U.S. President Donald Trump this week brought back into discussion an idea that had almost completely disappeared in recent months: negotiations with Iran. The option of direct talks between Iran and the U.S., which made headlines around the world over the summer, became less relevant as the U.S., Israel and Iran all experienced internal political dramas.
Over the weekend, however, things changed, after Iran released from prison an American scientist who had been held in the country since 2016. In return, the United States released an Iranian citizen who had been indicted on charges of violating the sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic.
“Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation,” Trump wrote on his Twitter account, adding enthusiastically: “See, we can make a deal together!” It was the first time since at least October that the president has made any positive statement about the possibility of negotiations with the Iranians over a comprehensive deal that will include the country’s nuclear program.
Just four days before that tweet, the Wall Street Journal – basing its story on sources within the Trump administration – reported that the president was considering a deployment of as many as 14,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East to “confront” Iran. The report was officially denied by the Pentagon, and Trump also called it “fake news.” But congressional sources later confirmed that the option of sending many more troops to the region has indeed been discussed.
U.S. policy in the Middle East under Trump continues to be confusing, unstable and impossible to predict, moving swiftly from threatening a military confrontation on Wednesday to asking for negotiations on Saturday. These constant changes create an ongoing challenge for Middle East governments, including Israel, as they try to understand in which direction the administration is heading.
The difficulty of anticipating the White House's moves seemed to grow after the previous Israeli election in September, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump had no direct communication for more than a month. At the time, analysts in Israel interpreted this as a sign that Trump was disappointed with Netanyahu’s second consecutive failure to win the election. Trump, some in the Israeli media said, wanted to distance himself from someone perceived as a “loser.”
Yet the two leaders resumed their communications in November. They spoke twice on the phone in recent weeks, and in early December, Netanyahu flew to Portugal for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A source involved in the communications between the two leaders told Haaretz there was no distance between them after the election, and, at the same time, the recent conversations should not be interpreted as a sign of the relationship getting warmer or closer than it had already been.
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According to this explanation, Netanyahu does not think he should initiate a phone call with Trump unless he has a very specific request to make to the president, or a pressing issue to discuss with him.
Trump, after all, is busy with his own troubles in recent months, starting with the impeachment process in Congress, and he devotes much of his time to watching television and fighting with critics on Twitter.
In their first conversation last month, Netanyahu mainly wanted to thank Trump for the administration’s decision to no longer consider settlements illegal under international law – a decision that came at an important political juncture in Israel and helped Netanyahu politically. (The White House denied this was the main motivation behind it.)
The more important call between the two leaders happened 10 days ago, and it focused on Iran. Netanyahu asked Trump to further increase U.S. pressure on Tehran, following the wave of demonstrations in the Islamic Republic. Overall, Israel has been pleased with the U.S. pressure on Iran over the past two years, but there is still concern in Jerusalem that Trump could avidly renew his “courting” of Iran in the hope of securing a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani.
The concern in Israel’s political and security establishments isn’t about a new comprehensive deal between Iran and the U.S. – everyone assumes this is not a real possibility. Iran will never agree to the conditions the Trump administration has set for a new agreement, and Trump will not give up on those demands before the 2020 presidential election, in which he will rely for his survival on the support of Christian evangelicals – a constituency that hates and is suspicious of the Islamic Republic.
Israeli officials have nevertheless warned the administration that the very act of holding a public meeting between Trump and Rohani would by itself decrease the pressure on Tehran. The Israeli argument is that the U.S. pressure on Iran is succeeding not only because of the economic sanctions, but also because of a sense in the international community and the business world that Iran has no way out of the pressure campaign except for surrendering to the U.S. demands. A meeting between the two leaders, even if it is essentially nothing but a photo opportunity, will send the opposite message: that the American pressure is temporary and will eventually be lifted.
“Right now,” said one Israeli official, “it feels like every week, the Americans hit Iran with a new hammer.” A meeting between Trump and Rohani would run counter to that notion.
