First Make Iran Mend Fences With Its Neighbors

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President Joe Biden has long been forthright in his desire to bring the U.S. back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Now he’s laying out a vision for doing so: If Iran returns to full compliance with the deal, he says, the U.S. will reciprocate. Then talks can begin — with Iran’s neighbors at the table — on “a longer and stronger agreement,” as Biden’s secretary of state put it.

These are the right ideas, but in the wrong order. Biden would be wise to return to negotiations, but wiser still to demand that Iran engage in good-faith peace talks with its neighbors before the U.S. will make a move.

A major flaw in the original deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was that the world powers made no room at the table for countries directly menaced by Tehran. Those countries — especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have every reason to fear a nuclear Iran, both because of its proximity and because its leaders routinely threaten them. They repeatedly argued that the regime would use a moratorium on nuclear-weapons development to expand its other destabilizing activities.

They were right: In the three years before President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and imposed sanctions, Iran stepped up its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people; boosted funding for proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen; and sped up its ballistic missile programs. Trump’s sanctions didn’t end this behavior, but they certainly limited its scope. Imagine how much more mayhem might’ve been unleashed if the regime had access to hundreds of billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and new export revenue.

It is to forestall that outcome that the countries with the most at stake are asking to participate in the next round of negotiations. The regime in Tehran says regional security concerns should be addressed separately. Claiming it wants peace in the Middle East, it has even proposed a forum it has dubbed the Hormuz Peace Endeavor.

Biden should call this bluff and insist on the start of good-faith regional peace talks before any meaningful return to nuclear diplomacy. He should also use American leverage with Iran’s neighbors to encourage their participation, and offer non-nuclear sanctions relief in return for concrete progress. This may frustrate the other signatories of the JCPOA, but the U.S. can legitimately argue — with the help of Israel and the Arab states — that regional peace is a better outcome than merely pausing Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran wants amity with its neighbors, there are plenty of ways to demonstrate its seriousness. It could lean on the Houthis to make a deal in Yemen, persuade Hamas and Hezbollah to soften their stance on Israel, or draw down its presence in Syria. If it can’t show progress on mending fences with its neighbors — and continues to recklessly enrich uranium — Biden should be able to persuade the other signatories to impose more penalties.

Biden wouldn’t be the first American president to offer Iran a “goodwill begets goodwill” deal: George H.W. Bush coined that phrase for his own dealings with the regime. That effort foundered when the U.S. discovered Iran had stepped up its clandestine nuclear program and support for terrorism, including Hezbollah’s 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.

The lesson from that experience is that the threat from Tehran can’t be contained by separating the nuclear menace from other malign behavior. It must be dealt with in the aggregate. Biden should start by insisting that Iran demonstrate goodwill toward its neighbors if it expects goodwill from the U.S. in return.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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