Analysis

Iran Deal Exit: With Netanyahu's Backing, Trump Sought to Shatter Obama's Legacy

The question now is if one-crisis city Washington has the inability to carry out long-term planning ■ Meanwhile, the IDF's blow to Iran in Syria was severe. But Israel mustn't become overconfident

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive at the White House, March 5, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

On February 19 The New York Times, relying on experts from Washington’s Institute for the Study of War, published a detailed map that for the first time showed the location of dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria. After midnight between Wednesday and Thursday, a considerable number of those sites were hit by the Israel Air Force in bombing raids.

This is the most significant step Israel has taken up to now in the campaign against Iran’s establishment of a militarily presence in Syria. But it’s still only one stage of the campaign, not its conclusion, and it appears that, as usual, it would be worth waiting before holding the medal ceremonies and victory celebrations.

>> Iran's long arm: Who is the elite Quds force that attacked Israel from Syria  Syria strike: What we know and what happens next >>

This time, the intelligence assessment was spot on. The Iranian reaction in the night between Wednesday and Thursday came from the direction, at the time and in the manner Israel expected. After a month of delays – some due to disruptions caused by Israel – the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force carried out its retaliation for the deaths of seven Iranians when the T4 air base in Syria was bombed on April 9.

But the Iranian reaction was a total flop. Of the roughly 20 rockets fired from the area south of Damascus, four were intercepted by Iron Dome batteries and the rest fell in Syrian territory. Despite that failure, the Israeli reaction was overpowering: massive bombing of more than 50 Iranian targets in Syria, apparently setting back Iran’s effort to establish itself militarily there by several months. When Syrian antiaircraft batteries fired dozens of missiles at Israeli fighter planes, the Israel Defense Forces destroyed five of the batteries and seriously damaged the Syrian army’s aerial defense system.

Presumably, Israel’s blow would now cause the Iranians to stop and rethink their moves. Israel has demonstrated its military and intelligence advantage in Syria, following directly on the series of strikes attributed to it in previous months, albeit on an entirely different scale.

However, there are several constraints on Iran at this time. The first is its relative weakness in Syria, and the concern that the Trump administration – having just withdrawn the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran – might do something unexpected. And it’s interesting that up to now Russia has not gone out of its way to assist Iran, even though Iran has been a partner in the murderous campaign that the two waged in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. It is certainly significant that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a visit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin a few hours before the escalation in the north.

That said, it would be better not to get caught up now in the self-assured, arrogant spiral evident in the reactions in some television studios, at the Knesset and on social media. Under extreme circumstances, or down the line, Tehran could nevertheless roll out its heavier weapon, Hezbollah, in which case the conflict could take on an entirely different scope.

>> Major setback for Iran in Syria, but Israeli arrogance poses a danger | Analysis ■ A blow to Assad: Israel destroyed five Syrian anti-aircraft batteries ■ Israel launches most extensive strike in Syria in decades after Iranian rocket barrage

Coping with aerial attacks in Syria is like dealing with the firing from Lebanon of thousands of rockets at Israeli civilian areas, or a clash of ground troops on Lebanese territory that would require a major, long-lasting call-up of reserve soldiers. We can only hope that the recent, unnecessary gushing over our towering invincibility won’t end up reminding us of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s boasts about Operation Density (aka “Fajr Night”) or the euphoric “Churchill speech” in the Knesset during the first week of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Iranians pour fuel on U.S. flags set aflame during an anti-U.S. demonstration outside the former US embassy headquarters in the capital Tehran on May 9, 2018.
ATTA KENARE/AFP

The Israel Defense Forces carried out the directives of the political leaders, and its own tactical plans. Israel has acted in Syria exactly as it said it would. For months, the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff have been saying Iran’s setting itself up militarily in Syria would cross a line that Israel couldn’t live with, and that it would take forceful action to prevent.

The messages were also delivered in earlier attacks since last September. In April, right after the raid on the T4 air base in Syria, military sources hinted that the IDF could eradicate Iran’s military presence in Syria if Iran insisted on retaliating.

The overnight attack turned threat into action. It focused mainly on infrastructure and logistics sites and did not seek to kill as many Iranian fighters as possible. Israel has been on the brink in Syria for some time. For now, the forceful line it is taking there against Iran, with the full backing of the security cabinet and IDF General Staff, has been yielding impressive results.

