What’s the Deal With Iran?

Two years after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran agreement, there is no easy path forward. Moment speaks with five experts about the next steps.
January, 05 2021

President Joe Biden is not the first candidate who campaigned on a promise to reverse course on Iran. On the stump, Biden pledged that in his first 100 days in office, he would bring America back into the Iran nuclear deal—which the country entered in 2015 under President Barack Obama, before withdrawing three years later under President Donald Trump. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), committed the United States and other countries to lift economic sanctions on Iran in return for Iran’s agreement to dismantle reactors and halt nuclear-related programs—some for ten years, others for fifteen—and accept robust monitoring. A triumph of Obama’s (and Biden’s) Mideast policy, the deal was a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign as well. He inveighed against it, promising to pull the United States out of the multilateral treaty as soon as he took office. Though his top foreign policy aides delayed the action for two years, Trump prevailed, reinstituting harsh economic sanctions on Iran and greenlighting the assassination of one of its top generals, Qasem Soleimani, in early 2020.

Now that Biden is in office, facing a changed Middle East, the policy choices before him are complex. So are the politics. American Jews split along partisan lines on the JCPOA, even while mostly agreeing that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel’s existence. Many Jews agreed with Obama and Biden that the deal was the only way to rein in Iran’s fast-developing nuclear capability, while others, echoing the strongly held views of Israel’s prime minister, criticized it as a weak measure and temporary appeasement, preferring Trump’s bare-knuckled approach.

Iran has preoccupied and stymied American presidents for decades: The 1979 revolution and hostage crisis helped sink Jimmy Carter’s presidency; the notorious Iran-Contra scandal tarnished Ronald Reagan’s. With American-Iranian relations rapidly deteriorating, the deal in ruins, sanctions hurting Iran’s economy and reports of Iran’s renewed progress toward a bomb, what should the Biden administration do? Should it reenter the deal, use the old deal to negotiate a new one, begin a new one from scratch, redouble the sanctions pressure, offer a helping hand or a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines? Where do Israel and its new allies under the Abraham Accords fit in? We ask five experts with different perspectives to weigh in on the what, the how and the why.

Former President Donald Trump announces the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. (Photo Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House Flickr)



Trump’s Approach Had Catastrophic Flaws

Dalia Dassa Kaye is a Wilson Center Scholar and a former senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where she served as director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy. She is the author of Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia and Beyond the Handshake: Multilateral Cooperation in the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.

How has the situation changed since the U.S. pulled out of the agreement?

Iran continues to face tremendous domestic socioeconomic pressure, not just because of reinstated U.S. sanctions but because of its own corruption and economic mismanagement. It faces soaring inflation, devaluation of its currency, extremely high unemployment and severe social strain—and the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the Middle East. In 2019, we saw renewed protests in the country, ostensibly over gasoline price hikes, but really about disenchantment with the leadership. The escalation of tensions with the U.S., and with Israel, has heightened tensions within the country. Despite these pressures, however, the government shows tremendous resilience.

We’ve also seen more destabilizing Iranian activity in the region, including, in the summer of 2019, attacks on oil infrastructure tankers, the shooting down of American drones and continued Iranian-aligned militia attacks in Iraq against American forces that have led to a loss of life. There has been further escalation since the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. We’ve moved from shadow warfare, so to speak, or indirect conflict, to direct conflict between the U.S. and Iran. That’s very serious. Plus the civil wars in Iraq, Yemen and Libya have intensified.

What do you think the Biden administration’s approach to Iran should be?

The JCPOA, signed in 2015, wasn’t a perfect deal, but it actually succeeded in constraining the Iranian nuclear program and was viewed internationally as a success. At the beginning of the Trump administration, even some of Trump’s senior advisers argued for staying in the agreement for that reason and using it as the launching pad for a better deal that addressed other issues of concern. Unfortunately, President Trump chose to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, and I think the results have been catastrophic. Instead of a better deal, or better Iranian behavior, we’ve seen Iranian nuclear advances. The U.S. withdrawal didn’t isolate Iran or push it into a corner or lead to improved behavior. The maximum pressure approach, in my view, has not been working.

