Why is Tehran seemingly not willing to take up Washington on its generous offer and simply reenter the nuclear deal? Are the Iranians learning to live with sanctions instead?
These are some of the questions perplexing the Washington establishment. I spoke with Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute, who tackled these questions and more in a two-part interview on the convergence of the 9/11 anniversary, the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords and the ever-present Iranian threat.
In fact, Satloff warned that the Biden administration should now be making a Plan B regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the regime defies expectations that it would readily jump back into the deal from which former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.
Satloff, an expert on Arab and Islamic politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy, shared his insights on what he sees as the message emanating from Iran in the past few months. Iran is not just guilty of terrorism, he said, but of creating instability in the region which, in many ways, is just as menacing.
“The Iranians are today the greatest exporter, state sponsor, of insecurity in the Middle East – I don’t just say ‘terrorism,’ I say ‘insecurity’ through their proxies, through their support for various terrorist groups and, of course, through their own activity in the Gulf,” Satloff said.
And this empowered Iran does not seem to be interested in America’s overtures to renew a nuclear deal.
“Washington is beginning to come around to the sense that it needs a Plan B, namely, how does one deal with the array of Iranian threats in the absence of a return to the nuclear deal?”
Here is the full transcript of part one of our interview:
ROSENBERG: Rob Satloff, great to be with you here in Washington, D.C. Give me your sense of you’ve got an interesting combination of the 9/11 anniversary, the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords and the growing fear that Iran is getting closer and closer to the bomb. And no one’s quite sure how to stop them. Let’s start with the negative side. How do you read the Iran threat and where’s the Biden administration heading on it?
SATLOFF: The Iranians are today the greatest exporter, state sponsor, of insecurity in the Middle East – I don’t just say “terrorism,” I say “insecurity” through their proxies, through their support for various terrorist groups and, of course, through their own activity in the Gulf against shipping and the nuclear weapons program, to be sure, which of course, also includes a ballistic missile aspect of it.
The Biden administration came to office with a sense that, “Let’s at least put a temporary cap on the nuclear weapons piece of this by going back to the Iran nuclear deal, even with all of its flaws. At least we’ll have a cap and we can use that time to perhaps negotiate a better deal.” The Iranians, one might have thought, would welcome this approach, given that it would provide relief from many sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration. But the Iranians so far have chosen not to take advantage of what seems to be quite a generous offer from the Biden administration. Perhaps there are many reasons for this. Maybe the Iranians like making all the progress on the nuclear program that they’re making. Maybe the Iranians don’t think that the offer is as attractive in 2021 as it was in 2015 when the nuclear deal was first signed. Maybe the Iranians realize that they figured out how to live with sanctions and the narrow IRGC-based regime is doing reasonably well enough to survive without the sanctions relief.
For whatever reason, Washington is beginning to come around to the sense that it needs a Plan B, namely, how does one deal with the array of Iranian threats in the absence of a return to the nuclear deal? We’re not quite there yet. There’ll be probably at least one more big effort at trying to convince the Iranians of the wisdom of returning to it. But many, many more officials, observers in and out of government are now reaching the conclusion that we have to confront the Iranians without the restraints, weak though they may be, of the nuclear deal. And so this is now, I think, becoming the new conventional wisdom on Iran policy or the challenge facing the United States regarding the Iranians.
ROSENBERG: What’s your sense of how the meetings with (Israeli) Prime Minister (Naftali) Bennett and his team and the U.S. president went since this was a big moment for a very new and untested Israeli leader?
SATLOFF: Well, Prime Minister Bennett, of course, was in Washington at an odd moment – a moment of American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return to power of the Taliban after 20 years. Bennett was the first foreign leader to be in Washington since this dramatic turn of events. He was in Washington when the final death blow came. His meeting with the president was postponed as a result of the urgency of the president having to deal with the evacuation and issues on the ground and the suicide bombing, of course, of the terrible attack that killed over a dozen American servicemen and women and injured hundreds. Bennett saw the president on Friday instead of Thursday. And I think, quite appropriate, Bennett took the moment to reaffirm the abiding bond between the Israeli people and the American people at a moment of great challenge and a terribly trying moment for any president, any government, any administration. And it was just the right note, well delivered by the new prime minister,
ROSENBERG: …Focusing on the condolences for the servicemen and being a good ally standing with the United States, no matter what, rather than focusing on the potential implications of pulling out of Afghanistan the way the U.S. has.
SATLOFF: Correct, and look, to be even more crass about it, Israeli prime ministers of of all political parties tend to come to Washington hat in hand with with a long list of requests to help them shore up their security on this, that or the other thing. While in private meetings, Bennett’s delegation, the Israeli and the Americans certainly went over a series of requests, especially Iron Dome-related issues, it was the this message of enduring friendship that dominated the Bennett-Biden meeting and was just the right note to be delivering at this challenging moment when most of the world was beginning to question American credibility. Here we have one of America’s closest allies standing shoulder to shoulder with the American president. And that was a very powerful and important moment.
ROSENBERG: How much influence, impact did Bennett have on encouraging a Plan B on Iran?
SATLOFF: I think we had a very interesting statement from President Biden publicly. One doesn’t know it was in the private discussions, but even publicly, the president said, “Look, we’re going to try another passive diplomacy…” I’m summarizing… “We’re going to try another passive diplomacy. If that doesn’t succeed, we’re going to be taking a look at all sorts of other things.” And that is essentially what Plan B is: You take a look at all sorts of other things and those other things are a whole range of coercive type measures, some in the open, some clandestine, some by us, some by partners that raise the cost to the Iranians in very real terms for pursuing this dangerous and threatening pattern of behavior.
ROSENBERG: You’ve known President Biden and his team. You see him as – and you believe that he sees himself as – pro-Israel and that he genuinely wants to help Israel survive and thrive.
SATLOFF: Joe Biden is rather unique among American politicians, I mean, not just of his generation but of American politicians more generally. It’s difficult, not impossible, but difficult to think of another national figure on the center and center left of our political spectrum, who calls himself a Zionist, not just pro-Israel. A lot of them characterize themselves as pro-Israel or a friend of Israel. But to actually accept the label of a ’Zionist,’ a term which has become vilified tragically, terribly, in American political lexicon. Joe Biden wears this label proudly. One can agree or disagree on this or that aspect of his policy. But I don’t think one can substantiate the argument that Joe Biden, in his heart of hearts, has it in for the Israelis. Or, that he is an Israel-hater, he just masks it. I think that is poppycock. I think he is a lover of Zion and believes himself to be a strong supporter of the State of Israel and certainly in his political party is a pillar of that support. How that translates into policy? There’s a wide range of views. But I think we saw actually in the Gaza conflict, when it was put to the test. President Biden was strong and forthright in unabashedly defending Israel’s right to respond by all means necessary to the onslaught of rockets from Gaza. And that, I think, was a very welcome position by the president.
ROSENBERG: I agree with you, Rob, and I think that he, you know... I’ve been sharply critical of the president because of the Afghanistan decision and how it’s been implemented. I’m concerned about him on Iran, but I have tried to portray in the book as well as, you know, in my public comments, that there are elements that we who love Israel and support Israel need to remember how much Biden does love Israel and not just to dismiss him entirely.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.