Why Iran Doubts Joe Biden’s Jerusalem Declaration

The Jerusalem Declaration on the US-Israel Strategic Partnership commits the United States and its top Middle East allies “to use all elements of their national power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Whilst hailed by some observers as a dramatic policy commitment by the United States, the Islamist Republic is unimpressed. The regime does not believe that Israel has the necessary tools to hit its underground nuclear facilities and, more importantly, it remains unconvinced that Washington is willing to stand by its declaration. 

Major General Hossein Salami, has cultivated an aggressive anti-American stance

There are several reasons for Iran’s sceptical position. To begin with, there has been a dramatic shift in the structure of Iran’s security decisionmaking. On April 21, 2019, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fired Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who considered defying the Trump administration a risky strategy. His replacement, Major General Hossein Salami, has cultivated an aggressive anti-American stance and ordered several high-profile operations in the Gulf waters: attacking oil tankers, shooting down US drones, and bombing Saudi oil infrastructure. In February 2020, the ‘principalists’ (osoul-gara) – hardline Iranian conservatives – won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats and, in August 2021, the hardline Ebrahim Raisi, best known for his role in the massacre of political prisoners, won the presidency.

The move towards radicalism affected the key centers which deliver intelligence evaluations, including the IRGC’s Center for Sustainable Security Studies, the Center for Strategic Studies (the research arm of the Iranian president’s office), and the Expediency Council’s Strategic Research Institute. Collectively, these intelligence units feed into the main intelligence product that the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) discusses. Thus, by definition, the SNSC that is populated by hardline conservatives is designed to reflect the radical assessments provided by the intelligence units.

Formed in 1989 to advise the Supreme Leader on security matters, the SNSC is staffed with former and serving Revolutionary Guards members. The current secretary of the Council is Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a former commander of the IRGC’s Navy and the architect of its aggressive anti-access, area denial strategy (A2/AD). Other senior members are Salami and Ahmad Vahidi, a former high-ranking IRGC commander, Minister of Defense in the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and one of the ultra-hardliners in Tehran. Among others, Vahidi was implicated in bombing the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Although meetings of the SNSC are secret, media platforms close to the regime reflect its strategic assessments.

The regime’s leaders do not expect the Biden administration to deliver the muscular support needed to make the Jerusalem Declaration a viable threat.

Four points are worth noting. First, the regime’s leaders do not expect the Biden administration to deliver the muscular support needed to make the Jerusalem Declaration a viable threat. Since his election, Tehran has considered President Biden a weak figure, famously naming him a “wet noodle.” His low opinion polls and economic difficulties have only added to this perception. The president’s age, his apparent cognitive difficulties, and the fact that two-thirds of Democrats do not want him to run in 2024 seem to blunt the support the Jerusalem Declaration promises. As Kayhan Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, stated, “with such a weak economy…and messed up internal situation, America is too powerless to help Israel or Saudi Arabia.” Ali Akbar Velaati, the long-time senior adviser to Khamenei and the head of the Expediency Council Research Institute, put it bluntly: “Joe Biden is the best image of America: old, weak, and senile.”

Second, the SNSC and its various analytical centers have carefully monitored the Biden administration’s reaction to a long string of Iranian provocations in the Gulf and beyond, including the smuggling of oil, acts of naval piracy, and attacks on Saudi facilities by the Houthi proxies. In fact, in a quiet concession, Washington allowed Iran to sell ~755,000 barrels of oil per day to China. As a rule, Western observers consider Biden’s restrained approach to be part of the diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, the SNSC views the administration’s lack of action as a failure of political will to deter the regime.

Tehran expects the bulk of America’s manpower and resources to be mobilized against the Chinese geopolitical threat.

Third, the messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the CIA’s decision to replace the Iran Mission Center with the China Mission Center signaled to the Iranians that this strategic shift in US foreign policy was real. According to intelligence assessments, Tehran expects the bulk of America’s manpower and resources to be mobilized against the Chinese geopolitical threat. Tehran’s recent “friendship agreements” with China and Russia have bolstered Iran’s sense of geopolitical security, not to mention the notion that it is on the right side of history. In the words of the head of the Expediency Council’s Strategic Research Institute, “the US economy weakness does not support another war in the Middle East. American power and hegemony are on the decline, and Washington can no longer play a key role in global issues and achieve desired results. And this is the time when regional powers like Iran can fill the vacuum and challenge America.”

Fourth, Ayatollah Khamenei has been reluctant to engage in the negotiations on reinstating the nuclear accord. Khamenei is a chief proponent of the so-called “Resistance Economy,” a vision that would see Iran relying entirely on its own resources to be immune to foreign pressure. Accordingly, Iran would reduce its dependence on oil revenue, isolate itself from global markets, and rely on local resources. In his words, “the key and remedy to the country’s problems stands in promoting internal production.” The Supreme Leader’s preferences hint at the long-term strategy to get around the Jerusalem Declaration. By dragging out the negotiations, the regime plans to produce enough enriched uranium to qualify as a “threshold state.” Once this stage is achieved, Tehran hopes to blackmail the United States into downgrading its commitment to the Declaration. Indeed, President Raisi has already threatened to “blow up the Middle East,” using the “Axis of Resistance,” Tehran’s proxy network.

As every student of international relations knows, diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust deterrence effect. The United States needs to refurbish its tarnished deterrence image as soon as possible. Two immediate steps would persuade the SNSC that the Biden administration can stand behind its verbal commitment. First, the US Navy should increase its interdiction and other efforts against Iran. Second, Washington should publicly transfer to Israel the military technology necessary to potentially undertake an effective kinetic action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.