The cease-fire agreement in Gaza, assuming it holds, will allow the IDF to refocus its attention to the northern arena, and especially to the ongoing military and intelligence battle with Iran. Through conversations with a number of Israeli and American officials over the past weeks, Haaretz has learned of a joint view, shared by both Jerusalem and Washington, of the current strategic situation regarding Iran.
According to that view, the regime in Tehran is currently trying to “wait out” President Donald Trump. The Iranians hope that Trump will turn out to be a one-term president, and their strategy until his departure from the White House is to clench their teeth, dig in their heels and wait. The most important component in this Iranian strategy, according to the sources who spoke with Haaretz, is to keep the Iran nuclear deal in place, even if the renewed American sanctions cancel out almost all of the financial benefits that Iran had gained from that agreement.
The American sanctions had already caused an exodus of European companies out of Iran, and the Trump administration will soon shift its pressure to Chinese, Indian and Japanese companies. But even if the agreement, down the line, won’t create even a single dollar of revenue for Iran, the Iranian calculation is that it is still vitally important, and worth keeping alive, even “on paper.”
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The Iranians think the agreement can serve as an “insurance policy” against any attempt by Trump to devise even harsher sanctions with cooperation from the international community, and also against an American or Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Iranians believe that politically, it will be impossible for Trump to create international support, and even internal American consensus, for a strike on Iran, as long as the 2015 agreement stands.
Israeli officials believe Trump’s comment two weeks ago, when he expressed his willingness to meet Iran’s leaders without preconditions, was not planned by the administration and does not represent a new strategy on behalf of the White House. The Iranian president Hassan Rohani would very much like to have a meeting like that, or even to send his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for a meeting with a senior American official, according to the sources who spoke with Haaretz. The Iranian president knows that once the existence of such a meeting is leaked to the press, the value of the Iranian rial will rise, and the frustrated Iranian public will sense some hope for improvement. Yet Rohani will find it difficult to take such action as long as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their leader, Qasem Soleimani, object to any return to negotiations. Officials in Israel describe the Iranian dilemma as “national pride versus money.”
The Israeli view is that the main difference between the Trump administration’s current policy and that of the Obama administration ahead of the 2015 nuclear agreement, is that Trump is perceived by the Iranians as someone who could actually choose a military strike, given the right conditions. The Iranians view the American president as a madman and an avid supporter of Israel, who would let it take action on its own if it decided to. People around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hope this combined-threat perception will bring Iran back to the negotiating table. But Iran views the 12 conditions for a new agreement, which were laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo two months ago, as an attempt to change the entire nature of its regime.
Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran policy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Haaretz that former officials from the Obama administration have encouraged the Iranians to “wait out” Trump, until a new president comes into power and returns to the nuclear deal. “Their message to the Iranians has been – don’t give Trump any excuse to escalate things militarily. Just wait him out.” Dubowitz, however, thinks Iran will find this strategy increasingly more difficult to implement, as the pressure of the American sanctions increases.
“The sanctions that came back last week are the easier ones, relatively, and Iran is already under immense pressure, with international companies leaving. The next set of sanctions, in November, will target the energy sector and financial institutions, and there will be new sanctions on top of that. It’s easy to say ‘let’s take a bet and wait for two years,’ but it’s hard to actually do that when the economy is collapsing and angry people are in the streets.”
Dubowitz thinks Iran might try another strategy at some point, which is to “trap” the Trump administration in negotiations. The Iranian calculation, he says, is that negotiations will help loosen some of the pressure on the economy, thus making it easier to waste time until the end of Trump’s first term. Dubowitz thinks the administration can cancel out that strategy by conditioning negotiations with Iran on a European decision to join America’s sanctions on Iran’s financial sector. “Don’t take down the pressure during the negotiations – increase it,” he says. This, according to Dubowitz, will send a clear message to Iran that “the only way to relieve the pressure is through an agreement, not through dragging out time. And an agreement requires concessions.”
Ariane Tabatabai, a policy analyst at the Rand Corporation who recently published a book on Iran’s relations with China and Russia, told Haaretz that the Trump administration’s messaging on the Iranian issue is seen as contradictory by many Iranians. “One signal they are sending is this talk of negotiations without preconditions. The other signal is this talk of regime change. People who are close to Trump participate in events of the MEK (an Iranian opposition group that wants to topple the Islamic Republic and was previously designated in Washington as a terror organization). The regime change message is the one being heard more clearly in Tehran right now.”
The Iranian leadership, she adds, is indeed closely following political developments in the United States. “If they see signs that Trump is likely to be a one-term president, that will increase the likelihood of keeping the nuclear deal in place, and waiting for the next president. If it looks like Trump is likely to have a second term, their calculation will have to change, and a new plan will have to be constructed.”
This plan could go either in the direction of negotiating a new agreement, or escalating the situation by dropping out of the nuclear deal and pushing ahead with the nuclear program. “There is internal pressure on Rohani to withdraw from the nuclear deal, there are personal attacks on Rohani and other government officials, but so far he is sticking to his position that Iran is better with it than without it.”
Israeli security officials believe Pompeo’s demands on Iran have returned a sense of balance to the American policy in the Middle East: The U.S. is no longer exclusively focused on defeating ISIS, but is also asking itself how it can block Iran’s influence. The Americans are devoting more efforts than ever before to blocking the actions of the Revolutionary Guards, and Israel has reportedly contributed to that effort on various occasions over the past year. Iran has so far not actualized its plan to build military installations in Syria. The grand Iranian vision of a Shi’ite militia with 100,000 soldiers sitting permanently in Syria has so far stopped at a much lower number – 10,000.
Meanwhile, a few weeks into the Assad regime’s control of the Syrian Golan, it seems like Russia has been true to its word and has been keeping the Iranians 85 kilometers away from the Israeli border. But those understandings, it turns out, did not include the region of Damascus, where there still is an Iranian presence. It won’t be a surprise, therefore, if Israel continues to strike targets around the Syrian capital from time to time.