Iran Leaders Keep Focus on Biden As Israel Threatens Military Strike Over Nuclear Deal

Iranian leaders are trying to keep the pressure on President Joe Biden in the hope he will quickly lift American sanctions and rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, even as the head of the Israel Defense Forces threatens military action if the accord is revived.

President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday made more of what have become near-daily comments on Biden's plan to rejoin the JCPOA, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.

Though both sides are in favor of reviving the JCPOA, Iran is demanding that the U.S. lift crippling sanctions before it returns to full compliance. But the Biden administration has said the JCPOA can only come back into force if Iran scales back its nuclear activity in line with the original deal.

Iran began violating the agreement after Trump withdrew and broke with it entirely after the American assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani last year. Tehran has since expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium and increased enrichment to 20 percent, a short technical step from 90 percent weapons-grade uranium.

Rouhani told a cabinet meeting Wednesday the world is waiting for Biden to make his move. "The whole world—except a few countries—is calling on the United States unanimously to return to its commitments under the JCPOA," Rouhani said, according to the state-run PressTV.

Rouhani also again claimed victory over Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign of sanctions, covert action, military posturing and diplomatic pressure, dismissing the former president as a "vicious criminal."

Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, meanwhile, said Tuesday that what Tehran has heard from the new administration "has mostly been in the form of words and announcement of its positions." He added: "However, it is actions that we respond to."

Also on Tuesday, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, said Tehran is willing but not desperate to return to the JCPOA. "It's up to the U.S. to decide what course of action to take," he said. "We're not in a hurry."

Still, government spokesperson Ali Rabiyee warned Tuesday that Biden should not miss the "very limited" window to return to the nuclear deal.

Though keen on the agreement, Rouhani's government has only a few months left in power before his term ends in summer. Rouhani and his allies are already facing domestic opposition to new talks with the U.S., and there is no guarantee that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will approve a detente.

Meanwhile, conservatives in the U.S. and American allies in the Middle East—chief among them Israel—are mobilizing against the JCPOA. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said Tuesday he had ordered his forces to draw up military options to deal with the threat from Iran.

"Iran can decide that it wants to advance to a bomb, either covertly or in a provocative way. In light of this basic analysis, I have ordered the IDF to prepare a number of operational plans, in addition to the existing ones. We are studying these plans and we will develop them over the next year," Kohavi said.

"The government will of course be the one to decide if they should be used. But these plans must be on the table, in existence and trained for."

Israel has long maintained what is called the Begin Doctrine, by which successive Israeli governments have said they will not allow an enemy to develop nuclear weapons. In the past, Israel has attacked Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to prevent nuclear research. Israel also cooperated with the U.S. in the Stuxnet cyberattack on Iran's nuclear program.

"With the changing of the administration in the United States, the Iranians have said they want to return to the previous agreement," Kohavi said, in an unusual intervention in foreign policy.

"I want to state my position, the position that I give to all my colleagues when I meet them around the world: Returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement or even to an agreement that is similar but with a few improvements is a bad thing and it is not the right thing to do."

Iranian leaders are yet to respond to Kohavi's remarks. Newsweek has contacted the White House and the Iranian government for comment.

JCPOA critics are particularly concerned that the agreement does nothing to limit Iran's ballistic missile program nor its regional network of proxy militias. Biden has sought to allay fears by framing the JCPOA as the foundation for a "longer and stronger" broader deal that would cover missiles and other issues.

Biden officials have also suggested any return to the JCPOA will not be imminent. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators at his confirmation hearing last week the U.S. is still a "long way" from agreeing a deal with Tehran.

Still, there have been multiple reports suggesting that the Biden team has already met with Iranian officials, though this has been repeatedly denied by Tehran.

Joe Biden speaks about COVID in DC
President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus pandemic in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 26, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images/Getty