What is the point of a rules-based international order if the rules are not applied to all? This is the question that is often raised by critics of US foreign policy both inside and outside the United States. While the US government promotes values like democracy, human rights, diplomacy, and international law, it has often been guilty of using those principles more as talking points than policy positions. The discourse on Iran and discussions of returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — also called the Iran nuclear deal — best illustrate how such insincere posturing can undermine US policy objectives.
After yet another illegal attack on an Iranian nuclear facility on April 11, 2021 in what looks to be another round of Israeli sabotage, Iran announced a decision to increase its uranium enrichment to 60%. The attack by Israel came at a time when the United States and Iran had finally made some progress toward reviving the nuclear deal, which was abrogated by the Trump administration in May 2018. A key foreign policy promise of the Biden administration has been to re-engage Iran and return to the path of diplomacy in order to resolve the nuclear issue and build on further diplomacy. So why would Israel, a close US ally, sabotage not only Iran’s nuclear facility, but also the Biden administration’s diplomatic goals?
WIN–WIN FOR ISRAEL
The political calculus for Israel is fairly simple. With unlimited US backing, Israel can break with international law and norms with impunity. If Iran retaliates for Israel’s assault, it will draw the ire of the United States and make diplomacy nearly impossible; if Iran does nothing, Israel has inflicted the damage it wants with no consequence.
This is evident in the fact that Israel has a long history of carrying out such attacks inside Iran, even assassinating numerous Iranian scientists, without consequence. In fact, Israel’s recent attack in Iran was carried out while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel. The following day, Secretary Austin appeared next to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and reaffirmed that the US “commitment to the US-Israel strategic partnership is ironclad.” Though past administrations like the Obama administration at least rhetorically condemned Israeli actions against Iran that clearly violate international law, the Biden administration has remained silent.
TWO SETS OF RULES
Rather than denounce Israel’s unlawful attack — which risked a nuclear-related disaster in Iran and undercuts the current position of the Biden administration to return to the Iran deal — the Biden administration has focused its public frustration on Iran for its decision to increase uranium enrichment to 60%. But by fixating on Iran, the Biden administration is criticizing the effect instead of the cause.
While Israel breaks international law with impunity to disrupt diplomacy, Iran is treated with condescension by the very country that broke from the deal and imposed crippling sanctions — in a pandemic no less — even as Iran continued to abide by the agreement.
When asked about Iran’s intention to increase enrichment after Israel’s attack on Natanz, Secretary of State Antony Blinken ignored the attack completely and called Iran’s announcement “provocative,” adding that, “I have to tell you the step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks.” The E3 repeated similar language in a statement declaring, “Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions.” Neither Secretary Blinken, nor the E3 statement mentioned Israel once.
The double standard with which Israel and Iran are treated is exemplified by the fact that while Iran must submit to inspections over its civilian nuclear program, which is legal under the Non-Proliferation Treaty that Iran is signatory to, Israel maintains an arsenal of nuclear weapons with no oversight or pushback. In the case of US efforts to restore the Iran deal, the double standard is unmistakable.
While Israel breaks international law with impunity to disrupt diplomacy, Iran is treated with condescension by the very country that broke from the deal and imposed crippling sanctions — in a pandemic no less — even as Iran continued to abide by the agreement. Even more egregious is how a US administration would allow a supposed ally to undermine its own policy objectives, national security interests, and global security concerns that the international community has repeatedly lauded the Iran deal for safeguarding.
Despite the silent acquiescence of the Biden administration to allow Israel to demoralize US sovereignty and damage the prospects for diplomacy, the American populace supports the deal. At the same time, experts in the field, along with activists, have been clear in their condemnation of Israel’s actions and its plain intention to steer the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts off course. The day after the attack on Natanz, the Washington Post Editorial Board stated, “Israel’s relentless attacks on Iran may endanger Biden’s diplomacy.”
It should be noted that while these unlawful actions by Israel come at the behest of Prime Minister Netanyahu — who is infamous for his anti-Iran attitude and for having exaggerated the threat of a nuclear Iran for decades — Israeli society and politics are not monolithic. In reality, many Israeli intelligence and security officials have shown their support for President Biden returning to the nuclear deal with Iran.
WHAT THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION NEEDS TO DO
As President Biden has gone out of his way to cater to Israel and its defenders on the Hill, in return he is rewarded with sabotage aimed at countering his diplomacy. Ultimately, the Biden administration must put US national security and global security interests above its “ironclad” relationship with Israel. First, by publicly condemning Israel for its unlawful actions, and second by taking decisive steps to restore compliance under the Iran nuclear deal.
If the United States intends to actually lead the world in the rules-based international order it helped create and claims to esteem, then it will have to be an even-handed broker in matters of international law. There is no question that extrajudicial assassinations of scientists and attacks inside a sovereign nation go against that very order. To borrow from Secretary Blinken’s words, it is US double standards and silence on Israel’s attempts to obstruct diplomacy that calls into question the Biden administration’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks.
Assal Rad is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Iranian American Council. She received her PhD in history at the University of California, Irvine.