Iran's Regional Operations and the Biden Administration
Speakers: Kirsten Fontenrose, Michael Herzog, Rouzbeh Parsi
Moderator: Hanin Ghaddar
Report Writer: William Christou
On May 6, 2021, the UCLA Center for Middle East Development hosted a public online webinar to discuss Iran’s regional operations and the Biden administration. The event’s speakers were Kirsten Fontenrose, the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council; Dr. Rouzbeh Parsi, the head of the MENA program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm; and retired Brigadier General Michael Herzog, an International Fellow at the Washington Institute and the former head of strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces. They discussed the challenges that face the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations with Iran and the Biden administration in dealing with Iran in general.
From the American perspective, Kirsten Fontenrose outlined exactly what Iran hopes to receive exchange for its participation in renewed negotiations. Iran wants a prisoner exchange, the lifting of oil sanctions, and the unfreezing of some Iranian assets held abroad. Lifting sanctions, she explained, is a particularly thorny issue, as the behaviors that the sanctions seek to curtail have not stopped. For example, there are numerous sanctions directed against Iranian institutions and individuals for their funding of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) elements, both of which the US considers terrorist entities. These individuals and institutions continue funding these groups, making it difficult for the US to justify lifting sanctions.
The Biden administration could choose to lift some sanctions, but they would most likely have to be directly related to the Iranian nuclear program. The US Congress is wary of any activities with Iran, especially on an issue as high profile as the JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, the US cannot be seen as giving up too much in the negotiations. This limits Washington’s freedom to conduct these negotiations.
Fontenrose also noted that it’s probable that Iran will use the windfall it gets from sanctions relief and increased oil sales to fund proxies across the Middle East—namely, in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. This will put pressure on the Biden administration in the long-term, as it will have to explain to its domestic constituency and allies abroad why Iranian activity in the region has increased despite a return to the JCPOA. Fontenrose predicted that this would catalyze a regional rapprochement between Iran and states in the Arab Gulf, as they seek to proactively reduce Iranian proxy activity in the region by themselves.
Dr. Rouzbeh Parsi emphasized that the JCPOA is not up for re-negotiation as it is a United Nations-chartered treaty. Rather, he noted that it was the United States who broke the deal and is attempting now to re-negotiate its return to the JCPOA. The US’s abrupt departure from the deal during the Trump administration engendered a great deal of broken trust and damaged US credibility with Iran. There is a fear within Tehran that, if they make another deal with Washington, the next administration will come in and similarly dishonor the terms of the deal. The question some officials in Tehran are thus asking themselves is: why they should risk their own credibility and expend political capital for a deal that might be violated once again in four years?
If trust is able to be restored between the two countries, then they can move from the nuclear issues to non-nuclear issues, such as proxy activity in the Middle East. However, Washington needs to realize that it cannot come to the negotiating table expecting to give Iran a “dressing down,” as it no longer has the leverage nor the international credibility to do so. Instead, both parties need to come to the negotiating table ready to have an exchange of ideas and a discussion of which points can be compromised on.
In addition, it would be helpful to realize what other powers view as malign activity in the region or the utilization of proxies, which is what Iran considers “creating strategic depth.” Such strategic depth is essential to Iran’s ability to compete with countries whose military powers far outstrip their own—namely, the US and Israel. Recognizing this as an essential part of Iran’s security doctrine will be helpful for future negotiations. He differed with the other speakers by saying that expecting Iran to abandon the elements that make up this “strategic depth” is unrealistic and unfair to Iran.
From the Israeli perspective, Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog noted that the Iranian nuclear program is the most severe threat to Israel’s security. Compared to the nuclear threat, the use of proxies and the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles and huge rocket arsenals are second-order threats, though definitely serious threats of strategic nature that must be addressed. However, in the bigger picture, all of these elements—the nuclear program, proxies, and ballistic missiles—are interconnected and viewed as tools of Iran’s ambitious power projection. Herzog argued that the US and EU should integrate the nuclear and the regional issues into a broader Iran strategy so that Iran's power projection is addressed in a holistic manner. He also urged the US to treat Israel (as well as other regional actors) as a stakeholder in these negotiations.
Notwithstanding the required broad Iran strategy, Herzog said that Israel wants the nuclear negotiations not to include the regional issues, so as not to overload its agenda and so that no tradeoffs are made, to the detriment of preventing an Iranian nuclear breakout. Regional issues can and should be addressed separately. Israel’s insistence on the nuclear issue and on making adjustments in a renewed nuclear deal with Iran is not just due to fears of ultimately facing a nuclear-armed Iran. It is also because the original JCPOA could allow for and legitimize a nuclear-threshold Iran, a development that is likely to fuel destabilization in the region, including a nuclear arms race.
Finally, Herzog warned that the conflict between Iran and its proxies on the one hand and Israel on the other hand has been steadily escalating for some time now—across the region and in cyberspace. For the first time, Iran and Israel are exchanging direct blows. A focal flash point is Iran’s efforts at building Syria into a military front facing Israel and equipping Hezbollah with precision rockets, which is of great concern to Israel’s security. Israel is likely to continue its military activities against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, yet Iranian power projection in the region ought to be confronted more holistically.
While the speakers acknowledged that a US return to the JCPOA was in the interest of both the US and Iran, they disagreed on the exact terms of such a return, on its impact on the region, and on the degree of leverage the US can exercise over Iran in making demands of it on a regional level. Dr. Parsi further suggested that what the region truly needs is a comprehensive security architecture that includes Iran or takes the country into account.