most likely take months, although North Korea may end up helping and reducing the necessary time.
With Trump’s policy having failed, what do opponents of Obama’s deal favor? Some Republicans and Israeli officials argue that Trump’s approach will work if given more time: Eventually, they say, Iran will be weak enough to submit to nuclear restrictions so tight that the world can have confidence in them. But that view seems based more on hope than any evidence.
The more likely scenario, absent a new deal, is that Iran will continue building its nuclear program — and that Israel and the U.S. will use a combination of sabotage and military attacks to debilitate the program.
In Israel, David notes, this approach is known as “mowing the lawn”: Iran’s program grows, Israel cuts it back down and the cycle repeats.
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