In Trump Era, Israel Sees Opportunity to Shift Iran Approach

  • Netanyahu aides say he may meet Trump in first half of 2017
  • Israeli leader is unlikely to call for deal to be scrapped

A yellow taxi cab passes a public monument showing the face of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic of Iran, in Tehran, on Aug. 31, 2015.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to win from Donald Trump what he failed to wring from Barack Obama: a harder line against Iran.

Aides to Netanyahu say the two men plan to meet in the first half of next year, probably by March, and the Israeli leader is already huddling with national security advisers to formulate a strategy. While the goal may stop short of killing the multilateral nuclear deal, Netanyahu is expected to tell Trump that the U.S. needs to take a harder line against Iran’s military program and lead a more concerted global effort to keep the Islamic Republic’s regional aspirations in check, a senior Israeli official said.

That may include stronger retaliation and sanctions against Iranian ballistic missile development and greater efforts to block Iran’s growing clout in the region via proxies in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, the official said.

“The urgent task is to stop Iran from becoming a superpower in the region, something that has been occurring for some time now,” said retired Major General Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser. “The prime minister will argue, first and foremost, that the U.S. should work to diminish the partnership between Russia and Iran in the region.”

A spokesman for Netanyahu said he couldn’t comment on Iran strategy talk and that no date has been set yet for a meeting between the two leaders.

Congress Speech

No other world leader fought harder against a nuclear deal with Iran than Netanyahu, who clashed publicly with Obama and denounced it in a speech to Congress that wasn’t coordinated with the White House. While Trump has offered conflicting scenarios on how he’ll approach the accord -- in a March 21 speech he said he’d both scrap it and strictly enforce it -- he’s doesn’t like it, and in him, Netanyahu will find a more sympathetic ear.

A key Israeli effort in the post-Obama era will be to persuade Trump to see Iran’s role in the region differently, according to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While Obama sought to engage Iran and entice it to end its isolation through an accord that traded economic benefits for limits to its nuclear program, Israel wants Trump to reset America’s view of Iran, to see it as a major promoter of regional instability that must be contained.

“The first request will be for Trump to see Iran as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution in the region,” Satloff said.


Nearly Impossible

Although Netanyahu still adamantly opposes the deal, he isn’t likely to press for its dismantlement because that would allow Iran to shirk its obligations under the accord’s terms, according to a person familiar with the matter. Even if Trump did tear up the agreement, it would be nearly impossible for him to persuade other world powers to reapply sanctions and stop trading with Iran, Satloff said. A U.S. decision to back out of the deal would almost certainly embolden Iran’s hardliners, who opposed it, he said.

“The argument will be to work hand in hand with Israel on tightening the noose around Iran rather than sever the deal and open up a Pandora’s box between America and global powers, freeing Iran from whatever constraints that currently exist,” Satloff said.

World’s Realities

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said after Trump’s surprise election that the 2015 accord with six world powers, “cannot be overturned by one government’s decision.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s lead negotiator in the accord, said the president-elect “must fully understand the realities of today’s world.”

Netanyahu’s top priority will be to try to persuade the U.S. to curb Iran’s expansion in the region, where it backs Lebanese Hezbollah militants who have warred with Israel and are now fighting alongside Syrian troops, according to the Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

If Trump sticks to his campaign promises, Netanyahu won’t have a problem persuading him. In his March 21 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., Trump vowed to stand up to “Iran’s aggressive push to destabilize and dominate the region” and to “totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network, which is big and powerful, but not powerful like us.”

On Friday, Trump tapped two men who have taken hawkish positions on Iran for top security positions: Mike Pompeo for Central Intelligence Agency director and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

Another crucial element of Israel’s strategy is to seek greater pressure on Iran’s armament efforts, potentially through broader sanctions that would cripple its ballistic missile development. U.S. sanctions currently exist, but Israeli officials want them expanded beyond companies directly involved in the missile-making process.

“Iran is clearly marching towards the bomb, and the deal basically allows them to do so, so what you want is to renegotiate the deal,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former director of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, who takes a hard line against the deal. “There needs to be a clear signal that the world won’t put up with that.”

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, and geared toward energy and medical purposes.

The U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency cautioned Iran for breaching limits to its heavy-water stockpile set out in last year’s deal, but stopped short of calling it a violation. The U.S. reluctance to penalize Iran for infractions exemplifies what people close to Netanyahu want changed.

Held Accountable

“Iran’s feet must be held to the fire,” said Michael Oren, a deputy cabinet minister and former U.S. ambassador who advises the prime minister.

Perhaps the thorniest issue will be how to deal with Russia. Trump and Putin have pledged to improve relations, and Russia has worked with Iran and Hezbollah to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria as they fight to defeat rebels including Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Netanyahu will somehow have to thread the needle between seeking to isolate Iran without antagonizing Russia, with which Israel has developed warmer ties.

“One of our biggest concerns is that the outcome in Syria will solve ISIS and bring
in Iran and Hezbollah as the main powers,” said Naftali Bennett, a minister in Netanyahu’s government and a member of the inner security cabinet. “ISIS is a smaller global threat than Iran.”

— With assistance by Jonathan Ferziger

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