Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington and Tehran are currently in an awkward diplomatic pas de deux. Public statements from each capital suggest a stand-off over which side should initiative moves to restore compliance with the nuclear deal (JCPOA): “You First!” “No, You Go First!”
But rather than dig into the arcana of nuclear diplomacy, it’s probably more useful to lay out the key events and timelines in the months ahead that are likely to drive these critical talks.
Further, and related, are the practical constraints President Joe Biden faces in actually beginning a diplomatic move with Tehran; there are many, and even getting to “GO” won’t be easy. The airstrike Biden ordered last Thursday against an Iranian proxy in eastern Syria highlights the challenge.
Time may not be on the president’s side; in many respects the diplomatic window, if there really is one, is closing fast.
The first key event in this Washington-Tehran stand-off is the imminence of Iran’s June national elections. Some analysts, joined last month by Iran’s ambassador to the UN, posit a narrow and shrinking negotiating window before “campaigning” begins in Iran for the June vote - like before mid-April. Indeed, there might be a small chance that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani would listen to and act on a short-term nuclear compromise offered by Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
But the far greater likelihood is that Iran’s Supreme Leader will wait until after the election; Rouhani would then be gone, and an entirely new, more compliant team would be assembled. Discussions, if they take place at all, would at least start with an Iranian team guided by Ayatollah Khamenei’s latest statements: that all U.S. sanctions must be removed before Iran takes any action to return to the JCPOA. It’s not hard to envision talks, if they do begin, quickly turning into a diplomatic nightmare.
Second, there’s the steadily accumulating military reality of Iran’s JCPOA violations.
Keeping in mind that it was the United States in 2018 that left a nuclear deal with which Iran was largely in compliance, consider where we are now: Iran is enriching well above the 3.67% allowed by the nuclear deal, has stockpiled more than 12 times the amount of permitted low enriched uranium, and just last week limited international inspectors from declared nuclear sites.
Unless arrested soon, these violations, and others as well, make the likelihood of Israeli preemption in some form a virtual inevitability.
It’s tempting to think that Israel, in the middle of yet another election, would be constrained over the short term in launching any military action against Iran. Yet while Israeli politics is roiled over domestic issues, on Iran there is virtual unanimity: the Iranian threat is existential. If Iranian violations bring the break-out time for acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon down to well under a year, Israel will act regardless of electioneering or election outcomes.
Finally, on Biden’s negotiating flexibility, he needs to pay close attention to our Middle East partners who will be in diplomatic overwatch – Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. They have taken substantial risks, with U.S. encouragement, to normalize diplomatic relations.
Unfortunately, during President Barack Obama’s last attempt to negotiate with the Iranians, these actors were given short shrift. But we ignore at our peril these geopolitical partners going forward. They won’t be satisfied with a simple return to the nuclear status quo ante with Iran; and Israel, in particular, will object to any effort to sidle up to the Mullahs.
But Biden and his team must make a good-faith effort. The U.S. retains vital security interests in the region despite our advances in domestic energy production, and these countries, along with the Saudis, need to be by our side.
In the end, though, the biggest constraint on Biden’s flexibility at this point is probably the U.S. Congress.
Blowback will likely be intense, especially from Republicans, but from hawkish Democrats as well, at even the hint of compromise with Tehran. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Presidential Trade Advisor Peter Navarro have already previewed how the blowback might look as they offered blistering critiques of Biden’s China policy over the last few weeks - even though what the president and his team have done over this period is substantively indistinguishable from Trump’s.
I’ve always thought Iran would be the hardest of Biden’s foreign policy challenges – not the most important; China is. But on “degree of difficulty?” Iran tops the list.
* * *
ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.