Biden has said that he would like the U.S. to reenter this agreement, with the number one priority being to restrain the Iranian nuclear program, because if Iran advances its civilian nuclear capabilities to weapons-grade level, that will hugely destabilize the entire region. The Biden team has said that it is looking for a longer-term and stronger deal that will address other issues, such as Iranian support for proxy wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria and Iranian missile development, especially the missiles that the Israelis are extremely concerned about, and rightly so. The Iranian precision-guided missiles are getting more and more accurate and more and more lethal.

Do you think that’s what Biden should do?

A return to the agreement is the best way forward, but I see a lot of hurdles. There’ll be a lot of resistance in the U.S. to easing up on the sanctions too quickly. Within Iran, there are a lot of barriers as well. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has said he would like a mutual return to the agreement, which means Iran would have to commit to rolling back its nuclear program again to get sanctions relief. But Iran’s supreme leader really makes the final call, and it’s not clear where he stands. And there are hardliners within Iran who have very hostile views toward the U.S.

Keeping all these obstacles in mind, what is the best path forward?

The best way forward is to work closely with the Europeans and other international allies. Even global competitors such as China and Russia are supportive of a return to the JCPOA. The first step is to use our allies as mediators to oversee compliance for a return to the deal, because we’ll need very strict verification that the Iranians are actually returning to their nuclear commitments. Similarly, it’s going to be very important for the Biden administration to consult actively with regional players, Israel and Gulf Arab partners in particular, who don’t want the U.S. to return to the agreement. They’re worried about Iran’s activity in the region, and Biden has said he takes that seriously. They can’t have a veto, of course—it’s ultimately a U.S. policy, and then an international agreement—but it will be important to start regional dialogue between Gulf Arab nations and Iran to deescalate tensions. And of course we’ll need direct dialogue with the Iranians again. It’s very important to talk to adversaries. It doesn’t mean we’ll be able to resolve all the problems, but it reduces the potential for miscalculation or miscommunication.

A return to the agreement is the best way forward, but there will be a lot of resistance in the U.S. There will be a lot of hurdles within Iran too.

How will Israel affect the U.S. policy toward Iran?

The Biden administration will be inclined to consult closely with the Israelis and to take their concerns seriously, but they will not welcome a replay of what we saw in 2015, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the U.S. Congress to speak against an agreement without even informing the U.S. president he was doing so. The Israelis have to respect that it’s a new administration, give them time to formulate their policies, work closely with them, and hopefully air any major differences behind closed doors. Finally, there are voices within Israel who understand the benefits of constraining the Iran nuclear program through diplomacy. They’ve been overshadowed in the past couple of years because there’s been widespread support in Israel for Trump’s maximum pressure policy. But if the U.S. and the Iranians are really able to restore a viable nuclear agreement, we’ll likely see some change of tone within Israel itself.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry signs an order to lift sanctions in 2016. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of State)



Playing Hardball Will Lead to a Better Deal

Chuck Freilich was Israel’s deputy national security adviser from 2000 to 2005. A former senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he teaches at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. His books include Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Cyber Power and Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change.

How has the situation changed since the U.S. pulled out of the agreement?

The Trump administration’s overall policy toward Iran was a major failure. It never developed a coherent strategy. It did impose very painful sanctions on Iran, which I think was good, because countries don’t normally do things without some pressure. You always need a healthy combination of carrots and sticks, and the Trump administration certainly came up with lots of sticks. The problem was that they didn’t have any carrots. The decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal was a historic error, whose result was that Iran today is three or four months away from having enough nuclear material to build its first two bombs. Trump also managed to create a great deal of animosity with our European allies, in general and about Iran specifically, to the point that they even set up a special economic mechanism called the INSTEX [Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges], whose sole purpose was to get around the American sanctions and, in essence, undermine and defeat a major foreign policy initiative by the United States, their historic ally and protector.

Biden is inheriting an unenviable situation. He is a wise man, and some of his advisers are wise people, but at least publicly they’re saying that they want to go back to the JCPOA as the basis for negotiating a new deal to encompass issues the JCPOA didn’t cover, such as ballistic missile use and Iran’s support for regional terror regimes. First of all, a new deal should have no sunset clause. It should not run out, certainly not in ten or fifteen years. Biden hasn’t stated how he plans to go from returning to the old deal to reaching the new deal. And I’m quite concerned that there is too much enthusiasm for going back to the old deal—which, by the way, I strongly supported—but I think there’s a risk that he will squander Trump’s one achievement, which was to create this great leverage, this great economic pain that the sanctions have caused Iran. If he squanders that leverage, I think Iran will probably be willing to go back to the old deal, but how do you get them to make the painful concessions required to reach the new deal?

