11 May 2018
The Drift towards War
By Adam Shatz
Benjamin Netanyahu first met Donald Trump in 1986, when they were introduced by Ronald Lauder, the heir of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune and a Republican donor. They became friendly, but Netanyahu, who was Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, doubted that the real-estate entrepreneur would be very useful to his future political aspirations. He added Trump to his handwritten list of millionaires to whom he might turn for favours, but ‘he was in the lowest category,’ Anshel Pfeffer writes in his new biography of Netanyahu, ‘indicating that he was good for an occasional favour, but not much more.’
Like many people, Netanyahu underestimated his new friend. On Tuesday, Trump fulfilled a long-held wish of the Israeli prime minister when he declared that the United States would be withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and imposing harsh new sanctions on Tehran. Trump’s announcement lifted a number of points from a recent speech of Netanyahu’s on Iranian deceit.
The next day, Israel carried out a series of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, killing 23 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Israel said that the assault, its largest inside Syria since the 1973 war, was in response to Iranian rockets fired at the occupied Golan Heights, although none had hit their targets, and there were no casualties. ‘They need to remember the saying that if it rains on us, it’ll storm on them,’ Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said.
It was a classic example of ‘active defence’, Israel’s policy of responding to small provocations with disproportionate force, and is all but designed to escalate confrontation. Over the last quarter century of shadow warfare with Israel, Iran has steered clear of direct clashes, preferring to respond via proxies such as Hizbullah. But with both Hizbullah soldiers and Iranian advisers deeply involved in efforts to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid direct confrontation. Over the last few years, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes inside Syria, mostly aimed at Hizbullah military convoys suspected of transferring advanced weapons into the Bekaa Valley. In February, however, after intercepting what it claimed to be an armed Iranian drone in its airspace, Israel struck for the first time at Iranian targets, killing at least seven members of the Quds Force, the external operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The possibility of an Israeli-Iranian war is now higher than it has ever been, since Iran feels encircled, and Israel believes that it has a green light from Washington for further military adventures.
Averting this scenario, which the protracted Syrian quagmire has made increasingly likely, was one of the reasons Barack Obama pursued the nuclear agreement with such single-mindedness – even to the point of ignoring his own ‘red lines’ on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. As Pfeffer reports, Obama and his advisers were so terrified that Netanyahu might carry out a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities that they stepped up their spying on their Israeli allies. The late Mossad chief Meir Dagan, sharing their fears, leaked intelligence on Netanyahu’s war plans to the Americans.
Netanyahu knew that a deal might limit his room for manouevre against Iran, and launched a campaign against it as soon as he learned of meetings between the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the so-called P5+1) and Iran. After an interim agreement was reached in Geneva in 2013, he denounced it as ‘not a historic agreement, but a historic mistake’. He repeated this claim in his March 2014 address to the US Congress, for which he received 26 standing ovations.
The ‘historic mistake’ worked: UN nuclear inspectors verified Iran’s compliance with its JCPOA obligations, European firms moved into Iran, and Iranians began to experience a measure of relief, as their conditions improved. But that was just the problem in the eyes of the deal’s adversaries. For Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who told Jeffrey Goldberg that Iran’s supreme leader ‘makes Hitler look good’, the main issue was never – or never merely – Iran’s pursuit of a bomb, but its pursuit of international legitimacy.
Obama and the other leaders of the P5+1 had offered Iran an end to political isolation and economic punishment, in return for ending its efforts to go nuclear, without obliging it to cut its ties with Hizbullah, Hamas or the Houthis in Yemen. This was what the Israelis and the Saudis could not abide, and the Trump administration couldn’t either. As a French official quoted by the International Crisis Group put it, ‘the Trump administration’s problem is not with the deal; it’s with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We are in 2018, but the US is stuck in 1979.’
For all his impulsiveness, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal in search of a ‘better’ (non-existent) one was never much in doubt. It was the pillar of Obama’s foreign policy legacy; if only for that reason, Trump found it intolerable. He fulminated against it with his usual invective (‘horrible’, ‘one-sided’, ‘rotten’); his aides hired an Israeli private intelligence firm called Black Cube to smear two of Obama’s negotiators and other supporters of the agreement.
