Dec 9, 2020 - World

Biden and Netanyahu are on a collision course over Iran

Photo illustration of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu looking at each other with a split Iran in the background.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Eric Baradat (AFP), Gali Tibbon (AFP)/Getty Images

The incoming Biden administration and the Israeli government are on a collision course over the future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Why it matters: There is a growing gap between Biden’s stated intention to re-enter the deal and Israel’s expectations and public demands against it.

Split screen:

  • Biden’s soon-to-be national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, reiterated at a WSJ conference on Monday that the new administration will first attempt to put Iran “back into the box” of the nuclear deal and only then move toward a “follow-on negotiation” to include Iran’s missile program and its regional behavior.
  • That same day, Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said on MSNBC that what “keeps him up at night” is the thought that the U.S. would return to the deal.

Netanyahu has personally started campaigning against any return to the deal, which he vocally opposed in the first place and then encouraged President Trump to abandon.

  • That could lead to a "Groundhog Day" scenario, in which U.S.-Israel relations under Biden become a repeat of the Obama era.
  • That follows four years in which Netanyahu's government and the Trump administration were totally aligned on Iran, including over Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign.

What they're saying:

  • At a conference on Iran on Monday, one of Israel’s most senior defense officials said Israel expects Biden to keep all of Trump's sanctions in place, despite Biden's statements to the contrary.
  • "Don’t give up the sanctions five minutes before you start the negotiations," insisted Zohar Palti, who oversees the political-security division at the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
  • Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Palti said Trump had done an "outstanding job with sanctions." Biden, he said, had to take office showing a willingness to be tough on Iran, rather than an unreasonable expectation that Iran would compromise.

The other side: Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who is likely to get a senior Middle East job in Biden's administration, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that Israel would have a chance to make its case in early, high-level consultations with the Biden administration.

  • But Shapiro also wrote that Israel "will have no ability to dictate U.S. policy."
  • Instead of getting into a clash with Biden over a U.S. return to the deal, Shapiro wrote, the Israeli government should focus on developing a common strategy with the new administration over the next step: what a follow-on deal should look like. 

What’s next: In the coming days, an Iranian law will come into force setting a 60-day deadline for the U.S. to lift sanctions. If the U.S. doesn't do so, the law states, Iran will raise uranium enrichment levels to 20% and limit UN inspectors' access to its nuclear sites.

The bottom line: Swift diplomacy and decision-making over the nuclear deal will be required once Biden takes office in January. He can expect opposition from Israel.

Go deeper