In September, when a meeting with Rohani was seen as likely thanks to the efforts of French President Emmanuel Macron, foreign companies that were already planning to leave Iran were suddenly reevaluating. Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, argued at the time in conversations with U.S. officials that a meeting with Rohani would immediately hurt the psychological element of the pressure campaign against Iran, and would also give the Iranian regime an opportunity to present an optimistic horizon to the Iranian public, despite the difficult economic situation in the country.
Pompeo and other officials in the administration seem to understand the Israeli argument, but Trump himself has not been convinced. Trump was truly willing over the summer to meet or talk on the phone with Rohani without any preconditions, as he stated. Eventually, it was the Iranian side that refused to hold a meeting or a call without some kind of American gesture taking place beforehand.
At the same time, there was another source of tension over the summer between the U.S. and Israel: The Americans were angry over a series of airstrikes in Iraq that were attributed to Israel and that, according to foreign media, targeted mostly militias and convoys supported by Iran. The Americans were concerned that these attacks – which Israel never officially took responsibility for – would lead to acts of revenge carried out against American troops stationed in Iraq.
At the end of August, the Pentagon published a statement supporting Iraq’s sovereignty and distancing the U.S. from the attacks, at the same time as Iraq was officially blaming Israel for the airstrikes.
The Pentagon’s statement was the only public expression of the tensions surrounding this issue. The American side was worried about a wide range of options, from revenge attacks to an official request by the Iraqi government to remove all U.S. troops from the country.
Eventually, it seems, the American position on this issue had an impact: Since September, there have been no more reports of mysterious and unexplained attacks on Iraqi territory.
PM’s day-to-day strategy
During the course of the abortive negotiations between Kahol Lavan and Likud, to establish a unity government, various explanations were offered to explain Netanyahu’s insistence on serving as the first prime minister in a rotation, and on having that stint last at least six months. Likud kept peddling new strategic achievements that Netanyahu wanted to promote, by his lights – a strategic alliance with the United States, annexation of the Jordan Valley and even, this week, annexation of the West Bank.
There were also whispers of a different speculation: Netanyahu will use the additional period to realize his greatest aspiration: an Israeli attack that, once and for all, will stop the Iranian nuclear plan. Trump, or so it was said, would accept such a move because it would boost his standing among the evangelicals ahead of the presidential election next November.
It seems this theory has no basis at the moment. Netanyahu never implemented attack plans even during the periods he discussed them with the utmost seriousness, every summer from 2010 to 2013. The prime minister also knows that he would encounter objections from the defense leadership and that his decision, as someone who will shortly go on trial in three serious affairs, would not win much public trust.
As for Trump, despite his unstable approach, he has already made clear his relatively reasoned opposition to a war in the Middle East.
Therefore, it is more reasonable to assume that what we see is simply what is happening: Netanyahu is acting without an orderly plan, in the hope of surviving another day and delaying the finale, in the form of the start of his criminal trial. To this end, he keeps tossing new balls, new justifications, into the air. The main hope that remains to him is a victory in the next election in March, but at the moment this seems like an unrealistic aspiration because it isn’t clear from where the rightist bloc will garner the additional votes.
This week, top Iranians once again threatened to destroy Israel. Possibly these declarations came in response to statements by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who called for ejecting the Iranian forces from Syria, threatened to turn Syria into Iran’s Vietnam and warned of possible attempts on the lives of Iranian leaders.
The Iranian statement, as articulated by a Revolutionary Guard general, touched a raw nerve in Beirut, because the general threatened to flatten Tel Aviv by means of launching rockets from Lebanon. The Lebanese defense minister protested that Tehran is involving his country in its conflict with Israel.
The Lebanese sensitivity is also greater because of the intention there to begin a search for natural gas offshore in its territorial waters in the Mediterranean, close to the maritime boundary with Israel. Former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said this week in a discussion at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies that success in the search for natural gas could help relieve the tension in the north.
According to Eisenkot, finding gas would make it difficult for Hezbollah to heat up the front against Israel because the other forces in Lebanon would fear that a war would hinder economic development. (The Lebanese economy is currently in deep trouble, which was part of the background to the extensive wave of demonstrations against the government and against the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.)