Surprising reports emerged on the evening of May 7 about the movements of two foreign ministers. According to the first, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suddenly canceled a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and ordered his plane to change course for Baghdad. At almost the exact same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif boarded his own plane for an unscheduled visit to Moscow. The scramble underscores the drama now unfolding around Iran and how it is sending shockwaves not only across the Middle East but throughout the entire world.
Israeli intelligence sources had raised concerns that Iran would react to growing American pressure by pulling out of the nuclear agreement, or at the very least reducing its commitment to it, including possibly going back to enriching uranium at a limited level. While that activity would not allow for the breakthrough needed to build a nuclear device, it would lay the groundwork for that possibility. On May 8, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that this was exactly what Iran was planning. If no new understandings are reached to implement the nuclear deal, said Rouhani, Iran will resume enriching uranium within two months.
The big question now is how President Donald Trump will react. Will he respond to the Iranian challenge, or will he blink and lose interest, just as he did when he ran up against North Korea?
This especially dramatic incident is not taking place in a vacuum. While the Iranians were releasing their statement, the White House announced it was sending the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. The United States also announced that it was increasing the number of B-52 bombers deployed to the region. The move came in response to intelligence reports reaching Washington that Iran is planning to attack or instigate terror activities against American targets and interests in the region. “It is hard to imagine that the Iranians would take such a step themselves,” one senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “but we can certainly imagine them ordering one of their proxies, like Hezbollah, to launch such an attack in low signature.”
According to Channel 13 News, intelligence about this contingency was provided to Washington by Israel’s Mossad. Other writeups also appeared this week on intelligence websites and blogs. According to one such report, Hezbollah fighters were recently seen on the island of Kish, a tourist destination near the Straits of Hormuz. According to those analyses, the island could serve as a launching pad for anyone trying take action or initiate an attack in the Straits of Hormuz, the gate through which all oil exports from the Persian Gulf states must flow. The possibility of Iran blocking the straits or obstructing the movement of oil tankers in the region was already a concern, and the presence of Hezbollah on Kish Island has only intensified it.
These developments impact other fronts in the region as well. The most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas May 4-5 ended without any IDF ground operation. Sources in the Israeli cabinet had insinuated that there were “covert reasons” the Israeli government decided to stop the IDF and wait for a more convenient opportunity. It is now known that Israel already had intelligence that the Iranians were planning to attack Western targets in the Gulf and change their attitude toward the nuclear deal. This information was transferred to Washington via intelligence and diplomatic channels.
Islamic Jihad was ultimately responsible for the round of fighting with Israel last week and has exhibited unprecedented independence in its dealings with Hamas. It is therefore possible that the direct relationship between Islamic Jihad and Iran is what caused Israel to hesitate rather than get involved in another round fighting. It may not want to give the Iranians any incentives to set the region on fire. Israel prefers that management of the incident be left to the United States in its dealings with Iran, rather than pushed to the sidelines on the Gaza front. All eyes are now on the emerging duel between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khamenei, supported by his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Trump, Pompeo and the USS Abraham Lincoln.
What happens now? So far, Israel’s plan has worked perfectly. Trump was convinced to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, pressure on Iran has been increasing to unbearable levels, the Iranian economy is showing signs of rapid disintegration and Iranian oil exports are collapsing. The recent American decision to declare the IRGC a terrorist organization exacerbates the sense of siege surrounding the Iranian regime. Nevertheless, Tehran is showing no signs of reaching its breaking point. On the contrary, Iran is upping the ante, signaling its intent to use terror and declaring that if it cannot export oil from the Gulf, no one will. And now it's announced its intent to resume uranium enrichment.
The ball has been sent back to the American court. “Everything now depends on Trump,” a senior Israeli official told Al-Monitor recently on condition of anonymity. So far, all signs indicate that Trump understands the problem and knows that he cannot allow Iran to become a second North Korea.
Israel and the United States are both worried about the first signs of Saudi efforts to achieve military nuclearization. They know that any sign of weakness by the West in the face of Iranian threats will turn the Middle East into a nuclear powder keg. At the same time, Trump’s unstable disposition and tendency to quickly lose interest in matters that were once at the core of his policies raise concerns in Israel and overseas. All eyes are turned to the president of the United States, who was once described as the leader of the free world. So far, he provided everything that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to the letter and in force. But it all could be cast into oblivion if the Americans’ determination does not persist over the next few months. Netanyahu has aspired to this point his entire life. Now that he has reached it, someone else is in charge.
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