WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden tacitly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night for his opposition to the emerging Iranian nuclear deal, saying that those who say that the deal will “pave Iran’s path to a bomb… don’t get it.”
At the same time, the vice president defended Israel’s right to be worried about its security, stressing that “the notion that Israel is too concerned is preposterous.”
Biden spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s annual gala dinner, devoting his entire address to the administration’s negotiations toward an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 member states ahead of a June 30 deadline. The sides reached a framework agreement in late March, but no text was signed or finalized, and there are major discrepancies over what was agreed, including over the process of sanctions relief.
In his address, Biden had choice words for critics who warn that the 10-year sunset clauses for key parts of the agreement “pave Iran’s path to a bomb,” saying they simply “don’t get it, they’re wrong.” While Biden didn’t mention Netanyahu by name, it was a clear reference to the Israeli prime minister, who has repeatedly railed against the deal using that exact phrase.
Iran, Biden argued, “has already paved its path” to a bomb and could build up to eight nuclear warheads in two to three months. Biden likewise defended the fact that the US did not precondition its deal on Iran’s renunciation of its terrorist proxies like Hezbollah or on its recognition of the State of Israel, noting that not even Washington’s Saudi allies have been forced to recognize the Jewish state.
The vice president also emphasized the danger of Iran building a nuclear weapon, arguing that “Israel is absolutely right to be worried about the world’s most dangerous weapon falling into the hands of a nation whose leaders dream openly about the destruction of Israel.”
Biden did not hold back on his contempt for the emerging agreement’s detractors, saying that some of his “best friends in the region predicted that the sky would fall” as a result of the interim deal signed between the P5+1 and Iran in November 2013, adding that in fact, Iran had upheld its part of the bargain.
“Some have worried that the president and our administration are willing or even eager to settle for a deal so badly that we’ll sign a bad deal,” Biden remarked.
He delineated the conditions for a deal – that it “must effectively cut off Iran’s uranium, plutonium and covert pathways to a bomb”; “must ensure a breakout timeline of a year for at least a decade or more”; and include “phased sanction relief calibrated with steps taken by Iran.”
Biden offered a window on some of the other conditions that the administration saw as basic tenets for talks, including the implementation of additional protocols to visit not just declared facilities but also undeclared sites and a demand from Iran to “address the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past activities.”
While claiming that Iran had abided by the terms of the interim agreement, he also noted that “it is true that Iran could cheat” on any deal and that “they certainly have in the past and it would not surprise anyone if they tried again.” Having a deal in place, Biden argued, would make Iran “far more likely to get caught” if it cheated.
In response to critics who fear that sanctions will not be able to “snap back” quickly in the event of an Iranian violation, Biden said that “there will be a clear procedure in the final deal that allows UN and international sanctions to snap back without having to cajole Russia or China for support.”
The vice president repeated the administration’s oft-voiced warnings that “more actions in the absence of international support will result in the loss of sanctions,” a message to congressional leaders who continue to threaten to advance additional sanctions legislation.
He also dismissed the idea that the deal would increase regional instability, arguing that “as dangerous and difficult Iran is today, imagine how emboldened a nuclear armed Iran would be.”
Telling attendees “don’t underestimate my friend Barack Obama,” Biden provided a lengthy defense of what would become the president’s West Point Doctrine as applied to Iran – prioritizing multilateral talks and international economic pressure over unilateral military responses.
Biden argued that the Obama administration had proven to be the most forceful US administration in its opposition to Iranian nuclear proliferation. Obama, he said, was the first president to set out a policy that “all instruments of American power to prevent — not contain — a nuclear armed Iran would be used to prevent that from happening.”
In a jab at former president George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy, Biden said that when the Obama administration took office in 2009, the US “did not have the international support to deal with Iran.”
He could cite, he said, “quote after quote from around the world that felt that the United States – not Iran – was the problem.” Such a situation, Biden argued, “limited our ability to generate international pressure.”
Biden said that instead, the US “embarked on a new strategy which had two purposes; to unite the world behind our approach, making it clear that a genuine diplomatic path existed with Iran, and putting in force — which few believed would happen — sanctions that would bring Iran to the negotiating table.” The US, he said, “let the world know that we were extending a hand if they would negotiate.”
Still, Iran actually came to the negotiating table only after Congress voted in tough new sanctions which were backed up by international pressure through the United Nations Security Council.
“Soon it was Iran, not America, who was isolated and over time, our choices created conditions that made diplomacy possible,” he asserted. Sanctions, he said, also “contributed to a political climate” that led to the election of the more moderate [Iranian] president, Hassan Rouhani, rather than his more hard-line competition.”