During President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel last week, he and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a landmark declaration that contains several important U.S. commitments, including on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and on combatting efforts to boycott or delegitimize Israel. The declaration is a snapshot of a high point in U.S.-Israel relations. It can also be used as a powerful springboard for future progress.
The document’s long-term impact will depend on whether Congressional and other supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship encourage and assist the Biden administration to reiterate, robustly implement, and, in one case, strengthen the declaration’s commitments.
The document, formally known as The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, is not legally binding. But political commitments can carry considerable weight. Members of Congress can demand, both in hearings and other contexts, that the administration live up to its commitments.
In addition, the more Biden’s political commitments in the declaration are highlighted and reiterated, the stronger a message they will send to European, Arab, and other allied and adversary governments that are calibrating their policies on the same issues.
Perhaps most importantly, a president’s political commitments in a document such as the declaration can be spotlighted as guidance to the president’s aides, across the administration, as they handle topics referenced by the document.
Iran’s nuclear program, an existential threat to Israel, is the most important issue addressed by the declaration. In it, Biden makes a “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” and declares that the United States “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
This use of a traditional formula for implicitly threatening military action is important. It is reportedly more forward-leaning than anything Biden has said previously as president. But it is still almost certainly insufficient to deter Iran, even when combined with Biden’s presumably ad-libbed response last week to an interview question about his willingness to use force to stop Iran’s program (Biden replied simply: “If that was the last resort, yes.”)
Iran will roll back its nuclear program only if convinced that it is futile to seek a nuclear bomb because the U.S. military will ultimately prevent Tehran from succeeding. Iran’s nuclear program is reportedly now so advanced that it needs less than a month to produce sufficient highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Yet, in the declaration, Biden was less direct about a military option for rolling back Iran’s program than was President Barack Obama in 2012, when Iran still reportedly needed about four months to achieve such a nuclear breakout.
Obama in 2012 formally and explicitly referenced a military option: “I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say,” he said. “That includes ... a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.” “Iran’s leaders should understand,” Obama continued, “…I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon … [and] I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
The relationship between an explicit U.S. military option and successfully halting Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically was elaborated in a December 2021 joint statement by seven distinguished experts including former Obama defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta and former Obama CIA director David Petraeus. The statement declared that “[w]ithout convincing Iran it will suffer severe consequences if it stays on its current path, there is little reason to hope for the success of diplomacy.” “…[S]uch consequences,” said the statement, “cannot be limited to political isolation, condemnatory resolutions in international fora and additional economic sanctions, … [which] are not sufficient at this stage to convince Iran’s leaders that the price they will pay requires them to alter their course.”
“…[F]or the sake of our diplomatic effort to resolve this crisis,” said the December 2021 statement, “we believe it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.” The statement called on the Biden administration to not only start using words “that are more pointed and direct than ‘all options are on the table’” but also undertake military exercises, pre-positioning, and other “steps that lead Iran to believe that persisting in its current behavior and rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will put to risk its entire nuclear infrastructure.”
Yet eight months later, with Iran significantly closer to nuclear breakout, the Biden administration is employing language only slightly more pointed than “all options are on the table.” If Iran’s leadership is to be persuaded to halt its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal, Biden and his top aides will quickly need to—with both word and deed—turn the declaration’s implicit threat into an explicit one.
On other issues, the Joint Declaration is more explicit. Officials across the federal government will be guided by Biden’s various specific commitments on U.S. security assistance to Israel and on pursuing joint cooperation in developing cutting-edge defense and civilian technologies.
In addition, U.S. diplomats will be guided by the declaration’s unequivocal endorsement of, and commitment to expand, the Abraham Accords.
Finally, the declaration contains a robust U.S. commitment to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and all other “efforts to boycott or de-legitimize Israel, to deny its right to self-defense, or to unfairly single it out in any forum, including at the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.”
Israel is facing dangerous efforts to delegitimize it not only at the UN and the International Criminal Court but also by some large non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and some members of Congress from the president’s own party. The declaration is an important signal to all of Biden’s welcome steadfastness on this issue.
For as long as Joe Biden is president, members of Congress and others will be encouraging and assisting officials across his administration to robustly implement the broad range of important commitments contained in last week’s declaration.
But with Iran’s nuclear weapons program rapidly approaching a point of no return, it is essential to change its leadership’s calculus now. Congress must quickly urge Biden and his team to build upon the declaration by articulating and demonstrating a more explicit U.S. military threat that Iran rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will result in severe consequences, including the destruction of Tehran’s current nuclear infrastructure, rather than in Tehran gaining a nuclear weapon.
Orde Kittrie, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and law professor at Arizona State University, is a former U.S. State Department attorney. Follow him on Twitter @OrdeFK. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.