Analysis

On Iran, Netanyahu May Not Get What He Wants From Trump

As the U.S. and Iranian presidents trade barbs prior to the Netanyahu's visit, Trump has still not formulated his policy on Syria's ally.

Iranians hold a dummy representing Trump at a rally in Tehran. Netanyahu will meet Trump on Wednesday
ATTA KENARE/AFP

The meeting between United States President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week in the White House has caused quite a lot of anxiety in Tehran and Beirut. It seems the Iranian leadership, as well as that of Hezbollah, is very worried by the harsh rhetoric of the new American president and fears it will be translated into a joint American-Israeli move against them.

Netanyahu will arrive in Washington with proposals to harden the American position on implementingthe Iranian nuclear agreement reached in Vienna in July 2015. In the background, a war of words is being conducted between Trump and the Iranian regime. Trump said on Friday that Iranian President Hassan Rohani “better be careful,” in response to Rohani’s statements on the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, saying the “newcomers” in Washington must speak with respect and dignity to the Iranian people, and Iran had shown in the 38 years since the revolution that “it will make anyone who speaks to Iranians with the language of threats regret it.”

The Wall Street Journal claimed last week that Trump wants to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran to break the growing military and diplomatic alliance, and convince Moscow to act together with the U.S. to rein in Iranian influence. The chances of success for this policy, if such a policy has even been formulated, look to be extremely unlikely.

Russia and Iran have cooperated with great success in the civil war in Syria, and managed together to stabilize the position of the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. It can be assumed that Russian President Vladimir Putin believes he can continue to maneuver between the Iranians and his new friend Trump, without giving up on either side.

In an interview published on Friday in the free daily paper Israel Hayom, Trump denied he wanted to isolate Iran from Russia, refused to discuss the question of reimplementing the international sanctions on Iran, and avoided making any direct comment concerning the Iranians. As for the nuclear agreement, he just repeated that they should be “thankful for President [Barack] Obama for making such a deal, which was so much to their advantage.” 

Despite all the talk, Netanyahu’s expectations for decisive steps against Iran by the Trump administration should also be kept within realistic bounds. Despite the militant tone and the promises to make America great again, Trump has already managed in his just three weeks as president to retreat from his aggressive statements on China and postpone indefinitely the plans for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. For now, North Korea too provided a challenge for him last weekend when it announced a ballistic missile test. Given these circumstances, the question is whether Trump will decide to continue to confront the Iranians at all, or even take any operative steps against them.

Split on Hezbollah

Tehran is not very sensitive to any signals from Washington, also because of the presidential election scheduled for May. This time too a battle is expected between the conservative camp and what is considered to be the more moderate group, headed by Rohani, who intends on running again for president.

Rohani recently has taken on a direct fight with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a bastion of the conservative camp, over the question of funding for the Quds Force, the special forces unit of the Revolutionary Guards responsible for their operations outside Iran, as well as funding for Hezbollah and other militias operating around the Arab world.

Rohani has even taken steps to delay the transfer of funds to Hezbollah, which receives some $700 to $800 million a year from Iran. These amounts are a serious burden on Iran’s economy, which in recent years has also provided the Assad regime with broad financial support. Reports from 2015 spoke of Syria’s $1 billion annual line of credit from Iran.

It seems the dispute between Rohani and the Revolutionary Guards focuses on the scope of Hezbollah’s activities. The organization is not only entrenched in the fighting in Syria and continues to keep most of its forces in Lebanon, but has also sent, at the instruction of the Quds Force, trainers to help the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Reducing Hezbollah’s operations would cut the organization’s costs, and is intended to reduce the influence of the Revolutionary Guards. In recent years, the status of the commander of the Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, has risen greatly. Soleimani – at least until the Russians entered the fighting in Syria – branded himself as the supreme commander of the campaign in Syria on the side of the alliance backing the Assad regime.

Hezbollah has its own financial troubles because of its rising expenses. The large number of casualties among its fighters in Syria – about 1,700 killed and some 7,000 wounded over its four and a half years of involvement in the fighting, according to Western intelligence services – requires the organization to spend exceptional amounts on rehabilitation and compensation for the wounded, as well as to the families of those killed. In addition, the generation of operational commanders that developed during the periods of fighting against the Israel Defense Forces in the security zone in southern Lebanon is now nearing the age of 50. Most of them did not continue to rise in the ranks of the organization, and are gradually retiring from active service – and they, too, need pensions.

Hezbollah, and in its wake the Israeli intelligence community too, regularly points out the experience and benefits it earned in the fighting in Syria, including experience in more sophisticated warfare. But it turns out that along with the institutionalization of the organization and its turning into a quasi-military, as the IDF has described it for over a year, come other aspects too, which have serious financial implications.