What should the Biden administration’s approach to Iran be?

To take advantage of the existing leverage, they need to play hardball. Some risk is involved: Whenever anyone does anything against Iran, some of our allies start screaming that it’s too dangerous. But if you are totally risk averse, you should not conduct any foreign defense policy. You should just stay home and pray. There will probably need to be a crisis or a series of crises before a deal is ultimately signed, but because Iran does not want a military confrontation with the U.S. and the U.S. doesn’t want to go the military route either, logic indicates that both sides will try to reach a diplomatic deal. It’s just extraordinarily difficult to get there. Complicating matters, the Iran issue has become partisan in the U.S. If you’re a hardliner on Iran and you’re willing to exert all sorts of pressures and severe sanctions, then you’re a Republican. If you take a softer approach, you’re a Democrat. This should not be a partisan issue. Iran should not be allowed to go nuclear, full stop. The only debate should be about how we prevent that outcome.

Neither side wants to go the military route so logic indicates that they will try to reach a diplomatic deal. It’s just extraordinarily difficult to get there. Complicating matters, the Iran issue has become partisan in the U.S. Iran should not be a partisan issue.

How will Israel affect the U.S. policy toward Iran?

Israel is going to be totally consumed by its own elections until March 23 and unable to help the Biden administration formulate an effective policy. When it comes to Middle Eastern players, Israel at times takes a somewhat more realistic approach than the U.S. This topic needs very close high-level consultations between the president and the prime minister. But Netanyahu isn’t going to have as much time for this as he ordinarily would have, because his two major objectives right now are to get reelected and to stay out of jail. The question is whether he’s going to have a positive exchange with Biden—maybe including disagreements, but that’s legitimate—or whether he’ll try to do what he did with Obama, which is create an adversary who did not have to be an adversary, and use him to rally his right-wing base for the elections. I hope and pray that he won’t do that. I thought what he did with Obama in 2015 was a tragedy, a historic error. It’s fine to disagree quietly; you can even allow some of the disagreements to become public. But the prime minister of Israel should never take on the president of the United States openly. Fortunately, Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades. Biden is a more experienced political player than Obama was, and he may know how to handle the situation better. He also has a very long pro-Israel record, which serves him well if he wants to disagree with Netanyahu on this. Obama had a greater need to try to prove he was pro-Israel. Biden doesn’t have to prove it. I hope that both leaders will act responsibly.

How will changes in the region more broadly affect Biden’s options?

He should support the normalization process, and he should continue working with the Saudis, trying to guide the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He’s a young, inexperienced leader. Work with him, teach him what’s acceptable, put some pressure on him. The U.S., Israel, the region and the world need him to contain Iran.

A state funeral is held in Tehran for assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020. (Photo credit: Iranian Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia)



Talk to Iran to Avoid Miscalculations

Efraim Halevy served as chief of Israel’s Mossad from 1998 to 2002, and then as head of the Israeli National Security Council until 2003. He is best known for his role in bringing about the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. He is also a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and author of numerous books on the intelligence community and Middle East history.

How has the situation changed since the U.S. pulled out of the agreement?

Iran has learned to live more or less in a state of siege with a depressed economy. It has shown countries in the region its capabilities in the field of technology and modern warfare. It is somehow glorifying its solitude in a way that could be very dangerous.

What do you think the Biden administration’s approach to Iran should be?

President Trump stated before the election that one of the first things he would do in a second term was try to restart negotiations with Iran. I think that this should be President Biden’s point of departure. It is unconscionable that for years the dialogue with Iran has more or less been suspended. It is important that Iran be a partner for dialogue, even if the parties in the dialogue differ very much in their approach.

Do you think the Biden administration should try to return to the Iran agreement?