But this is the very time for sober judgment. It remains unclear what caused a person as experienced as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force chief, Qasem Soleimani, to carry out such a half-baked plan when he knows that Israel is closely watching his every move, and in practice had already uncovered and foiled several of his prior attempts in the past 10 days.

Soleimani’s failure early Thursday does not guarantee that Iran will retreat from its intentions in Syria, or that it will accept the Israeli attacks and not plan further moves on other fronts -- from Israeli targets abroad to the Lebanese border. It seems that first and foremost, the intelligence community will now be keeping an eye out for possible retaliatory moves by Hezbollah. The Lebanese-based Shi’ite movement is indeed preoccupied with taking advantage of its success in Lebanese parliamentary elections at the beginning of the week, but is ultimately subject to orders from Tehran. If the Iranian authorities decide that this is the time for a payback on the billions of dollars that they have invested in building up Hezbollah’s military force, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, will comply.

The nuclear connection

All of this is indirectly connected to nuclear matters. According to foreign media reports, Israel has been acting against Iranian targets in Syria since September. The attack on April 9 signaled a significant escalation, being an ambitious attack on an aerial facility that the Revolutionary Guards had established inside Syria’s T4 base. The escalation overlapped in time with a harsher tone in U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of the world powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran, in advance of his announcement on Tuesday that the United States would be abandoning the agreement.

During that period, Trump and Netanyahu were in close coordination. According to Netanyahu, the Americans were the first to receive a detailed briefing on the documents from the Iranian nuclear archives that the Mossad stole from Tehran.

While Israel, according to reports, was acting time after time to foil Iranian retaliation for the T4 attack, Trump’s position on the nuclear agreement was taking shape. The president’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, said Trump made his decision only minutes before the news conference in which he announced it. The stern line that Israel took early Thursday morning when Soleimani finally carried out his intentions has public backing from the United States, and certainly will be taken into consideration by Tehran at this time.

Trump could have also chosen another course of action. The Iranians have indeed become entangled in a strategic trap in view of the U.S. administration’s hawkish approach to them, along with their worsening economic crisis at home and the domestic disputes that are splitting the regime.

The text of the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration pursued in 2015 didn’t fully solve the problem, instead postponing it a decade ahead (or, as the Americans say, “kicking the can down the road”). Experts and diplomats from European countries had maintained it was possible to promote a different solution, reopening the agreement and perhaps forcing Iran to accept dictates that would plug several of the holes in the original agreement – addressing Iran’s subversive activity in the region, limiting its missile program and setting limits on its breakout capacity to nuclear capability at the end of the period covered by the agreement.

It appears that this also had been the preferred option of senior Israel army officials, if someone had asked them. But that’s not the course Trump took, and for this he had Netanyahu’s encouragement. The idea that the agreement could be torn up, shattering Obama’s legacy, was more appealing to Obama’s successor.

Since Trump’s news conference, American and Israeli politicians and commentators have exaggerated the positive implications of Trump’s decision regarding the instability of Tehran’s regime. The sanctions imposed by the Obama administration did indeed bring the Iranian economy to its knees five years ago and led Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to accept a nuclear compromise. And there is no doubt that the United States now has substantial means of exerting pressure on the Iranians.

But the path to regime change is a long one. The hardline group around the Iranian leader has been almost unrestrained in suppressing any uprising over the past four decades. Dislodging them certainly isn’t going to be a quick operation, and one of the disturbing things in the Trump administration, the likes of which has never been seen in Washington, is the inability to carry out long-term planning and execution. Right after the American withdrawal from the agreement, Trump was freed up to address talks with North Korea, but he has a whole range of other problems on his desk, including a trade war with China.

Washington has been described for some time as a one-crisis city, certainly under Trump. It remains to be seen what the administration’s action plan is and whether it will stick to it despite everything else going on, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Thursday at the Herzliya Conference that he identifies “a clear direction of defiance, escalation and friction” in the Iranian regime’s attitude toward the United States. In Syria, he said, he hopes Israel has succeeded “at this stage to decisively stand up to Iranian extremism.” That sounds like a cautious aspiration, rather than a promise that the Israel Air Force’s massive bombing has ended the crisis with Iran.