Trump, Netanyahu risk being party of two in opposition to Iran nuclear deal

Article Summary
US and Israeli leaders may find themselves, rather than Iran, isolated in questioning a solid international consensus on Iran, as attention turns to Syria.

Both US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are expected to use their speeches at the UN General Assembly session this week to rally support for a tougher line on Iran, but theirs may be a cry in the woods against an Iranian nuclear agreement that enjoys solid international support.

Akiva Eldar writes, “With the Iranian nuke agreement signed and sealed, the issue of the bomb threat is off the international agenda. Netanyahu might actually feel himself bereft up on the podium without having a drawing of a nuclear bomb to clutch.”

Ben Caspit reports that there are divisions between Israel’s political and military leaders about which tack to take on Iran, and “it is not a strategic argument, either. The top brass of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Military Intelligence and Mossad all realize that the Iranians have not shelved their ambition to become a nuclear power — nor will they. The difference is that the defense establishment has accepted the nuclear deal as a fact and managed to find certain positive opportunities in it. The IDF has reorganized in accordance with the new situation, and its multiyear planning program 'Gideon' has been formulated on the assumption that the Iranian nuclear threat has been placed in the deep freeze for a decade. Senior Israeli defense officials have emphasized the opportunity it affords Israel to deal with other problems, reprioritize and take advantage of this window in Iran's nuclear schedule. The political leadership, particularly Netanyahu and [Minister of Intelligence and Transportation Yisrael] Katz, sees things very differently. … Netanyahu is an experienced alarmist who shares this position. So apparently does Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Given these circumstances, Israel's military leadership will have no choice but to acquiesce to the position of the political leadership, which is the ultimate authority in the matter.”

Eldar suggests that Netanyahu may pick up the thread on North Korea to make his case on Iran. “The prime minister can provide proof, of course, of the close cooperation between the Iranian ayatollah regime and the communist ruler in Pyongyang,” he writes. “For example, the cable sent by the US State Department to the embassy in Beijing, part of the batch of documents leaked to WikiLeaks, indicated that Iran and North Korea make use of their national airlines’ cargo flights to transport nuclear technology and components. According to information collated by Israeli experts, quite a few Iranian liquid-fueled ballistic missiles and related launchers were developed based on know-how and technology provided by North Korea.”

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Caspit adds, “Jerusalem is panicking over the remarkable events in North Korea and the way that the United States has lost control of the situation as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rushes toward nuclear armaments.”

Israel is also concerned that a possible thaw in Saudi-Iran ties, which this column outlined last week, would lead to further isolation. Ali Hashem writes that the thaw still has a way to go. “Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain remain the main points of entanglement between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Hashem writes. “Iraq is Iran’s backyard while Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s. Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain are areas of balanced engagement; Iran has the upper hand in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia in Bahrain; Syria remains a contested ground, though Saudi Arabia is said to have limited its role there. The regional map of control prompted some to predict that Saudi Arabia’s alleged use of Iraqi mediation to engage with Iran was a clear indication the Gulf kingdom was conceding to Iran and that the clash between the two bitter rivals was coming to an end. Yet this isn’t the case, and Iraq is a good example in this regard. … Saudi Arabia’s new approach might this time be to play in Iran’s backyard and invest in Shiite religious groups rather than just Sunni movements and secular Shiites in Iraq. Such a move could give Riyadh additional cards to play whenever a table is set and could be Saudi Arabia’s way of accepting an Iranian role in Yemen by imposing the kingdom as a new player in Iraq.”

Netanyahu may use the United Nations pulpit to share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s role in Syria. On Sept. 8, Israeli planes reportedly struck a Syrian missile complex in western Syria. Reportedly, because Israel has not taken public responsibility for the attack. Caspit explains, “Israel views Iran's efforts to provide Syria and Hezbollah with the technology to produce precision missiles as a clear strategic danger. Were the efforts successful, in the next conflict, it would allow Israel’s enemies to hamper the Israeli air force's ability to effectively strike strategic targets. It is altogether possible that in the early hours of Sept. 8, what took place is one round in Israel's struggle against the Iranian 'precision project' in Syria and Lebanon.”

The potential for Israeli escalation puts Russia in the hot seat. Maxim Suchkov writes, “Despite their differing interests in Syria, Russian and Iranian military intelligence maintain interaction,” in addition to their collaboration in the Astana cease-fire process. “Numerous commentators in the Middle East believe that the Iranians and Syrians expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to curb such Israeli airstrikes. At the time of publication, the Russians continued to maintain their silence. As to what is going on behind the scenes among the various actors, time will tell. … Despite Putin's having met frequently with Netanyahu, the Russian president still views Iran as a strategic partner in his Middle East policy. Putin was also the one who personally saved the Assad regime from collapse two years ago. On the other hand, Putin understands Israel's concerns. So to what extent will Putin be involved in what is taking place near his forces in Syria? Israel can only hope and pray for the day when the Russian squadrons and aerial defense missiles in Syria return to Russia. At this stage, that dream is far off.”

This column wrote in February 2014, “Russia could also play a bridging role, perhaps through very quiet back channels, to calm Israel-Iran ties.” That trend has only gotten stronger, and more urgent. If there is another Israel-Hezbollah confrontation, Caspit writes, “Israel is intent on marking Lebanese sovereignty as a legitimate target. From the first minute, it will attack the country’s strategic infrastructure. As far as Israel is concerned, the country of Lebanon has become Hezbollahstan. At the moment, none of the sides really want to get to that stage.”

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