Analysis

Trump Casts Himself as Vigilante Sheriff After Quitting Iran Nuclear Deal

Netanyahu has taken a risky gamble, as the chief instigator of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, one that could ultimately embroil it in another Middle East war

U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, May 8, 2018.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

When the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem 40 years ago, many Israelis warned of the dangers of signing a peace treaty that entails a complete withdrawal from Sinai. You can’t trust the Arabs, they claimed; respect for international treaties is not part of their culture. Sadat’s successor could decide to renege on the deal overnight, without any specific reason, by asserting that his predecessor was a lunatic or a traitor. Israel, they said, would be left with no peace and no Sinai.

>> Follow live updates on Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal

On Tuesday night, however, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal for no discernible reason, many Israelis, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cheered him on as a hero of Israel.

Indeed, in his short presentation of the reasons for his fateful decision, Trump was more Netanyahu than Netanyahu himself. Contrary to the repeated assertions of his own intelligence community, Trump claimed that Iran was cheating on the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and that it was actually pursuing a nuclear weapon. He cited Netanyahu’s grandiose presentation last week about the documents captured by the Mossad, but as is his wont, felt himself free from the constraints of truth and detached from the reality accepted by everyone around him. In the final analysis, Trump is abandoning the nuclear deal simply because he can.

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His drastic step is, first and foremost, a challenge to international law, to the principle of continuity and to efforts to resolve conflicts through peaceful negotiations. Whether his objections are substantive or simply reflect his steadfast efforts to erase Barack Obama’s legacy, European pleas for more moderate measures that could improve rather than nix the deal fell on Trump’s deaf ears. For European countries, which sanctify diplomacy and international treaties, his message was, to borrow a famous New York Daily News headline: “Drop Dead.” Like some of his predecessors, but much more so, Trump is now cast in European eyes as a lawless vigilante sheriff who shoots up the town with no regard for the casualties he leaves behind.

Trump already showed his disdain for his predecessors’ commitments when he withdrew from the Paris accords on global warming and from the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade deal. Those, however, were not matters of life and death. His decision on Tuesday heralds further destabilization of the already volatile Middle East, a development that could increase tensions and ultimately lead to war. In a worst case scenario, it could contribute to an outbreak of hostilities between Israel and its enemies as well as to a dangerous clash between the United States and Russia.

The fact that all of his is being portrayed as one of the best days in Netanyahu’s life, the fulfillment of his most fervent dreams, is telling. Netanyahu lobbied intensely against the nuclear deal before it was signed and campaigned just as enthusiastically to scuttle it. He would have never succeeded were it not for the freak election of an impulsive U.S. president who never lets facts get in his way and who is now sparking even more anxiety throughout the world. It is on this questionable alliance that Israel’s security now rests.

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Tehran’s reaction will determine the outcome, and the reports of an imminent Iranian attack on the Golan Heights may be a harbinger of Tehran’s response. Iran might decide to exploit its newfound image as an innocent victim of a capricious American president in order to widen the gap between the U.S. and Europe as well as the stated intention of the China and Russia to fill the void vacated by Trump. But the more that Iran’s economic situation worsens as a direct and indirect result of Trump’s decision, the more the regime feels that its fate hangs in the balance, it could be tempted to confront Israel on Syrian soil and to renew its nuclear enrichment program. Trump reiterated last night that such a step would be met by a harsh American response.

Netanyahu has taken a risky gamble. He has placed his country in un-splendid international isolation. Netanyahu is not only seen as Trump’s main cheerleader but as the chief instigator of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, one that could ultimately embroil it in another Middle East war. If the end result is regime change in Tehran, as Trump and Netanyahu’s advisers now openly advocate, it will be seen as a resounding success. American wars in the Middle East, however, have a tendency to produce unintended consequences and to end in deep disappointment. When Washington starts to search for scapegoats, Israel and Netanyahu could be at the top of their list.

Netanyahu decided, virtually on his own and against the advice of his top security officials, to “tickle the tail of the dragon”, to borrow another nuclear saying. For his supporters and possibly for Israeli public opinion as a whole, Trump’s decision will be viewed as a stellar achievement. If his predictions of the inevitable fall of the Ayatollah regime are borne out, Netanyahu’s victory in the next elections will be practically assured, with or without criminal indictments. If things don’t work out that way, however, and especially if lives are lost, you can be sure that those responsible will be radical Islam, untrustworthy Arabs, perfidious Europe and, who knows, the New Israel Fund. 

End Times enthusiasts, at least, must be in rapture. Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal must seem like a prologue to the long awaited war of Gog and Magog. Russia will arrive from “the far north”, as envisioned in Ezekiel 38, joined by “Persia, Kush and Put”, which somehow are Iran, Syria and Turkey. “Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish”, who question Gog’s moves, could be Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Trump, at least in the eyes of his Evangelical supporters, is the instrument through which the Almighty will rain down “hailstones and burning sulfur” until Vladimir “Gog” Putin “and all his hordes are buried there” and Israel is saved, at least until the arrival of their messiah.