The three leaders who have led the anti-Iran line in recent years were each absorbed in his own domestic crisis this week. U.S. President Donald Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate a son of his political rival Joe Biden. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers reported Wednesday to the first meeting of a pre-indictment hearing on three separate corruption cases. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, meanwhile, has been embarrassed by the mysterious shooting death of the personal bodyguard to King Salman, the crown prince’s father. Saudi Arabia is also facing renewed global criticism on the anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was critical of the regime.
Iran’s leaders have had a relaxed week, by comparison, despite the pressure of the U.S. sanctions and the country’s economic distress. Not only did the sophisticated and destructive attack on the Saudi oil facilities last month pass without a military response from Riyadh or Washington, but Saudi Arabia even made it clear that it supported dialogue with Tehran. Just days after the attack, Iranian President Hassan Rohani received an enthusiastic welcome at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. And this week, the Politico website reported that on the sidelines of the UN, Trump and Rohani agreed, in a bout of shuttle diplomacy brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron, on a four-point document as a basis for renewing negotiations. The U.S. and Iranian presidents almost met face-to-face, and according to Politico it was Rohani, not Trump, who backed out at the last moment.
In the meantime, there were reports of a defeat suffered by the Saudis and their allies at the hands of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the civil war in Yemen, shortly after the United Arab Emirates decided to reduce its involvement there. And on Monday, a key border crossing between Iraq and Syria was reopened. It will boost Iranian control of the “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon, another result of the Assad regime’s victory (with Iranian help) in the civil war in Syria.
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Tehran found itself in an inferior position, after Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement in May 2018. The economic crisis seems to be unbearable and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented a 12-point plan to create maximum pressure on Iran, and many people viewed this as step intended to bring about regime change in the end.
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Almost a year and a half later, things look a bit different: Trump has avoided military action against Iran, justifiably fearing being caught up in a regional war in the Middle East, and is avidly wooing Rohani in the hope of a meeting with him that might lead to a renegotiated nuclear agreement. Added to this American confusion is European weakness and Saudi feebleness. In an interview with the American CBS network, Crown Prince Mohammed warned about a further rise in oil prices, justified Riyadh’s inability to defend itself against Iranian attacks and expressed support for a Trump-Rohani meeting.
After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, Netanyahu often boasted of his close relationship with Trump. His fans celebrated his influence over the American president, got worked up about his numerous meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and presented Moscow’s commitment to keep the Iranians away from the Israeli-Syrian border as evidence of the strength of the relationship between them, after the Assad regime completed taking back control of southern Syria.
In practice, this success turned out to be very limited, in the best case. Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu has half admitted that Trump is heading toward renewed negotiations with the Iranians, but explains that it is better that he is in the position to influence the Trump – rather than his rival, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. In Syria, the Iranian forces were not completely kept far from the border with Israel. In addition, Hezbollah is deepening its influence on the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. The efforts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to establish themselves militarily throughout Syria, alongside the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah and the attempts to construct assembly lines for precision- guided missiles inside Lebanon are continuing, too.
Among the many interviews Israeli military officers gave during this holiday period, the one with Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, the commander of Military Intelligence’s research division, in Israel Hayom stood out. Shalom sounded rather pessimistic: “The picture is much gloomier,” he told journalist Yoav Limor. “In the end, everything revolves around Iran. Over the entire field – in its efforts to establish itself in Syria and Iraq, in the attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah. We are facing Iran on a dangerous curve and need to hold on to the steering wheel very tight.”
Shalom mentioned a few possible scenarios concerning the nuclear agreement, including U.S.-Iranian negotiations, a continued military escalation that could drag in Israel and more serious violations of the agreement on Iran’s part. Shalom hinted that Iran is delivering cruise missiles to Syria and Iraq and described as a “very reasonable option” the possibility that Iran would launch cruise missiles, surface-to-surface missiles or drones from western Iraq into Israel to avenge the recent attacks against it. In light of the capabilities the Iranians demonstrated in their recent attack against Saudi Arabia, this sounds like a very relevant warning.
Shalom also described a directed and calculated Israeli move to expand the scope of its attacks against Iran and targets identified with it on the northern front. He was not asked – and it is reasonable to assume he would not have answered such a question – about Israel’s cumulative contribution to the recent escalation with Iran and whether they are justified or are in any way related to Netanyahu’s personal survival efforts.
When President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu last week to form the next government, the prime minister justified the need for a unity government by citing the tensions with Iran. He described the Iranian threat as “an enormous security challenge that is coming closer to us at incredible speed and it is already here.”
“To deal with it we need to join forces because the people need to be united,” said Netanyahu. It is possible that the long-standing assumption, according to which the status quo will continue because Netanyahu is chary of war, is being eroded.