The agreement was made between Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.—plus Germany and the European Union. The U.S. was the most important partner, but it was not the only partner. The U.S. decided unilaterally to leave the agreement and to ignore the various undertakings and commitments it had made concerning Iran. So the question is not whether the agreement should be restored. The initial U.S. stance should be that it needs to negotiate with Iran about restarting negotiations. This would be an important cover for discussing some of the immediate issues that should be tackled in order to lower the temperature in the area. The present situation, in which all players in the region are ratcheting up their positions, could lead to dire miscalculations of the capabilities, positions and policies on each side.

The nuclear issue will be only partially defused if all the other issues are not dealt with. This is the opportunity to put all the problems that Iran has been creating on the table, and to take the time and the energy to deal with them.

The Iran deal was a partial deal. It dealt with the nuclear aspect of the problems of the Middle East. A decision was made very early on not to negotiate other aspects of the conflict, and I believe that was a mistake. Because when you talk about the Iranian nuclear capability, you also talk about their ability to create delivery systems for whatever weapons they are trying to produce. We also did not take into account the way the Iranians have become players in other countries in the region, such as Syria. The nuclear issue will be only partially defused if all these other aspects are not dealt with. This is the opportunity to put all the problems that Iran has been creating on the table, and to take the time and the energy to deal with them. All the partners together need to indicate to the Iranians that if they wish a return to the JCPOA, it will have to be done within the framework of setting up the mechanisms to deal with these other problems.

What effect should Israel have on U.S. policies toward Iran?

Apart from Iran, Israel is the most active and effective power in the region. To succeed, the American effort will need Israeli consultation and participation. The ultimate goal should be to create an atmosphere in which ultimately the U.S. will find the means to solve not only the Iranian threats to the world, but also the problems of others in the region, including Iran itself. Iranian concerns cannot include the disappearance of Israel off the face of the Earth. In effect, they have to recognize the legality of the State of Israel. I believe they know that they are unable to destroy Israel and that they ultimately will come to terms with Israel as a viable power in the Middle East. The sooner they begin to digest that premise, the easier it will be for them and all others concerned to sit down and discuss the issues on the table.

Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, Israel and Iran enjoyed very friendly relations. They were not open relations, due to Iran’s sensitivities, but we didn’t have any conflicts of interest. Israel and Iran cooperated in the export of Iranian oil to the world through a pipeline which ran from Eilat to the Mediterranean. This and other things could ultimately be on the table. Iran and Israel could both benefit enormously from economic cooperation.

How will changes in the region more broadly affect Biden’s options?

The U.S. has a very big naval presence in the Persian Gulf and a fleet headquarters there. It’s not going to simply walk away from the Middle East. It will, of course, try to minimize the burden on America’s economy and its armed forces. But ultimately the U.S. is there to stay for the foreseeable future, which is a very important fact, certainly for Israel. But one of the results of the Arab Spring ten years ago is that the Russians have set up a permanent presence in Syria, both naval and, if need be, aerial. The Biden administration must take this into consideration in formulating policy.

How might COVID-19 factor into U.S. policy decisions?

COVID-19 is spreading exponentially in Iran, causing a lot of death and pain. The Biden administration could use the vaccine as a tactic in its approach to Iran. It’s one of many things that can be used to begin to coax the Iranians to adopt different policies. This is all the more important as the reign of Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader of Iran, is coming to an end, and different forces are already vying inside Iran to be his successor. It could influence the outcome of the struggle if, for instance, the U.S. took an unconventional position, and put the vaccine on the table as a possible incentive for the Iranians to begin to think differently about the U.S. and Israel.

An Iranian military exercise firing a Zelzal 3 ballistic missile in 2011. (Photo credit: Mohammad Sadegh Heydari via Wikimedia)



Stay the Course of Maximum Pressure

Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based policy institute.

How has the situation changed over the last four years?

One major strategic change was President Trump’s decision to impose maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic and move away from the Obama policy, which was centered on the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. The Obama administration defended that deal as permanently cutting off Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons. The Trump administration objected to that characterization because of provisions in the JCPOA under which key restrictions would go away and because the deal did not address the full range of Iran’s malignant conduct. So it withdrew from the deal in 2018, reimposed sanctions and then launched a campaign over two and a half years of intense and relentless economic pressure on the regime that provoked significant economic and political crises for the mullahs.

