Opinion

Israel and the U.S. Are Triggering a Risky, Unnecessary War of Choice in the Middle East

But neither Israel's prime minister, nor other regional U.S. allies, have any assurances America will stick around to manage the dangerous fallout from the Iran deal's implosion

Trump delivers a statement on the Iran nuclear deal from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

We will probably never know the extent of responsibility Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears for the U.S. withdrawal, under President Trump, from the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S.- Iranian relations have certainly long been poisonous, independent of Israel. Congressional enthusiasm for the deal was always low and, within the GOP, support for it near non-existent.

Still, Netanyahu and the campaign he spearheaded certainly helped to create part of the backdrop to Trump‘s announcement; indeed, in his announcement, Trump gave Israel direct credit for supposedlysupplying "definitive proof" that Iran’s nuclear intentions were never peaceful. Not  for the first time, a U.S. presidential text read like it was written in Jerusalem. 

Israel will now have to live with the consequences of that success. Following Trump’s announcement, the nuclear deal is now on a clear path to unravelling completely, with only a small chance of reversing that trajectory.

Iran has been honoring the stipulations of the JCPOA, something that Netanyahu and the deal’s many critics said would never happen, and they have produced no evidence to the contrary.

The concerns which the U.S. and Israel had raised regarding the limitations of the deal, and with which Europeans, at least, were sympathetic – the sunset clause arrangements regarding Iranian nuclear energy, ballistic missile development, and especially the challenges posed by Iran regionally – all will now have to be addressed in an atmosphere of growing crisis.

That atmosphere will only be heightened now the nuclear issue is presumably back on the table, while tensions are escalating on Israel’s northern border, and the value of American international commitments have been significantly devalued. 

Without batting an eye-lid, President Trump has effectively just called his European allies (as well as the Chinese and Russians) a bunch of morons for negotiating what he described as a "horrible," "one-sided," "decayed," "rotting" and "defective" deal.

Despite his recent protestations that a shortcoming of the nuclear deal was its failure to address Iran’s regional ambitions, Netanyahu was among those who pushed hardest to keep the nuclear and regional files separate in any P5+1 dealings with Iran. He has now helped bring those two together.

After Trump’s withdrawal decision there might be an attempt to create a semblance of continuity – Europeans and Iranians might explore avenues for retaining the deal which was, after all, blessed by the UN, and they could attempt to address the additional concerns raised by the U.S. But the odds are heavily stacked against that succeeding, if it is even attempted. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program, in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

Europe cannot salvage the deal without the U.S. Thus far, Iran has implemented its side of the bargain without the reciprocal economic easing really materializing – that is primarily because European banks and companies feared being frozen out by U.S. financial institutions. Now what was speculation and risk management from European business has become fact, even fewer in the European private sector will risk extensive business dealings with Iran.

A strong economic stand by Europe against U.S. direct and secondary sanctions, possibly even at the WTO, might make a difference. There are few signs that Europe is preparing such a response. 

On the Iranian side the smart money will be on this strengthening those who cautioned against any expectations from the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, to honor agreements. 

To try and claim, as the White House has done recently, that this exit could be a prelude to a better deal is to stretch incredulity to breaking point.

The logic of Trump’s announcement is that he and his team expect one of three scenarios to play out - regime change in Iran, capitulation by Iran or confrontation with Iran.

The music suggests that that the U.S. is betting on scenarios one or two. Neither option has much going for it other than wishful thinking. American-driven attempts at regime change have a very poor record indeed in the Middle East, and anyone who thinks that Iran will agree to terms dictated by Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem has not been paying attention.

All of which points in the direction of an increasing likelihood of the gloves coming off and of direct confrontation between some combination of the key protagonists (the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia on one side, Iran, Hezbollah and allied militias, including in Iraq, on the other.)

Iran's President Hassan Rohani speaks during a joint news conference with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, April 16, 2016.
AP

Saudi Arabia is already experiencing what a more indirect confrontation looks like in Yemen, and that is not going well at all. Israel and Iran are progressing ever closer to serious blows in Syria.

And here is the catch: Trump’s instincts might now be to expect America’s regional allies to deal with the consequences of his decision, and to shoulder the burden of confronting Iran.

But those very allies expect the U.S. to step up and take a far more substantial role. There are strong indications that Riyadh and Jerusalem would welcome a direct U.S. military entanglement with Tehran - and they might just get it. New national security adviser John Bolton is firmly in the camp of a pre-emptive military strike against Iran. This is the first serious test of whether he can push his policy through.

For Israel, it’s hard to see that preparing the ground for a military confrontation with Iran is a wise and responsible strategy to pursue. Whisper it softly, but Iran is actually on the winning side in most of its current regional deployments. And Iran can’t be taken out of the regional power equation, the blowback can’t be neutralized.

What must also concern Israeli defense chiefs: it’s not clear that America can be relied on to stick around when the fallout from the break-up of the Iran deal will be experienced primarily by those in the region, and not American citizens and voters.

The one piece of good news is that Iran, and by extension Hezbollah’s, posture towards Israel is primarily one of deterrence. That is the starting point for charting a course back to sanity, or for finding a way to de-escalate if real hostilities do begin to spiral out of control.

File photo: Hezbollah fighters walk near a military tank in Western Qalamoun, Syria, August 23, 2017.
\ Omar Sanadiki/ REUTERS

And Israel may well end up needing to make compromises that will reduce but not eliminate its ability to militarily manage any threats posed by Iran’s presence in Syria.

If Iran’s entrenchment in Syria cannot be reversed, there will be a new reality in which Israel is in a less advantaged position, but the balance of power and deterrence will still remain significantly in Israel’s favour. Absolute freedom of aerial operation over enemy territory is a luxury not a necessity (and certainly not a  right.)

The less costly and far wiser approach for regional stability in general and Israeli national security interests in particular, would be a multilateral diplomatic process whose aim would be to build a wider package of regional understandings, and a new regional balance of deterrence that would be part implicit, and part more detailed and explicit.

But we are a long way from that now. Make no mistake: Trump’s announcement means the path of travel is towards a risky and unnecessary war of choice. It is still not too late, but Washington, with a major assist from Jerusalem, has just set off on a dangerous march in the wrong direction.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project