In U.S., Israel-Syria Border Clash Triggers New War Over Iran Nuclear Deal

Republicans and pro-Israel camp point finger at Obama for being soft on Iran and Syria, while Democrats blame Trump for decertifying Iran deal

IDF forces in the northern Golan Heights, February 10, 2018.
Gil Eliahu

Like every other issue in the United States these days, foreign policy discussion has become fiercely partisan. Every new problem or conflict around the globe triggers a flurry of finger-pointing and accusations as to whether the legacy of President Barack Obama or the current policies of the Trump White House are responsible.

The stunning exchange of fire between Israel and Iran and Syria on Saturday – when Israel struck 12 targets in Syria, after an Israeli fighter jet was shot down and an Iranian drone intercepted in Israeli airspace – was no exception, reopening a Pandora’s box of accusations and recriminations surrounding the Iran nuclear deal.

For Republicans and pro-Israel opponents of the 2015 agreement – two groups that often overlap – blame fell squarely on the Obama administration’s lap. It was the controversial Iran nuclear deal, they argue, that both emboldened and financially enabled Iran to set up its military infrastructure in Syria, bolster Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon and set the stage for Saturday’s skirmish.

Their argument goes that it was the nuclear deal, together with Obama’s unwillingness to forcefully engage at an earlier stage of the Syrian civil war, that led to the chaos that gave Iran the opportunity to plant its flag in Israel’s backyard – with Russian support and agreement.

For Democrats, it is President Donald Trump’s decertification and weakening of the Iran deal that’s to blame, sending Iranian leaders a message that they have little to lose by thumbing their nose at the United States. They also point to Trump’s refusal to criticize or pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s support and protection of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime would, presumably, put him in a position to rein in the Iranians.

Trump has been criticized by former Obama officials for failing to speak out more forcefully against the growing Iranian threat on Israel’s northern border, even after Saturday’s events.

Daniel B. Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, took to the media – as well as to Twitter – highlighting the “crisis” atmosphere in the Trump administration as the reason for what he sees as an insufficient response.

“President Trump is obviously distracted by the Russian investigation and the White House staffing debacle,” Shapiro told the Daily Beast. “The State Department is generally sidelined from discussions with Israel. The U.S.-Israel relationship has generally been managed under Trump by only three or four people, which is just not a viable way to manage real time crises that require coordinated responses across the political, military, diplomatic and intelligence spheres.”

The staunchest opponents of the Iran deal are splitting the blame for Iran’s empowerment equally between Obama and Trump. They are critical both of Obama’s efforts over the Iran deal initially, and then Trump’s unwillingness to move against it more forcefully.

Despite his decertification of the deal last October, in mid-January Trump once again chose to waive U.S. sanctions on Iran, keeping the Iran deal alive in the short term. But at the same time, the U.S. president accompanied his waiver with a statement that it would be the “last time” he did it.

Trump said it was his “strong inclination” to withdraw from the deal altogether, but he had chosen not to do so yet. He was ready to make the move, he said, if the deal’s “disastrous flaws” were not fixed – most notably, forcing Iran to curtail its ballistic missile program. But his proposal seems to be a nonstarter: the Iranian government has said it will not accept any modifications to the deal.

And in the wake of Saturday’s events in Israel and Syria, Aaron David Miller – a former Middle East negotiator in administrations of both parties and now Middle East director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – laid out a possible doomsday scenario that could ensue if Trump carries through with his promise to end U.S. commitment to the deal.

“Forget today’s headline re: Iran/Israeli/Syrian clash,” he tweeted. “Consider possible trend line: Trump withdraws from Iran nuclear deal; Netanyahu indicted and looks for diversion; Trump pushes for war against Iran; redlines collapse; and region trips into devastating Israeli-Hezbollah war.”