White House Coming Around to ‘Plan B’ on Iran
Dovish State Department now talking about “other options” on the nuclear file
A parade of Israeli military, intelligence and political officials have made their way to Washington since US President Joe Biden took office. All have tried to change administration officials’ minds about negotiating with Iran on a return to the nuclear accord from which the Donald Trump White House withdrew.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tried a different tact. Visiting the American capital this week, he put the focus on coordinating on a “plan B.” Lapid’s logic is that it is obvious that the Iranians have simply been stalling for time as they continue developing their nuclear program.
For the first time, even those American officials most gung-ho about pursuing a diplomatic resolution acknowledged during Lapid’s time in Washington that, in essence, it is time to develop a cohesive, coherent plan B.
Perhaps the most dramatic comments came not from any of the principals at the State Department on Wednesday, including Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who held bilateral and trilateral meetings on regional issues. Instead, they came from Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, speaking at a Washington think tank. Malley has been criticized by Israel supporters as being too acquiescent and even sympathetic to the Iranians and willing to re-enter the accord at all costs.
His rhetoric on Wednesday took on a much different tone.
“We have to prepare for a world where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program and we have to consider options for dealing with that. This is what we are doing while we hope they do go back to the deal,” Malley said during a virtual discussion with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said that every day that passes is a greater indicator that the Iranians aren’t interested in coming back into compliance with the terms of the accord and, most noticeably, he said the US was ready to consider “all options” absent a return to the deal.
Blinken indicated the same line of thinking during his press conference with Lapid and Sheikh Abdullah. The term “all options” is generally accepted as a way to express that military action is a possibility, without explicitly laying it on the table.
“By saying other options, I think everyone understands, here, in Israel, in the Emirates, and in Tehran, what is it that we mean,” said Lapid.
Lapid asserted that his talks with officials in Washington centered on “the other options,” but notably switched from English to Hebrew while saying this to an Israeli reporter. He did not repeat that portion in English.
Blinken, like Malley, said that diplomacy remains his preferred avenue. But, there seemed to be more than a hint of resignation in their tone, and a willingness to move to Lapid’s view, that it’s time to start realizing that putting a plan B into action is looking more and more likely and that the time spent coordinating the next line of action with Middle East partners is time well spent.
Malley announced he would be heading to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar in the coming days to discuss the stalled negotiations with Tehran.
The gathering of Blinken, Lapid and Sheikh Abdullah was meant to be a celebration of the first anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, a series of US-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and Arab and Muslim-majority nations. After rapid-fire signings at the tail end of the Trump administration, advancement on expanding the “circle of peace” has stalled, as the Biden administration has placed less of an emphasis on putting its full weight into the process than the Trump White House did.
Recent media reports indicate Biden is ready to engage the process to an extent. But, when asked what incentives the US was offering to other countries to sign on, Blinken demurred.
“The incentive is the benefits of the relationships themselves. We have seen so many positive things happen economically and culturally as a result of these agreements. That’s why more countries should come on board. The results speak for themselves,” the secretary said.
The comment largely went unnoticed in media reports in the hours after the press conference, with the Iranian issue grabbing the lion’s share of the headlines. But it opened a window into the viewpoint of the US administration – that, essentially, it will support any and all further normalization agreements, but as far as dangling enticements like weapons sales (UAE), territorial recognition (Morocco) or debt and legal relief (Sudan) that the Trump administration offered, the Biden administration isn’t willing to go all in.
Speaking of going all in, multiple media reports have stressed over recent months that the Biden administration was putting off pressuring the Israeli government to allow the reopening of the shuttered Jerusalem consulate to the Palestinians until after the Israelis passed a budget – a process that is looked at as a make-or-break milestone.
The current government – with a fragile majority and competing interests on multiple fronts, needs to pass a budget by November 4. Failure to do so would result in fresh elections. Passage would all but assure the current coalition of a long-term stay that defies the odds and predictions of a quick collapse.
The Biden administration has been reluctant to throw a hot potato like the consulate issue at an unstable coalition, for fear it would break it in half. Re-opening the consulate, which was folded into the American embassy to Israel, requires Israeli government approval, and the notion of tying the Palestinians in any way to Jerusalem is anathema to many members of the coalition.
While Prime Minister Naftali Bennett mentioned the Palestinians exactly zero times in his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Lapid brought up Israel’s neighbors, unsolicited, in every public setting with each official he met, and laid out an economy-for-security proposal for Gaza to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Blinken broached the consulate issue at the trilateral press conference, telling those gathered, “We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of the deepening of those ties with the Palestinians.”
Lapid had previously called the move “a bad idea,” though he displayed no visual reaction to Blinken’s statement on Wednesday.
But, with the budget’s passage now within reach, multiple questions arise: How firm will the Biden administration be on the consulate issue? Is it a demand of its ally? A bargaining chip for other concessions?
And, should the budget pass, it will pose an additional question: whether the White House, which has by all accounts been rooting for this Israeli government’s long-term survival, would then be willing to go all-in – on Iran, or on any other matter of import to the bilateral relationship.