The relative paucity of news from the Persian Gulf this week shouldn’t mislead us. The crisis between the United States and Iran is still the No. 1 worry for countries in the region. The reluctance of the leaders in both Washington and Tehran to embark on a direct military confrontation doesn’t guarantee against the eruption of such a conflict, which could also affect other states in the region from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Israel and Syria.
As far as is known, the sides haven’t even been in indirect talks. Iran is still signaling to the Americans that there will be a price to pay for a lack of negotiations. The signals now have to do with the nuclear agreement between Iran and the big powers that the United States withdrew from a year ago. On Monday, Tehran announced that it had gone beyond the permitted cap on its possession of low-level enriched uranium. On Wednesday, President Hassan Rohani said that next week his country would resume uranium enrichment at a higher level.
The current catchphrase is “regime collapse,” a more anodyne term than regime change. This is the way the wind is blowing among officials with influence on U.S. President Donald Trump, among them his national security adviser, John Bolton, and some of the people at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank in Washington.
>> Read more: Chinese involvement in Israeli infrastructure may threaten security, U.S. study warns ■ Israel may live to regret its warming ties with China | Opinion ■ China reaches its arm deep into the Middle East, giving Israel cause for concern | Analysis
This week in Haaretz, Amir Tibon described the rift in the Republican camp concerning the possibility of war with Iran. On one side, Trump has advisers like Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who are pressing for an aggressive stance on Iran. On the other, there are the isolationist sentiments of influential Republicans, among them commentators on Trump’s beloved Fox News, who are warning him against another unnecessary war in the Middle East. One of the people with the most influence on Trump, Fox’s Tucker Carlson, has been churning out nearly pacifist (and quite convincing) antiwar speeches in recent weeks.
In the more hawkish camp we can discern a renewed awakening that reminds many observers of a bleak period – the gung-ho launch by the George W. Bush administration, based on weak pretexts, of the 2003 Iraq War as a delayed response to the September 11 attacks.
Since some of the people who are now enthusiastically hosting the shah of Iran’s son in Washington were also on the scene 16 years ago, it’s no wonder that with some dread there is mention of Ahmed Chalabi, a foe of Saddam Hussein back then. Chalabi was that charlatan from the Iraqi opposition who helped push the Americans into the Baghdad mire via exaggerated (and often mendacious) intelligence about Saddam aiding Al-Qaida, and about the presence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
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The isolationists also fear a new economic crisis in the United States if a war breaks out. The hawks supposedly have an answer: If the Iranian regime implodes, it isn’t a war but a successful strategic move at a low cost. There will be no need to send hundreds of thousands of American troops to the Gulf, so we won’t see thousands of them returning home in body bags, as happened in the long war in Iraq.
Trump has expressed reservations about a war, most notably when he explained his decision to call off a strike on Iran after the downing of an American drone last month. But he also expressed opposition to the nuclear agreement and support for renewing the heavy pressure on Iran – right at the outset of his reelection campaign.
In May he declared a new wave of sanctions, exactly one year after his decision to withdraw from the agreement. Apparently the real aim behind Pompeo’s 12-point plan and the policy of maximum pressure on Tehran is to replace the regime. The question is whether the president will go along with his hawkish advisers or listen to the isolationist warnings from Carlson & Co.
John Rood, the U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, told Haaretz this week that from Trump’s perspective, the way is open to renewing the talks with Iran. But it appears that many people in the administration are striving for regime change in Iran, not for a better nuclear deal.
Is the president likely to be lured in that direction? It’s nearly impossible to predict anything when it comes to Trump. Alongside his reluctance about war, he’s a great believer in economic pressure, from China to Venezuela (where Washington is having no luck imposing regime change, even in a bankrupt country in its own backyard).
For now, the chances of a conciliatory summit between Trump and the Iranians, like the one earlier this week in North Korea, seem small. The leaders in Tehran aren’t keen for one; America’s regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, would strongly oppose such a summit, and it’s doubtful that Trump is willing to risk angering his big donors (among them the Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson) just moments before a new race for the presidency.
At a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya this week, a war game was conducted in a closed forum in which a scenario of direct talks between the United States and Iran was presented after another escalation in the Persian Gulf sometime in the future.