Iran’s grip in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria diminished as it found itself without the resources to maintain funding levels for its proxies and allies. Then there were a series of high-profile assassinations, including the killing of Qasem Soleimani in 2020 and the recent killing, we think by the Mossad, of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who oversaw Iran’s nuclear weapons development for more than two decades. Between those two assassinations was the Israeli killing of Al-Masri, the number two Al-Qaeda commander, on the streets of Tehran. These killings showed that when the U.S. and Israel cooperate, they can inflict significant damage on the regime in Iran. The Israelis demonstrated that Iran was not ten feet tall, despite the perception in Washington that if we escalated against Iran it would lead to World War III. That obviously didn’t happen.

There were also the Abraham Accords, which effectively ended the Arab-Israeli conflict and brought together Israeli and Arab assets against threats from Iran. The accords reflect a recognition by a number of Arab leaders that the real threat does not come from Jerusalem but from Tehran, and that Israeli power is going to be indispensable to take on the Iranians. With the United States pivoting out of the Middle East to the Pacific, the only country in the region with the military and intelligence capabilities to take on the Islamic Republic is Israel.

What do you think the Biden administration’s approach to Iran should be?

It should continue this trajectory of maximum pressure and Arab-Israeli normalization, and it should not go back into the six-year-old JCPOA. The strategic picture in the Middle East has fundamentally changed, and America has significant leverage to negotiate a follow-up agreement, which, as Biden has suggested, is necessary to address some of the fundamental flaws of the 2015 agreement. It makes very little sense to preemptively give up your leverage by going back to the JCPOA, withdrawing all of these sanctions, having hundreds of billions of dollars flow back into the coffers of the mullahs, giving them the financial resources to head off this intensified economic and political crisis. It will be very difficult for the Biden administration to restore leverage and pressure once they’ve lifted it. Their fundamental miscalculation is believing that they can easily snap back the sanctions in the face of Iranian nuclear escalation. To do this you need a president who’s willing to go it alone and defy the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians. There will be huge disagreement over whether and how to do it and I’ve seen no evidence that President Biden will be willing to defy his allies.

The Israelis demonstrated that Iran was not ten feet tall, despite the perception in Washington that if we escalated against Iran it would lead to World War III. That obviously didn’t happen.

The Biden administration will also make a fundamental mistake if it goes back into the JCPOA in the face of opposition from Republicans, Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Moroccans, Egyptians—you name it. They keep believing that it’s our European allies that matter the most, but they are not in Iranian missile range. Also, this whipsawing of U.S. policy is not healthy for a superpower. That’s why I think it’s incumbent upon the Biden team not to repeat the mistake of 2015. They need to rally bipartisan support, and support from our key Middle Eastern allies.

How will Israel affect the U.S. policy toward Iran?

I hope that the Biden administration learns the lesson that a well-coordinated good cop-bad cop strategy with Netanyahu is more effective than a huge clash between the president and the prime minister, like what occurred in 2015. The Israelis are demonstrating what we always want a U.S. ally to do, which is to project power and do the things that we may not want to do. We should do everything we can to leverage that ally, and the Gulf Arabs as well, to do as much damage to the Islamic Republic as possible.

Should COVID-19 be a factor in U.S. Iranian policy?

Iran certainly has suffered severely from COVID-19, and I’m sure that will be used as a pretext for sanctions relief. Legitimately, there are certain types of targeted sanctions relief that I think would be useful from a humanitarian perspective.The question is how much of Iran’s humanitarian claims are legitimate and how much are propaganda. The regime has not acknowledged the extent of the crisis, so the numbers are much greater than the official ones. This has created a huge trade problem for Iran, as countries have shut their borders to prevent the spread of the virus. Even with sanctions relief, the regime is going to have a hard time rebuilding its economy.

Iranians in Tehran attend a demonstration condemning U.S. policies on the anniversary of the 1979 American Embassy takeover. (Photo credit: Masoud Shahrestani)



We Need a New, Broader Deal

Sharon Nazarian is a political scientist and the senior vice president for international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and immigrated with her family to the United States during the Iranian Revolution. In 2018, she launched the ADL Task Force on Middle Eastern Minorities. 

