Part of it was his voice, his breathing curiously labored, his diction uncharacteristically wooden, over-cautious, at times faltering. And then there was the subtext in the brief speech itself, a subtext made flesh by the presence, in a doorway just off-screen, of National Security Advisor John Bolton:
The speech built to an ending in which Trump warned, "If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before."
And then: "I want to deliver a message to the long-suffering people of Iran: The people of America stand with you. It has now been almost 40 years since this dictatorship seized power and took a proud nation hostage."
Nonetheless, he declared, "the future of Iran belongs to its people. They are the rightful heirs to a rich culture and an ancient land, and they deserve a nation that does justice to their dreams, honor to their history, and glory to God."
Within both the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government, the message – that crippling the nuclear deal could and should lead to regime change in Tehran – has been growing increasingly explicit of late.
But as the drumbeat gains momentum with the recent appointments of Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump defense attorney Rudy Giuliani, vocal regime change advocates all, there is reason for concern that in both Washington and Jerusalem, the hardliners' tactics for effecting Death to the Islamic Republic could backfire, and badly.
Here are Trump and Netanyahu, both desperate to fend off metastasizing allegations of misconduct, both zealous to make a mark in history beyond campaign overlays, beyond resort to bigotry and misdirection and arrogance and kitsch.
Here are two former salesmen backed by the same casino mogul, gambling their entire legacies and careers on one spin of an untested roulette wheel. Here are two men betting against the house, wagering that by bucking the entire world, they can land a jackpot as big as it gets: in one stroke, toppling the rulers of Iran, ruining and obliterating the hated memory of Barack Obama, and, most importantly, proving their detractors entirely and diametrically wrong.
Two men, that is, trying their best not to count the large number of roulette slots reading "War," "World Economic Crisis," and "Domestic Political Backlash."
What happens, that is, if the bet goes south? What happens if Trump's high-profile, Netanyahu-driven effort to kneecap the Iran deal does, in fact, lead to regime change – only that the regime in question turns out to be Trump's. Or Netanyahu's.
For years now, Netanyahu has staked his power and position to an all-in alliance with Trump, Sheldon Adelson's Republican Party, and the president's evangelical base.
But what happens to Trump – and to Netanyahu – if, as a result of the president's ardent embrace of Netanyahu's talking points, his Iran moves take a wrecking ball to the U.S. economy, and do mortal damage to the well-being of the base so crucial to his political survival?
With barely six months remaining before a make-or-break midterm election, Trump's withdrawal from the deal could jolt oil prices to painful levels, detonating a cascade of undesirable consequences, among them soaring gasoline prices and air fares, as well as sharp blows to manufacturing profitability, stock prices, job growth, and consumer confidence.
As it is, crude oil prices have risen by some 44 percent since Trump's election. But estimates of the possible damage of U.S.-imposed secondary sanctions indicate that Iran could lose sales of up to a million barrels a day. A drop of that magnitude in available oil could bring the current level of $70 a barrel – already the highest price level since 2014 – to $77 and more.
For Netanyahu and Israel, the life-or-death element of the U.S. pull-out from the nuclear deal has a vastly more literal quality.
The prospect of cataclysmic war casts shadows on every Israeli household. In the event of warfare – whether a potential multi-front conflict propelled by Iran's rocket-rich client militias in Syria and Lebanon, along with armed fundamentalist Islamic fighters in Gaza and the West Bank, or a full-out Iran-Israel war – the staggering impact of Israeli military and civilian casualties could by itself drive Netanyahu from power.
Then there is the consequence of years of Netanyahu shoveling abuse onto the U.S. Democratic Party. More recently, but with full-blown contempt, there are the relentless efforts by Netanyahu and his ministers to dismiss, denigrate, and delegitimize the vast majority of American Jews who are progressive in outlook but care deeply about Israel, and who have long been the under-acknowledged – by Israelis – reservoir of pro-Israel U.S. support.
For Netanyahu, spending all of his political capital on coddling the Orthodox Jewish right, both at home and in the Diaspora, may soon enough come back to haunt and hound him. The Democratic Party views him, correctly, as a no-boundaries Republican. He's lost the mass of world Jewry by his active spite. He can no longer rely on either for unqualified support. Thanks largely to Netanyahu and his policies, North American Jews, especially the young among them, will no longer go gentle into that goodnight.
Despite the risks, however, among many senior U.S. and Israeli officials, the belief in regime change in Iran as an achievable solution only seems to grow.
They paint vivid images of Iranian society poised on the brink of revolution, needing only a spark to ignite an unstoppable conflagration of protest in favor of personal freedoms and economic opportunity, and against the vast sums the regime spends on overseas military adventures and homegrown nuclear and ballistic missile development.
In a Saturday speech to a conference of Iranian-Americans who hope to see an overthrow of the Tehran government, Giuliani stated that “if anything, John Bolton has become more determined that there needs to be regime change in Iran, that the nuclear agreement needs to be burned, and that you need to be in charge of that country.”
Giuliani, who also said "We have a president who is as committed to regime change as we are,” then led the crowd in chanting “Regime Change!”
The theme has only gained momentum with Trump's recent appointments – the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Pompeo, who as a congressman in 2016 wrote on the Fox News website that "Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime," and the ouster of H.R. McMaster in favor of Bolton, who said in July last year that "The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran."
Both Bolton and Pompeo have, in the past, advocated bombing Iran.
Meantime, in Israel, as the military went on alert Tuesday for a possible Iranian linked attack ahead of Trump's speech, hardline senior cabinet minister Naftali Bennett told the Hezliya policy conference:
"Iran's regime of the ayatollahs is living on borrowed time, and will inevitably collapse."
All in all, in raising the implied expectation of regime change, what Trump and Netanyahu have done is to reset the bar far higher for the goals they will need to meet in the future.
It may be time for both men to consider why "be careful what you wish for" is such a useful cliche. Especially if, like Netanyahu, you've been making that wish for the last 25 years.
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