Has Netanyahu’s Iran Strategy Blown Up in His Face?

Prime minister’s policy has hit two major obstacles: Tehran’s obduracy in Syria, no matter what the cost; and the fickleness of U.S. President Donald Trump

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showing an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during his address to the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showing an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during his address to the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, September 2012.Credit: Richard Drew/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Eighteen months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed what was undoubtedly the most successful 48 hours of his political career. On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran. As he delivered his remarks in the White House, Trump could have been speaking from Netanyahu’s own talking points on the deal he had for years fought tooth and nail. In fact, he probably was.

The following morning, Netanyahu was on a plane to Moscow. This wasn’t just yet another of his periodic cloistered meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On this visit, he would be on show as guest of honor at the annual Victory Day Parade in Red Square. Standing there by Putin’s side, on the most important national day in the Russian calendar, broadcast to the world that Israel was in demand as a key ally of not just the United States but Russia as well.

President Donald Trump showing a signed Presidential Memorandum after delivering a statement on the Iran nuclear deal in the White House, May 8, 2018.Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

A few hours later, in the early hours of May 10, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched a salvo of missiles from within Syria against Israel Defense Forces positions on the Golan Heights, missing their target. Israel launched a series of retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian installations in Syria, destroying in the process anti-aircraft batteries of the Assad regime — supplied by the same Russians who had hosted Netanyahu the previous day. The Kremlin kept silent.

It was the peak of Netanyahu’s Iran strategy. Tehran was facing new and crippling sanctions, and the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force was being beaten back in Syria. In Iran, thousands were protesting against the investment in foreign wars and proxies while people were going hungry at home. Over the next few months, there was a growing openness in Israel — both from Netanyahu and other ministers and senior IDF officers — in publicly acknowledging that Israel was indeed behind hitherto unattributed explosions on military bases in Syria.

But Iran didn’t crack under the sanctions, and the Guards faction within the leadership won the internal debate on whether to continue the Syrian campaign. Despite optimistic intelligence assessments, they are still building bases. They may not be as ambitious as the Iranians originally envisaged, but they are still there.

Iranian Officers of Revolutionary Guard, with Israel flag drawn on their boots, are seen seen during a graduation ceremony for student officers and guard trainees in Tehran, Iran September 13, 2019.Credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/ REU

In recent months, Trump seems to have lost any desire to confront Iran. He refused to retaliate after the shooting down of a U.S. military surveillance drone in international airspace, and failed to respond when oil tankers were sabotaged and detained in the Persian Gulf. Even when America’s Saudi allies came under direct missile attack from Iran when their main oil installations were hit in September, the Trump administration did nothing.

As a result, the Saudis and Emiratis, who were in the anti-Iran coalition with Israel, are now making their own overtures to Tehran. Trump isn’t trusted to stand up for U.S. allies — as the Kurds in northern Syria learned to their tragic cost last month. And now, the Iranians are beginning to enrich uranium at higher levels once again in their underground Fordo facility, to rather feeble protestations from the nations that signed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

What a difference a year and a half makes.

Netanyahu barely ever mentions Trump or Putin in his speeches these days. He hasn’t even spoken with the U.S. president in the past two months. And the Israeli air campaign against Iranian assets in the region, if it still exists, is once again under wraps. What Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi are talking about incessantly now is the urgent need to spend billions on new weapons systems to counter Iran’s improved cruise missiles. Has Netanyahu’s strategy on Iran come undone?

Vindictive president

The irony is that there is a symmetry between then-President Barack Obama’s policy toward Iran and Netanyahu’s. Both men strenuously advocated their approaches, echoed by their officials, with evangelical fervor. Both Obama’s “diplomacy first” and Netanyahu’s “maximum pressure” strategies have merits. But neither survived contact with reality, and both foundered on the same rocks.

President Barack Obama listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 3, 2014.Credit: AP

The lengths to which Iran would cynically and ruthlessly go in using the Syrian civil war for its own aim of expanding influence throughout the region were not fully appreciated by either leader. It sent Shi’ite cannon fodder from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight for the Assad regime and die there, despite the Israeli airstrikes and despite the nuclear agreement. Neither succeeded in curbing Iran’s Syria campaign for long.

