Trump and Netanyahu must together craft a strategy to combat the malign influence and hegemonic ambitions of the mullahs.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that one of the top items on his agenda for consultation with US President Trump in Washington next month is countering Iranian aggression. With good reason. The net result of the JPCOA has been to foster Iran’s rise to regional hegemon.
While the JCPOA suspended a part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program for a few years, the Ayatollahs see it as providing time to advance their centrifuge capability and regional sway.
In a Hoover Institution paper published this month, Prof. Russell Berman and Ambassador Charles Hill call Iran a “de facto Islamic Caliphate,” and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) an “Iranian expeditionary force for invading strategic Arab spaces.”
They call former president Barack Obama’s declared goal – of finding and bolstering so-called moderates in Tehran via the JCPOA –an “illusion.” Iran is not a polity of moderates and hardliners, they write. It is a revolutionary theocracy masquerading as a legitimate state actor. So the first thing Trump must do is recognize the consistently hostile character of the regime.
Alas, Obama was obsessed from the advent of his presidency with making nice to Iran, and was willing to subordinate much of American foreign policy in service of that goal. He sent many secret letters to Ayatollah Khamenei which recognized the prerogatives of the “Islamic republic” and foreswore regime change. He cut funding to anti-regime groups, and abandoned Iranian moderates during the early days of the Green Revolution in 2009, after the regime fixed an election. He effectively conceded Syria as within Iran’s sphere of influence.
In his penetrating book, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East, Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon exposes the money trail that accompanied this strategic sell-out to Iran. In exchange for talking, Obama gave the Iranians hundreds of millions of dollars monthly, stabilizing their economy. And in the end, Obama offered Iran a deal that legalized full-blown uranium, plutonium, and ballistic missile work on a timeline, and did not force the country to disclose its previous nuclear cheating. The deal also released roughly a hundred billion dollars to Iran; had American officials traveling to drum up business for Iran; and removed restrictions on a range of Iranian terrorists.
Along the way, the administration abandoned the powerful sanctions leverage it had over Iran. Solomon chronicles the ramp-up of severe banking sanctions on Iran that were having a disastrous impact on the Iranian economy. “Iran’s economy was at risk of disintegrating, the result of one of the most audacious campaigns in the history of statecraft. The country was months away from running short on hard currency. The budget had a $200 billion black hole. And the Treasury Department had made sure Iran had no way to recover. Iranian ships and airplanes were not welcome beyond Iran’s borders, and oil revenue was frozen in overseas accounts.”
And then, behold, Obama backed off. Administration officials all-of-a-sudden claimed that tightening the noose on the Iranian economy would cause the sanctions policy to collapse! And John Kerry was sent to cut a sweet deal with Iran; a deal that squandered – and then reversed – a decade’s worth of effort to constrain Iran.
NOW PRESIDENT TRUMP must act to constrain Iran all over again.
Over the past year, Iran has intensified a pattern of aggression and increased its footprint across the region. Iranian advisors with Shiite militias from as far away as Afghanistan have flooded Syria, giving Tehran a military arc of influence stretching to the Mediterranean.
Ayatollah Khamenei says that Iran’s massive military presence (alongside Hezbollah) in Syria is a supreme security interest for the regime – a frontline against Israel – and that Iran has no plans to leave.
This has grave implications for Israel. Netanyahu must demand of Trump (and Putin) to include the removal of all foreign forces, especially Iran, in any future agreement regarding Syria. This will be very difficult – especially since Russia has just signed a long-term agreement to greatly enlarge its military presence in Syria, including the port in Tartus and airbase in Latakia.
Iran, too, is aggressively expanding its naval presence in the Red Sea region and eastern Mediterranean. Since 2011, it has been sending warships through the Suez Canal, and has used maritime routes to send arms shipments to Hizballah and Hamas. (Israel has intercepted five of these armament ships). And in the Strait of Hormuz, IRGC speedboats have repeatedly engaged in provocative encounters with American warships, including the conduct of surprise live rocket fire exercises in proximity to US Navy vessels.
Then there is Iranian terrorism. IRGC agents have been caught planning attacks on Israeli, American, British and Saudi targets in Kenya. Over the past five years, Iranian agents were exposed while planning to attack Israeli diplomats in Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, India, Nigeria, Thailand and Turkey. Hezbollah operatives supported by Iran carried out the bus bombing of Israeli tourists at the Burgas airport.
Also: The detailing of Iranian terrorism in Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia could fill this entire newspaper.
Then there is Iran’s ballistic missile program. In December, US Senator Ted Cruz sent a seven-page letter to three senior officials of the Obama administration, detailing his well-founded concerns that North Korea and Iran might be working together on developing nuclear missiles. (Not surprisingly, the Obama officials never answered).
Cruz’s basic question was: Why does Iran, having promised not to make nuclear weapons, continue to pour resources into developing long-range ballistic missiles, including numerous missile tests this past year? If not for nuclear weapons, then for what?
The intrepid analyst Claudia Rosett continually has raised the suspicion that North Korea’s nuclear program is secretly doubling as a nuclear backshop for Iran. It’s very possible that the $1.7 billion in air-freighted cash which Obama granted Iran is being used to finance nuclear weapons and missile research in North Korea. It’s even possible that Iran may be bold enough to buy warheads from North Korea.
ONLY WASHINGTON can stop this, by re-isolating and pressuring Iran. Netanyahu should travel to Trump with a comprehensive plan to influence US policy toward Iran, as well as plans for joint action against Tehran.
This should include an end to the secrecy surrounding many sections of the JCPOA. All side agreements should be disclosed relating to Iranian technology acquisitions, raw material quantities, uranium and plutonium enrichment levels, sanctions relief and financial transfers. Loopholes and exceptions made surreptitiously by Obama should be closed.
Penalties should be set firmly in place for Iran’s prohibited missile programs. (Such penalties do not exist in the JCPOA, or in UN resolution 2231).
US and Israeli resources should be pooled, in a renewed and formal US-Israel agreement, to uncover and eliminate any undisclosed sites within Iran connected to nuclear weapons technology; to counter Iranian terror threats across the region; and to subvert any Iranian bases in Syria and Lebanon.
In fact, the US and Israel should reach an accord on a basket of responses to Iranian violations and aggressions, including the placement of a military option against Iran’s nuclear program back on the table.
Trump and Netanyahu must together promulgate an approach for combating the malign influence and hegemonic ambitions of Iran.