Analysis |

As Trump Signals Talks With Rohani, Israel Ratchets Up Tensions With Iran

The negotiations that may begin shortly between Washington and Tehran reflect a strategic change. But the two leaders’ meeting was apparently not included in Netanyahu’s plans

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, March 25, 2019.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, March 25, 2019.Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The recent series of attacks attributed to Israel throughout the Middle East creates an impression of a planned campaign to deliberately escalate the friction with Iran, Hezbollah and their satellites. Hezbollah has publicly declared that it intends to respond.

Based on an examination of the organization’s conduct in three similar instances between 2014 and 2016, we can reasonably assume that it will try to carry out its threat in the coming weeks. The Israel Defense Forces has made defensive preparations along the borders in order to reduce the risk of losses. But even if there is an attempted response, it will not inevitably lead to war. Both sides are confronting many restraints, which are likely to convince them to choose containment rather than escalation further down the line.

>> Read more: Israel fears Trump might sit down with the Iranians – and be outmaneuvered ■ Israel believes Nasrallah's threats over Lebanon strikes, braces for retaliation ■ Drone air forces are taking off across the Mideast, challenging Israeli defenses

Israel chose to claim responsibility for preventing a drone attack from the Syrian border on Saturday night, which it said was planned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Israel is not saying whether it had anything to do with the drone attack in Beirut, Lebanon, three hours later, although Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah directly accused it of being involved.

Timeline of events over the past week amid an escalation in the Middle East involving Syria, Iraq and Israel.Credit: Haaretz

If Israel was indeed responsible, it’s debatable whether keeping silent was the right decision. It’s possible that publicizing the full details would have actually embarrassed Nasrallah and acted as another restraint against an overly harsh response by Hezbollah.

But the most important headline in recent days, despite the James Bond-style accounts of Israeli activity being spread by word of mouth, comes from Biarritz and not Beirut. The surprise visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the French resort town toward the end of the G-7 summit heralds a change in Tehran’s approach. And French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that there is a good chance of a meeting between the presidents of the United States and Iran in the coming weeks was real news.

U.S. President Donald Trump has already responded positively to the idea. And as in the case of the long love affair he is conducting with North Korea, he has showered praise, to some extent, on the great Iranian nation. A few hours after Trump spoke, an interesting announcement came from the Pentagon. A U.S. State Department spokesman denied responsibility for the recent attacks in Iraq and expressed support for Baghdad’s right to defend its sovereignty against “external actors.”

At the end of last week, senior Pentagon officials told The New York Times that Israel was behind some of the attacks and warned that they are likely to damage relations between the United States and Iraq. Since then, several Iraqi MPs have called to remove U.S. forces from the country, claiming that Washington assisted Israel in the attacks.

This photo, from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif's Twitter account, shows him (second from the left) meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron (far right) and other French officials in theCredit: AFP

The direct negotiations that may begin between Trump and his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rohani reflect nothing less than a strategic change in direction in the regional situation. The meeting was apparently not included in the plans of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convinced Trump to announce the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement last May.

Netanyahu’s circle had hoped that the step would lead to harsh sanctions followed by a renewed deterioration in Iran’s economic situation (as did in fact happen), and later, even to the collapse of the regime – or Iranian surrender to the tough dictates of the West regarding a new nuclear agreement.

Meanwhile, these hopes are not coming true. Trump seems interested in a dialogue with Rohani, and in Israel there is doubt as to whether the U.S. administration – and specifically, the president – has the ability to conduct prolonged and complex negotiations from a position of strength when confronting the Iranian bargaining experts. Trump’s reluctance to engage in a military confrontation, despite the provocations in the Persian Gulf, was already clear when he decided not to respond to the downing of the expensive American drone in Iranian skies in June.

But it seems that for the U.S. president, there are deeper considerations at work. Israelis who have met with Trump in recent years were struck by his obsession with his predecessor, Barack Obama. Not only is Trump thirsty for the world’s attention, which he would receive in the wake of a widely covered meeting with Rohani, but he envies the Nobel Peace Prize Obama received (truth be told, without having done anything to deserve it) shortly after his election. Trump also wants a Nobel of his own, and the path to it may involve Rohani – a follow-up to Trump’s friendly meetings with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.

But the Iranians are playing hard to get. On Tuesday morning Rohani demanded the lifting of all the sanctions as a precondition for a meeting with Trump. But apparently Macron’s positive forecast regarding the meeting is based at least on initial understandings that have already been formulated behind the scenes. The scenario, which is not unreasonable, is that Trump will meet with Rohani and adopt the same positive approach that he demonstrated toward Kim. With this tactic, it’s doubtful that the United States will extract a tough and restrictive nuclear agreement from Iran, as Netanyahu had hoped.

What’s more likely is that if the contacts are successful, the administration will be satisfied with small adjustments to the original agreement, which Trump would then present as a historic achievement. Netanyahu’s problem is that he can’t publicly disagree with Trump, as he did with Obama in his speech to Congress in 2016. The close relationship with the incumbent president, and Trump’s personality, would make that impossible.

In such an event, it would probably be tempting to foment chaos throughout the Middle East by continuing to put pressure on the Iranians and the organizations operating under their aegis. This could be a very dangerous path. We better hope that Israel won’t pursue it.

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