The other obstacle to both Obama and Netanyahu’s doctrines on Iran has been Donald Trump.

The Obama administration’s mistake was in presenting the nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) — essentially an arms control treaty between deeply suspicious rivals — as a miraculous achievement of “peace in our time” and the cornerstone for the president’s foreign policy legacy. They failed to realize how easy it would be for a vindictive Republican president to pull out of the agreement, and just how vindictive Trump could be in his desire to dismantle every piece of the Obama legacy.

Netanyahu also failed to anticipate how fickle Trump would be: How he desires a grand peace gesture from the Iranians and has no appetite for armed conflict; and how he could just as easily be influenced by dictators like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his pro-Israel advisers.

But while this has been a setback for Netanyahu, it isn’t a complete negation of his strategy either. At core, his regional perspective is not wrong. With the weakening of Israel’s frontline enemies and the growing disinterest of Sunni regimes in the Palestinian issue, Iran is the only state-level adversary still facing the Jewish state.

Netanyahu is right to focus on Iran. He’s just not that unique in doing so. For the past 40 years, ever since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, this enmity has been fueled by religious ideology, and every Israeli prime minister has had Iran at the top of their “threat assessment” list.

Just like Netanyahu claims to have invented Israel’s high-tech sector, convincing himself and his acolytes of an entirely false narrative, he likes to say that no Israeli leader before him paid proper attention to Iran. That, of course, is ridiculous. One of Yitzhak Rabin’s motives in signing the Oslo Accords was the need to resolve the Palestinian issue, so Israel would not be diverted from facing the Iranian threat. Ariel Sharon unleashed one of the most ambitious clandestine warfare campaigns against Iran, and Ehud Olmert continued his policy. Israel’s Iran strategy under Netanyahu is largely a continuation of that.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking toward Syria from the Golan Heights, January 2019.Credit: Ariel Hermoni, Defense Ministry

The key distinction between Netanyahu’s approach and that of his predecessors is, like so many of the things Netanyahu does, mainly presentational. Sharon, for instance, believed that Israeli leaders should talk as little as possible about Iran publicly, in order not to create the impression that Iran was Israel’s problem but was instead a problem for the entire region and the international community. Netanyahu insists on mentioning Iran at any and every opportunity. This aspect of his strategy certainly seems to have failed: His rhetoric hasn’t made other world leaders more eager to confront Iran. Ultimately, it hasn’t even worked with Trump.

However, just because Netanyahu hasn’t managed to convince world leaders on Iran doesn’t mean his strategy has totally failed or that Iran is winning. It isn’t just his strategy; it’s also Israel’s ongoing semi-secret war with Iran, which neither side has any prospect of winning outright. Iran is no closer to wiping out the Zionist entity, and Israel hasn’t totally stopped the spread of Iranian influence in the region.

But even if it looks like Iran has stolen a march in recent months, things haven’t been totally going its way. The overtly anti-Iranian nature of the mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon over the past few weeks pose a serious challenge to the regime’s regional strategy. Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah, are no longer being regarded as liberators or “the resistance” by anyone (besides, perhaps, the Houthis in Yemen). And while it is withstanding the sanctions for now, Iran’s economic situation continues to deteriorate and unrest continues to grow in many of its cities.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani visiting the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, January 2015.Credit: Mohammad Berno / Iranian President's Office / AP

Netanyahu’s strategy on Iran, as far as it is Israel’s strategy, hasn’t failed. Iran has, to a large degree, been contained and does not exert nearly as much influence in the region and beyond as it would like. The 40-year war with Israel is not in Iran’s national interest, and has caused the Iranians much more harm than it has to Israel.

Iran’s enmity to Israel exists as a raison d’être of the Islamic Revolution and will continue until the Iranian people remove their oppressive regime — no one else will do it for them. But none of this is about Netanyahu. He hasn’t got a unique strategy on Iran; he just has a tendency to talk about Israel’s strategy on Iran. And that hasn’t been working so well for him recently.

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