How has the situation changed since the U.S. pulled out of the agreement?

Iran has the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East, and its ballistic missiles have become more precise and lethal. It’s become even more of a leading state sponsor of anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial, as well as terrorism, targeting Jewish and Israeli institutions. And the treatment of Iranian citizens—specifically women, and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities—has severely worsened. Under sanctions, the economy of Iran took a huge hit. There are environmental issues, water shortages, huge corruption within the regime. Iran’s threat to its own people and to the region and to the world has only gotten that much greater.

What do you think the Biden administration’s approach to Iran should be?

The Biden administration has already signaled its willingness to go back to the JCPOA, but as many officials on the U.S. side have already pointed out, it won’t be that easy. The only way to get Russia and China on board in 2015 was to limit the provisions of this agreement to Iran’s nuclear capability and to establish a time frame, saying that after a certain date we could renegotiate. Unfortunately, that signaled to the regime that if they could hide their activities until that time frame was over, they’d be free to do whatever they wanted. That’s very problematic: After 40 years of blatant aggression, both globally and toward its own citizens, this regime should never be trusted with such destructive power. I was happy to hear a German minister offer a nod toward urging what he called “JCPOA plus,” a broader deal, which would include control over ballistic missile use. There should also be a heightened emphasis on human rights issues within Iran’s borders and on this regime’s support for terrorism and anti-Semitic Holocaust denial rhetoric. It’s important for the Biden administration to go in with a holistic approach to Iran’s malignant behavior.

How will Israel affect the U.S. policy toward Iran?

Prime Minister Netanyahu believes Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and will continue to aggressively oppose any sort of deal that takes the pressure off Iran. There’s real belief in Israel that the sanctions have destabilized the regime and brought it to its knees economically, and Israelis fear that President Biden will lift some of those sanctions in negotiating the American reentry into JCPOA.

The Jewish community in Iran today is one of the most vulnerable Jewish communities in the world. They’re essentially a captured community, which can in no way speak up for its own interests. The Biden administration, like the Israeli government, needs to consider them as well.

Will COVID-19 be a factor?

The regime has not been transparent in reporting how severely the virus has affected the Iranian population. It was very late in closing public spaces, especially mosques. Official government channels are peddling conspiracy theories about the virus itself, how it’s spread, who’s behind it, who’s developing the vaccine. They blame Jews and the “Zionist state.” Because of Iran’s weakened economy, the regime can’t bring resources to hard-hit hospitals or the medical system. More recently, the regime has used COVID-19 restrictions as a mechanism to control opposition and oppress and punish religious and ethnic minorities. Sadly, based on what I know about Iran, the elite will take care of themselves first when it comes to the vaccine. The vaccine will be bartered and sold on the black market, and those who really need it will get it last.

How does the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, impact negotiations?

2020 started with the assassination of Soleimani, and then in November, Fakhrizadeh, and no one’s taken responsibility for either. Obviously the finger’s been pointed at the U.S. and Israel. The biggest impact of these acts is psychological. Soleimani was such a revered figure; his assassination really hit Iran’s leaders hard. He was the brains behind the regime and the expansion of Iran’s ideology throughout the Arab world. They really see themselves as an imperial Greater Iran. The Fakhrizadeh killing hit at the heart of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The fact that he could be killed on the street in broad daylight was huge. It was also a message to the Biden administration and to the West that there are stakeholders who will take extrajudicial steps to ensure that the direction of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. and the West will not just be left to the JCPOA.

Are you concerned that U.S. policy could hurt Jews still living in Iran?

The Jewish community in Iran today is one of the most vulnerable Jewish communities in the world. They’re essentially a captured community, which can in no way speak up for its own interests. They are so endangered by threats from their own government that they can never publicly criticize it. If you see information that’s put out by Iran’s Jewish community, you will see what steps they have to take in order to ensure that they are not seen as an enemy within and branded as Zionist spies. Not only do they completely toe the regime’s party line, they go above and beyond to criticize Israeli policy and point out threats that Israel poses to their daily lives. The Biden administration, like the Israeli government, needs to consider them as well. Having been born and raised there, I understand what this regime has inculcated in the last 40 years in its own people, especially religious minorities. There’s really no room for error.

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