Donald Trump said he might be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly in two weeks. “Sure, anything’s possible,” said Trump. “They would like to be able to solve their problem. We could solve it in 24 hours.”
Iran has lots of problems that Trump could indeed solve very quickly. The Iranian economy is on the verge of collapse but Trump said he won’t lift the U.S. sanctions causing the strain, which Iran has made a precondition for talks. And he’s soured on a French initiative to extend Iran a $15 billion line of credit. Instead, the administration last week added more sanctions, listing Iranian-owned oil tankers, companies and insurance firms controlled by the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary unit.
So does Trump want a deal or to drive the Iranians to war? It’s not surprising that the foreign policy establishment thinks Trump has no clear endgame. Then again, no one inside the Beltway and outside the White House believes it’s possible to stop Iran from getting a bomb by any means short of a full-on war. That’s why the foreign policy class celebrated Barack Obama’s Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, even if it only delayed Iran’s nuclear breakout until after Obama left office.
In the choice between peace and war, it seems obvious which side Israel is on. Two weeks ago the Israelis hit, in succession, an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq used to ship arms to Syria, an Iranian drone base near the Syrian capital Damascus, and a site in Beirut where Iran’s partner Hezbollah was storing materiel for its precision-guided missile project.
In other words, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the revolutionary regime’s other big problem of late, because Iran’s assets in the Middle East can’t seem to move without an Israeli jet, drone, or missile targeting them. Trump shows no intention right now of solving that problem for the Iranians, either.
Trump’s vision of an Iran deal is maximalist—he seems to believe he can get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. If it were otherwise, there would have been no reason to leave the JCPOA. And Trump’s self-image as the ultimate dealmaker is unlikely to allow him to renegotiate the details of a bad deal.
Trump’s offer is simple—in exchange for giving up its nuclear program, the U.S. allows Iran to open up for business. Trump says the country has “tremendous potential.” That’s Trump’s Iran deal.
Trump’s in no rush either, because the deal is premised on his winning a second term. As I explained in a recent Tablet article, what makes it tricky is that to get there Trump has to manage two conflicting Iran policies to satisfy two conflicting Republican constituencies.
One policy is the “anything but war” policy. This is run mostly by diplomats, as well as senior Treasury Department officials, including Secretary Steve Mnuchin, shuttling to European capitals in search of ways to fix the deal. The more active the diplomacy, the easier it is to message the isolationist part of Trump’s base that wants him to stick to his 2016 campaign promise to stay out of Middle East wars. If he takes military action against Iran, he risks alienating that constituency.
The other policy is in the hands of anti-Iran hawks, like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who want as much pressure on Iran as possible and see the dangers Iran poses to U.S. allies, especially Israel. As Pompeo recently explained, the Trump administration has been “incredibly supportive each time Israel has been forced to take actions to defend itself.”
Israeli action against Iranian targets is therefore a win-win proposition for Trump—he’s got military pressure on the clerical regime without a direct engagement that would alienate his isolationist base. In other words, Trump has outsourced the most delicate component of his Iran policy to Israel.
Some commentators worry that humiliating Iran and its allies might make the resistance axis an even more dangerous adversary. But tearing down the enemy’s pillars is by design humiliating. The question is whether the humiliated have the resources to retaliate.
The way forward then is clear—Trump keeps up the economic pressure while Israel hits Iran and its allies with full U.S. support. Whether that gets Trump the maximalist deal that both he and Netanyahu want remains to be seen.
Israel’s role in Trump’s Iran strategy helps to illuminate the degree to which Obama’s Iran deal has transformed the Middle East—if not exactly in the ways that Obama intended. By paving the road for Iran to build a nuclear bomb while being welcomed back into the world financial system, elevating Iran’s diplomatic profile, removing sanctions, and providing the Iranian regime with billions of dollars, Obama provided a clear and pressing reason for America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, who had not always been friendly to each other, to band together.
In place of the feverish rhetorical threat of Zionist militarist-colonialist expansionism, which enlivened Arab League summits for decades, Obama provided a very immediate and pressing real-world threat—an expansionist Iran whose allies and proxies aimed to suborn and topple Arab states like Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. In an inversion of what is said to be the normal logic of the region, Arab rulers realized that the enemy of their enemy was a much greater enemy and, by extension, that Israel was a potentially useful, even necessary, ally.
Trump’s calculations were equally simple. If America’s goal was to pressure rather than appease Iran, then Israel’s military strikes on Iranian proxies didn’t harm American interests in the region at all. Instead, they advanced them.
With all due respect to Trump administration policymakers, it didn’t require visionary leadership to see that a top military like Israel’s could be put to regional use. In fact, that’s the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Nearly half a century ago, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger understood that Israel could play an important part in the Cold War. Israel’s victory in the 1973 war moved Egypt out of the Soviet column and into America’s. The June 1982 air war in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley demoralized Moscow military planners as they watched Israeli aces in American-made F-15s and F-16s down more than 80 Syrian-piloted Soviet MiGs.
The end of the Cold War threw American policymakers off balance. What was the strategic purpose of the U.S.-Israel alliance without the framework of a great power contest? Yes, Israel was America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean—but when the U.S. was at war in Iraq in 1990 and again in 2003 Israel stayed in port. The George W. Bush White House curtailed Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah because it didn’t want to weaken further the then pro-U.S., and pro-Saudi, Lebanese government.
The post-Cold War order of the region made plain that there was not one American column in the Middle East but two—Israel and the Arab powers. Israel’s actions against Arab actors were likely to affect America’s relations with its other partners, Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states, and especially Saudi Arabia. Israeli actions might help Israel, but they might also anger and weaken America’s oil-rich Arab friends. America therefore had to be careful not to lean too far in Israel’s direction.
The order of the region changed again in 2015, July 14 to be exact, when the Obama administration struck the JCPOA. Arab nationalist and Islamist ideologues were partly proven right after having warned for decades that there was a regime intent on dominating Arab lands from east to west. But it wasn’t the Zionists who carried out the industrial mass slaughter of Arabs. Rather, it was Iran.
That’s why Obama will go down in Middle East history as the great demystifier, the man who drew back the curtain and gave the regional powers a glimpse of what hell truly looks like—America allied with a state sponsor of terror that makes endless war on Sunnis. The effects can be seen most vividly in Syria with a war that uprooted millions, fragmented polities, and left hundreds of thousands dead after eight years.
The JCPOA and the ensuing violence, from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Yemen and the Gulf, is therefore perhaps an even more strategically consequential regional event than the Yom Kippur War. Jerusalem’s 1973 victory pushed Cairo into the U.S. fold, but the Iran deal put Israel and the Arabs in one column, facing a common enemy. All that remained was for a superpower to lead the column.
In embracing Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump pocketed the cards that Obama left on the table. Thus, only a short time after Obama administration officials regularly tried to kneecap Israel by leaking details of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets, the Trump administration now supports those strikes. There are no Arab powers complaining to U.S. officials, because the Israelis are blowing up their enemies.
Nevertheless, Trump and Netanyahu will be careful to modulate their actions. A hot war with Iran is likely to hurt Trump’s chances at reelection and could have hellish costs for Israel.
Iran doesn’t want a war either. Among other reasons, it’s running out of money. Tehran and the international lobby created by the JCPOA believe that all the regime has to do is hold out until 2020, when a Democrat moves into the White House and restores the deal. But that strategy may prove even riskier than Trump’s play, especially as the Iranian economy continues to weaken. If Trump wins, he will have even more leverage and fewer restraints to push the same maximalist deal.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).