Analysis |

If the U.S. Goes to War With Iran, Netanyahu Will Be the Prime Suspect

He convinced Trump that Tehran will capitulate to crippling sanctions and a credible military threat – but the ayatollahs disagree

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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File photo: The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transits the Suez Canal, May 9, 2019.
File photo: The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transits the Suez Canal, May 9, 2019.Credit: Darion Chanelle Triplett/Navy Office of Information/AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the only world leader to openly express support for the escalating U.S. campaign against Iran, but his statement is an exception to the general Israeli rule. In the two weeks that have passed since the U.S. announced it was reinforcing its military presence in the Persian Gulf, official Israel has mostly taken on a vow of silence. “Luckily, we are not involved,” naively optimistic defense officials briefed reporters.

The attempt to distance itself from an American military operation in the Middle East, as if Israel was merely a fan sitting in the bleachers cheering its favorite team, inevitably sparks analogies to Yitzhak Shamir’s policy of restraint in the 1991 Gulf War and Ariel Sharon’s similar attitude during the 2003 war in Iraq. Shamir’s task was rendered far more difficult because Israel was directly attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles, but was infinitely easier as well, because no one in his right mind could blame Israel for Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

And while Israel did not come under direct attack in the 2003 Iraq War, it was nonetheless compelled to defend itself against claims, which proliferated as the war progressed, that it had pushed President George W. Bush to decide on the attack in the first place. In the lead up to that ill-fated war, Netanyahu was once again one of a handful of prominent Israelis who preferred to break the silence. In public testimony before the Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives in 2002, Netanyahu assured American lawmakers that Saddam either had nuclear weapons or was on the verge of acquiring them, with the help of hidden centrifuges “no bigger than washing machines.” Deposing Saddam, Netanyahu promised, would do wonders for the Middle East as a whole.

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Even though he was a private citizen then, Netanyahu’s testimony provided critics with supposedly incontrovertible proof of Israel’s involvement in pushing Bush to war. Netanyahu’s testimony has resurfaced in recent days to ostensibly show Netanyahu’s tendency to inflate, exaggerate, make mountains out of molehills and to view U.S. military might as the ultimate response to threats on Israel, whether they emanate from Baghdad or Tehran.

But even without his damning testimony from the past, and even if Netanyahu doesn’t say another word, if war breaks out between the U.S. and Iran, he will be named as the prime suspect as far as its opponents are concerned. Netanyahu, with the assistance of like-minded allies in the U.S. and the Middle East, persuaded Donald Trump to abandon Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu convinced Trump that a combination of crippling economic sanctions and a credible military threat will force Tehran to beg for a new and improved nuclear deal, which will include its malevolent regional activities which were not addressed in “Obama’s deal”. And given that countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are far more belligerent towards Iran in private than they are in public, Netanyahu became a one-man cheerleading squad for Trump’s latest moves.

But while the campaign to blame Israel for the Iraq War was limited to a relatively small clique of its most vociferous critics – the most prominent of which were Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their book about the Israel lobby – conflagration with Iran would dramatically expand the circle of Israel-accusers. When Walt and Mearsheimer published their book a dozen years ago, Israel still enjoyed wide partisan support in Congress. Its situation today is substantially worse: After burning his bridges with American liberals, including most Jews, and after he openly challenged – and, in their eyes, humiliated – Obama over the 2015 nuclear deal, many Democrats are far more likely to point fingers at Netanyahu the moment the first American soldier is killed.

File photo: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, talks with Charge D'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Joey Hood, left, after he arrived in Baghdad for meetings, May 7, 2019.Credit: Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP

Former vice presidential candidate and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine provided a harbinger this week of things to come. Kaine claims that it was Trump’s May 2018 decision to abandon the nuclear deal – which, he says, allowed sufficient supervision and guarantees to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions – that is the root cause of the tense standoff in the Gulf, rather than Tehran’s sinister designs. And even though Kaine did not mention Netanyahu by name, the identity of the foreign leader who convinced Trump to abandon diplomacy and risk confrontation is obvious and widely known to all.

Netanyahu can console himself at least with the fact that contrary to 1991 and 2003, this time Israel does not run the risk of upsetting the international coalition supporting U.S. moves, for the simple reason that such a coalition does not exist. Trump’s decision to ditch the nuclear deal, buttressed by his overall disdain for America’s historic alliance with Europe, fractured the anti-Iranian coalition and turned the U.S. rather than Iran into the main villain. As Adam Taylor wrote in the Washington Post this week, “the United States meant to isolate Iran. It looks increasingly isolated itself.”

Netanyahu, one must note, is hardly looking forward to an imminent outbreak of hostilities, even if its participants are the B-52’s and Lincoln aircraft carrier that Trump seemingly dispatched to the Gulf. The immense loss of life, damage to Israel’s economy and potential war with Lebanon that would ensue from an Iranian diktat to Hezbollah to unleash hundreds if not thousands of precision-guided rockets on Israeli population centers in retaliation for a U.S. attack are enough to curb any Israeli enthusiasm for an American clash with Iran – though Netanyahu might nonetheless believe it’s a price worth paying.

