Opinion

The Problem With Iran Isn’t Its Nuclear Program

Israel must insist, from both Moscow and Washington, that any future agreement on Syria include the removal of all foreign forces.

Iranian soldiers walk past coffins of two members of Iranian Revolutionary Guards who were killed in Syria, during their funeral in Tehran, Iran, October 28, 2015.
Raheb Homavandi, Reuters

Many people are busy trying to guess the strategy that will guide the foreign policy of Donald Trump. In the wake of the contradictory statements made by the new U.S. president and a sense of uncertainty, most observers have been hesitant to issue firm assessments.

On the face of it, all the signals sent by Trump so far indicate positive views of Israel and its foreign-policy agenda. Particularly prominent are the statements by Trump and his senior security team against Iran, an issue that has been a top Israeli security priority for years.

It has been a year since the Iran nuclear deal, reached in July 2015, went into effect. The reports issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency so far indicate that Iran is abiding by its commitments. Israel has a clear interest in seeing Iran adhere to the agreement, which halts, for over a decade, further development of its nuclear program.

At the same time, Israel has reservations about certain aspects of the agreement, and in particular is concerned about two main issues: a continuation of the research and development of advanced centrifuges, and the legitimacy granted to Iran to develop a comprehensive enrichment program when the agreement ends. On these two issues Israel must reach understandings with the new U.S. administration, even if there is no immediate urgency.

A weighty and more urgent issue relating to Iran is that of its desire to establish a massive military presence, together with Hezbollah, in Syria. High-ranking Iranian figures, including Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamenei, present this as a supreme security interest, in part as a counter to Israel. Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser, recently confirmed that Iran and Hezbollah will not leave Syria. The chief of staff of Iran’s armed offices, has said that Tehran may establish a naval base in Syria.

An Iranian presence in Syria, particularly in the south, near the Golan Heights, has grave significance. Such a development would create an additional front for Israel against Iran and its satellite organization, Hezbollah, that could change the Israeli scenario regarding the nature of a future possible confrontation in this arena.

This is a central issue, which must be on Israel’s agenda vis-a-vis the new administration. An Israeli demand to include the removal of all foreign forces in any future agreement regarding Syria is both legitimate and vital to our security, and should be made of both the Russians and the U.S. administration, which declares its desire for cooperation with Russia.

This task is not at all simple, since Israel has to take into account that Russia and Iran are engaged in unprecedented operational cooperation in Syria. Russia has even begun to supply Iran with S-300 air defense missiles (which Israel has opposed for years), and it intends to consider Iranian interests in any future arrangement in Syria. In addition, Iran is also involved in fighting the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, putting Tehran on the same side as Washington in this regard.

In these circumstances, there will be a clash between the desire of the Trump administration to act against Iran and to reduce its regional influence, and the benefit that it derives from the significant role it plays in the Syrian and Iraqi arenas. That, in addition to the administration’s desire for closer relations with Russia, whose commitment to Iran has increased over the past year. In terms of the relations between Israel and the United States, this will be a complicated issue to handle.

Sima Shine, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, was a deputy director general in the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the head of the Mossad’s research division.