Analysis

What Israel Thinks the U.S. Is Trying to Achieve With Renewed Iran Sanctions

U.S. may be trying to force Tehran into reopening the nuclear deal, or affect regime change. Either way, the pressure is leading Iran to make grave mistakes in Europe

A protester sets fire to the American flag during a demonstration on the anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure, in Tehran, Iran, November 4, 2018.
Bloomberg

The imposition of the second wave of American sanctions against Iran, following Washington’s exit from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Tehran, has led to smiles in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastened – and quite rightly – to claim credit for the Trump administration’s move. The final outcome from the escalation of the pressure on Iran is still a ways off, but it’s hard to deny the claim that Netanyahu is the one who pushed Trump in that direction, especially as he did it despite a contrary view in much of the Israeli intelligence community.

Israeli intelligence currently has two hypotheses regarding what the American moves are aimed at achieving. One is that the United States hopes to force Iran to reopen the nuclear agreement to include tougher enforcement and supervision. The second, more ambitious possibility, based on an expansive interpretation of the 12-point plan that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued following the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement is that America is seeking to topple the regime in Tehran. 

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The more prevalent view is that the Americans simply wish to improve upon the agreement rather than overthrowing the regime, and that for the time being, their approach is working. The sanctions have been hurting the Iranian economy and in the long run, despite the hard line that Tehran is projecting towards the outside, the regime may capitulate.

The Iranians already did so, to some degree, in the interim agreement of 2013, and later in the final agreement in 2015, under pressure from broad international sanctions led by the Obama administration. For the Iranians, it’s now déjà vu, but under worse economic conditions, an Israeli intelligence source said. The Iranian rial is weak, oil prices are extremely hard to predict but at the moment are low, Iranian unemployment is relatively high and so is inflation. 

Washington is also acting incrementally and calculatingly. So far, most multinationals seem to be falling into line when it comes to the sanctions. The Americans gave eight countries more time to comply, based on the expectation that it would create more effective sanctions later on. 

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In Israel, the assumption is that Iran won’t rip up the agreement, which remains in effect with other world powers, because that wouldn’t serve its purposes at this time. It will hem and haw for a couple of years, hoping that Trump loses the next general election in November 2020. By then there could even be a summit meeting between Trump and Iranian president Hassan Rohani, as happened between the U.S. president and North Korea's leader.

In the interim, with the economic and political pressure that they are under, the Iranians are making mistakes in Europe. In recent months, Iranian attempts have been exposed -- reportedly based on information from Israel's Mossad intelligence service -- in France and Denmark, to attack exiled opposition activists. 

The way these missions were pursued reflects amateurism and haste. Iran has stumbled in this manner in the past, in trying to attack Israeli and Jewish targets around the world at the end of the last decade in response to attempts to assassinate its nuclear scientists, which it blamed on Israel.

Could the growing economic trouble in Iran have an effect on its activities in Syria? The internal conflict over the funding of military operations in the Middle East is escalating as Iran’s resources grow scarcer. Russia also seems likely to give the Iranians a harder time in Syria, too, as they arm-wrestle over control. 

Russia’s policy on Syria is becoming clearer. It wants to stabilize the regime of President Bashar Assad now that the Syrian dictator has regained control over most of the country's territory, and it's less tolerant of disruptions, whether Israeli or Iranian.

Moscow took advantage of its aircraft being shot down in September by Syrian aerial defenses to dictate new rules for the game. Israel did in fact attack Syria, but Russia’s reservations have become more vocal. Netanyahu will manage to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the Russians seem to be deriving pleasure of sorts in dragging out the discussions over scheduling a meeting.

Conversations with Israeli security cabinet ministers and top army brass confirm the assumption – which is in stark contrast to the optimistic propaganda disseminated by Netanyahu’s cheerleaders – that the downing of the Russian jet was a strategic incident. The window of opportunity in Syria has shrunk, both for Israeli attacks and Iranian arms smuggling (to Hezbollah in Lebanon), although both continue to occur on a smaller scale. Apparently attention will be shifting to Lebanon, where Iran and Hezbollah are working on building new facilities to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah's rockets. 

How can Israel frustrate these plans? It's precisely this that is the dilemma preoccupying the leadership in Jerusalem. 

The mixed bag that is MBS 

Over in Washington, Trump looked quite upset on Wednesday and was even more scathing than usual at the White House press conference on the day after the midterm elections. For a change, the election outcome was more or less as polls had shown and as pundits had predicted: the Democrats won the House and the Republicans retained the Senate

The poisonous tone in the exchanges between the president and reporters apparently already reflects the trench warfare likely to envelope Washington in the next couple of years. From the Israeli perspective, the big question is how the Democrats' electoral success – which will surely put Trump to the test to a greater extent both politically and legally -- will affect the administration’s foreign policy. 

Trump and senior administration officials are taking a hard, uncompromising line on Iran. There are questions hovering over two other matters as well – tensions in the relationship with Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the possibility that the administration will resume its efforts to achieve the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Netanyahu expressed his views regarding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rather belatedly, saying that the murder was a mistake, but adding that Saudi Arabia is a key ally for America in its drive to stymie the Iranians. We can assume that Trump thinks much the same given the vast economic interests that the United States has in Saudi Arabia.
 
In the meantime, with the encouragement of its Qatari owners and its allies in Turkey, Al Jazeera television is keeping the flame of the Khashoggi affair alive. The horrifying revelations about what allegedly happened in the Saudi consulate cast an embarrassing light on the praise that was being heaped on the Saudi crown prince on Israeli television just a year ago -- following the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia and other decisive moves that the prince had taken. 

It turns out that Prince Mohammed has been playing with fire repeatedly, so anyone linking their fate to his due to shared interests, such as fighting Iran, needs to consider that.