Netanyahu believes that the Iranian leadership, like much of the Arab, understands only force. He is convinced that intense economic pressure coupled with the nightmarish specter of American bombers laying waste to their country will compel Tehran to come back to the negotiating table on all fours in order to carve out the fabled “better agreement” that both Trump and Netanyahu claim, with no evidence, is eminently achievable.

In his talks with Trump, Netanyahu has relied on the president’s own business acumen, as expressed, inter alia, in his autobiographical book “The Art of the Deal”. According to Trump’s supposedly winning formula – belied by reports of his lackluster business performance – when trying to secure concessions from a rival one must use all the leverage at one’s disposal, reinforced by copious amounts of hyperbole, bluster and essentially empty threats, which has been his attitude toward the Iranian leaders.

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after delivering a speech on Iran's nuclear program at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.Credit: Jack Guez/AFP

But Iran isn’t one of Trump’s real estate competitors, who, by his account, invariably surrendered to his overwhelming tactics. Self-interest and cost-effectiveness are not the only considerations for the ayatollah regime, and often not even the central factor influencing its decisions. Iran leads the Shi'ites. It carries the flag of an all-encompassing Muslim revolution. It harbors in its genes the legacy of long lost Persian empires, once the sole superpower of the ancient world. Iran does not view itself as a weak and vulnerable state that has no choice but to capitulate to U.S. ultimatums, but as an equal rival determined to foil Trump or, at worst, survive him.

Tehran has had a long and often bitter history with U.S. presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower, who oversaw the 1953 coup against popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh; John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, who all buttressed the repressive regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; Jimmy Carter and the 1979 hostage crisis; Ronald Reagan and the decision to arm Iraq to the teeth so it would bleed Iran to submission; Bill Clinton’s total embargo in 1995; and the inclusion of Iran in Bush’s post-9/11 “axis of evil”. Trump, of course, is nothing like his predecessors, but the differences in this case may work in Iran’s favor.

Trump is the first U.S. President to confront Iran without international backing. His disdain for European countries and unilateral decision to ditch the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action drove a wedge between Washington and European governments, allowing Tehran to play one against the other and, in many cases, to turn Trump from accuser to accused. Moreover, the Iranians have ample grounds to suspect that Trump is mostly bark rather than bite: He is wary of spiking oil prices and a global economic convulsion that could mar his stellar economic achievements in the U.S. More importantly, an embroilment in Iran would break one of Trump’s main campaign promises, to refrain from military interventions in the Middle East and to “bring the boys back home”.

As one commentator noted in the wake of Trump’s bombastic but barren talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump has turned Teddy Roosevelt’s famous maxim on is head: Instead of talking softly but carrying a big stick, Trump talks loudly but carries nothing more than a twig.

Small wonder that in the past 48 hours, White House officials have started to brief U.S. reporters that Trump is less than happy with the bellicose approach of his National Security Adviser John Bolton, known as one of Israel’s closest confidantes in Washington. The catalyst for Trump’s reservations was the leaked story of a Pentagon paper prepared for Bolton that envisaged sending 120,000 U.S. troops to fight against the Iranians. Trump boasted that if it came to open conflict, the size of the U.S. force would be much larger, but distanced himself from what critics describe as the warmongering winds emanating from Bolton’s office. Experienced Washington observers claim that, based on previous patterns, Trump will soon start criticizing Bolton in public and, after a short hiatus, boot him out of the White House as well.

File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in the Oval Office, May 13, 2019.Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

Against this backdrop, Swiss President Ueli Maurer was unexpectedly summoned to Washington on Thursday in order to try and mediate between the feuding sides and get them off the high horses they’ve mounted. Maurer’s involvement may have been expected to send alarm bells ringing throughout Jerusalem, but the president of the Swiss Confederation, whose term is limited to a year, seems to be a man after the Netanyahu’s own heart. Maurer is the nationalist, anti-immigration leader of the right-wing People's Party, whose attitude to Israel and Jews seems to mirror that of Netanyahu’s bosom buddy, Viktor Orban of Hungary: As defense minister, Maurer was savaged by critics for expanding military collaboration between Israel and Switzerland. In his previous tenure as president in 2013, however, Maurer enraged Jews throughout the world by trying to whitewash Swiss rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Maurer, however, is not getting involved in order to promote war but rather to reach a compromise, which, by its very nature, will inevitably disappoint Iran’s enemies, led by Netanyahu himself. If such a compromise is achieved, Netanyahu may have to face the possibility that his all-in bet on Trump has failed to produce the dividends he sought and that the anti-Iran strategy built on his beautiful friendship with the U.S. president could be on the verge of collapse.

The remaining options are both unpalatable for Netanyahu. The first is that Iran will resist recently fortified economic sanctions and continue to incrementally abandon its commitments under the 2015 nuclear accord, without risking any retaliation from the countries that still adhere to it. The second is a military flare-up between Iran and the U.S., which may or may not cripple Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure but is certain to inflict human suffering, financial upheaval, escalating internal strife in Washington and the certainty that Netanyahu will be held responsible for them all. Worse, Trump may eventually reach the same conclusion.

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