But while the destruction of Obama’s legacy might explain the intensity of Trump’s animus, his decision is consistent with his overall posture of unconditional alignment with the Israeli-Saudi axis in the Middle East. Under Trump, the US has deepened its involvement in the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen, sending Green Berets to advise clandestine operations; ended any pressure on Egypt, a key Saudi and Israeli ally, over its abominable human rights record; and given Israel free reign as it kills unarmed protestors on the Gaza border, and deports researchers from Human Rights Watch and academics who oppose the occupation.
Even so, the withdrawal from the Iran agreement is especially dramatic, and especially reckless. ‘I wanted to break it or do something,’ Trump said after firing Rex Tillerson, ‘and he felt a little bit differently.’ The defence secretary, James Mattis, also argued against withdrawal, but was outvoted by the national security adviser, John Bolton, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, both of whom have called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Their hope is that by weakening Iran economically, the US government may force Tehran to its knees and compel it to break off relations with Hizbullah, Hamas and the Houthis, or provoke a popular uprising against the Islamic Republic.
But, in the absence of full normalisation, the Iranian government is not going to surrender its military assets, which have helped it expand its regional influence and provided a deterrent against Israeli attack; nor can it be expected to adhere to the terms of an agreement that the US has itself abandoned. And no matter how angry they may be with the regime, Iranians have little appetite for another revolution, particularly if it can be depicted by the deep state as a plot hatched in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh. This would leave Iran’s opponents with only one other option, namely the use of military force, a policy that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia quietly championed in 2008, when, as Wikileaks revealed, he urged the Bush administration to launch strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and ‘cut off the head of the snake.’ There is little reason to think this is off the table, any more than it was with Iraq in 2003.
Trump’s withdrawal has emboldened hardliners in Iran, who have invoked it as proof that America can never be trusted, a view that has seemed reasonable to most Iranians since the overthrow of Mossadegh. A group gleefully burned the American flag in parliament. President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, who represent the regime’s pragmatic, internationalist wing, have been humiliated and are not likely to remain in power for long. Some Iranian conservatives, sensing that their moment has arrived, advocate pulling out of the agreement; a nuclear bomb ‘is increasingly seen as the the rational option’, according to one. They will want to avoid the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who dismantled Libya’s nuclear programme only to be removed from power and murdered in a Nato intervention.
Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse, and the patience of Iranians with their government’s foreign adventures is wearing thin, particularly if they result in extensive Iranian casualties. Still, Iran plays a long game, and it isn’t likely to continue to absorb strikes against its positions in Syria, or on its infrastructure, without commensurate response, however delayed.
This does not mean that war is inevitable, but the drift towards it is unmistakable and accelerating, whether or not anyone actually wants it. Trump, who has done nothing to stop gun violence in the US, has shown no more inclination to prevent regional warfare in the Middle East. The only country that could potentially restore calm is Russia, which has good relations with all the parties to the conflict: Israel, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. But, as Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group and one of Obama’s advisers on the Iran deal, told me, ‘Putin usually prefers to step in after the explosion has taken place, rather than try and regulate and manage things beforehand. Trying to set rules of the road in advance would be a hazardous gambit for him, because he doesn’t want to take the risk of showing that he might not deliver. If he fails, it will be evidence of the limits of Russia’s power, and at least some of his power is based on the exaggerated perception of his influence.’
I asked Malley if, as one of the architects of the deal, he felt disheartened by its sudden unravelling. He said it was preferable to ‘a muddle-through where Iran no longer gets the benefits of the deal and might decide to walk away’. This way, because America’s responsibility for the deal’s failure is ‘unambiguous’, and because the attempts of European officials such as Macron to reason with Trump have been shown to be folly, ‘it’s very clear what Europe has to do to ensure that the deal is maintained.’ Whether Europe will show the necessary resolve is an open question, however: the Trump administration is already threatening sanctions against Europeans who do business in Iran.