US President Joe Biden signed a joint declaration with Israel's leaders on Thursday while visiting Jerusalem. The document was concerned wtih keeping Iran — an adversary of Israel — from acquiring a nuclear weapon. So far in Israel, Tehran and its nuclear program have loomed large in much of the discussions during Biden's trip.
Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, pushed Biden to go beyond his official stance on Iran, and called on all nations to act if Iranians continue “to develop their nuclear program.”
Adopting different approaches, Israel has conducted covert sabotage and assassination operations to slow Tehran down, while the US has insisted on diplomacy and restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that former US President Donald Trump withdrew from.
During a news conference in Jerusalem, Biden also added that he was “not going to wait forever” for Iran to rejoin those talks.
Sina Azodi, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council in Washington, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the context of the latest situation.
Related: President Biden’s visit to Israel focuses on regional security
Marco Werman: What does it mean for Iran, especially as multiparty talks for a revived nuclear deal are still alive?
Sina Azodi: I think that for Iran, it was to be expected. But I think what really distinguishes this statement, or President Biden's remarks, is the fact that President Biden announced that he will not take the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off of the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, even if it comes at the cost of the collapse of the talks, which is quite interesting, because he will be risking a conflict in the region should Israel decide to take action against Iranian nuclear facilities, which by default will drag the United States into the conflict.
So, the IRGC, as you pointed out, is designated as a terrorist group by the US, right?
Yes, it is. But what really annoys Iran is the FTO designation, which is a State Department list. And it's quite irritating for Iranians.
So, why is Iran such a high priority for Biden on this visit?
I think the nuclear program is a great deal for the United States. We have seen that Iran has expanded its nuclear program. It has more knowledge, and that knowledge is not reversible. So, you cannot really take that knowledge out of the brains of Iranians. They have more technologies that are closer to a nuclear weapon. They are very close to this threshold of having enough fissile material for one single nuclear weapon. Now, I have to emphasize that this is not the same as having a bomb. It's enough fissile material to produce a bomb, should Iran decide to go for a bomb. So, the US is increasingly concerned with the new technologies that the Iranians have acquired over time, new centrifuges that Iranians have introduced. And for Israel, that's a security threat.
So, I want to get back to those Iranian capabilities in a moment. But first, for Biden's trip in the Middle East, what have you seen in Iranian state media or from Iranian officials about his trip? What are they focused on?
I mean, if you're sitting in Tehran and you see that a bunch of countries are joining their forces to basically defend against the backbone of your defense strategy, well, it's quite concerning from a Iranian standpoint. I personally think it would increase Iran's insecurities in the region because, as I said, the pact is supposed to counter the threat of the Iranian ballistic missiles program, which Iranians have for years invested in.
As you said, Sina, Iran now has the fissile material to get to the next step in bombmaking. How likely is it that Iran will race to get the bomb if these negotiations fail and there is no nuclear deal?
The security ramifications will be severe for Iran. One, there is a good chance that the United States would, in support of Saudi Arabia, deploy nuclear weapons to the region, which Iran would see as a threat, and it's a quite valid threat. Saudi Arabia may just go ahead and develop its own nuclear arsenal, which is another concern for Iran. So, I believe that unless there's a major shift in the security environment, I don't think Iran will go ahead and weaponize its nuclear program. However, that being said, I think Iran has always been interested in having the option of having a nuclear weapon.
So, when the original Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]was struck under Biden's former boss, President [Barack] Obama, it was a long negotiation, but the doors were open with possibility. How different would you say the path of negotiation has been for Biden's White House?
I believe it was two months ago that it came out that Biden had refused to commit his own administration to stick to the agreement. This is quite worrisome for Tehran, that it enters negotiations, it opens up its economy again and then, there's a good possibility that the sanctions will come into place. When Obama was in power, he was able to come to this understanding that Iran has its own legitimate rights. And the people who are in Tehran, also believe that we have to negotiate directly with the United States.
And you're saying this is the thin ice that Biden's White House has had to operate on with Iran, kind of a lack of faith that signatures really have permanence.
The saying goes, "You fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." I think this is the view in Tehran.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.