The American delegation was made up of a number of top specialists, among them former members of the Trump administration and think tank people from Washington. In the absence of real officials from Tehran, Israeli intelligence officials and academics, among them former Mossad and Military Intelligence officials, played the Iranians. The scenario for the war game was written by Brig. Gen. (res.) Yoram Hamo and Col. (res.) Udi Evental.
The difference in approaches was evident during the first meeting between the sides. The Israelis playing the Iranians entered the talks with a patient negotiating stance in which it would be possible to reach agreements after long and shrewd bargaining. The Americans rushed into the room full speed ahead, suggesting that the other side accept their dictates and cave, or risk getting hammered. The Israelis went so deeply into the role of the Iranians that it seemed they really were surprised and even insulted.
The American officials played their roles very skillfully, but were they representing John Bolton or Donald Trump? And come to think of it, this week’s Trump or next week’s Trump? Even they found this hard to answer. The game ended without any clear conclusion because everyone understands that in the end things are determined between the president’s two ears.
Not destined to be adversaries
In the interview with Haaretz, Under Secretary of Defense Rood described the relations between his country and China as “competitive” but “not destined to be adversaries." The warning about excessive Israeli coziness with China was the main issue Rood wished to advance in the conversation.
When asked about the reservations expressed by retired U.S. admirals regarding Chinese involvement in the expansion of Haifa Port, he quickly swerved to talking about the administration’s real concern: thwarting the Chinese attempt to take over the cellular network market, especially 5G, the fifth generation communications technology, mainly by the Huawei telecom giant. Rood said the administration had warned Israel about the Chinese security establishment's possible involvement in technological projects in Israel that would supposedly be signed with civilian companies.
From the U.S. administration's point of view, the main struggle with the Chinese is the competition over technology and innovation. Whoever installs the fifth-generation infrastructure will be in a hugely advantageous position.
China steals technology from the West, offers rock-bottom prices to other countries and thereby trounces the competition. In the long run, however, the countries that cut major deals with it are liable to find themselves exploited. The message the Americans are now sending to their friends around the world is: “If you buy 5G technology from the Chinese, you will have to manage without us in the security realm."
Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion directs the China-Israel research program at the Institute for National Security Studies. According to him, "The competition for setting up information-transmission infrastructure in the future is at the forefront of the strategic competition between the United States and China."
Orion says the two countries are vying for other countries’ support to acquire technological, economic and security advantages. Preventing the involvement of Chinese companies in 5G infrastructure is the most explicit demand the administration has made to Israel, clearly stressing the connection between that and American military aid, as well as intelligence cooperation.
He says Israel should accede to the American demand and at the same time continue to advance its relations with China in areas where trade and economic activity do not entail grave risks to national security.
The administration’s main claims against Huawei are laid out in a Pentagon report on 5G stating that evidence has been found of the existence of “back doors” and security vulnerabilities in the company’s equipment, and that this evidence is linked to the Chinese intelligence establishment’s demand that local companies gather data about their users.
Moreover, the Chinese cyber law of June 2017 stipulates that foreign companies in China, if the need arises, must hand over information and technology if they want to remain active in China.
“The American measures against Huawei derive both from a fear of damage to their national security and from a fear of damage to their economic competitiveness," Orion says. "The United States sees maintaining its technological superiority around the world as a supreme interest that affects every dimension of its national strength. China, in light of its advanced technologies in the development and spread of 5G infrastructure, is perceived as a significant player.”
Senior administration officials have said that various countries’ cooperation with Huawei is endangering their security relationships with Washington because they are leaving an opening for China that will let it access American infrastructure and secrets.
According to Orion, “The American warnings against Huawei’s involvement in Israeli communications infrastructure and the transmission of these warnings at the highest levels reflect that the issue is at the top of the U.S. administration’s agenda.
"The threat the United States has chosen to stress — possible damage to military aid — is aimed at Israel's supreme interest that is a pillar of its national security.” Therefore, Orion says that “it is very likely that Chinese components will not be installed in 5G infrastructure in Israel.”
Col. (res.) Yuval Sharshevski, who has held senior posts in Military Intelligence, says: “Israel has a significant place in China’s Middle East strategy. There are three reasons for this: a Chinese desire to get their hands on a unique Israeli technology, a thrust to penetrate communication networks in Israel, and the aim of increasing China’s economic presence in the Israeli economy. The latter two reasons are also prevalent in China’s relations with other countries.”
In his view, although the risk this currently entails isn't high, “in the long term there's a significant threat here, with strategic implications for Israel.”