Iranian policy, not the relationship with the Palestinians, will be the most sensitive and the most important foreign policy area in the relations of the United States to Israel, though the issue will rank below domestic issues – the distribution of vaccines to counter COVID-19, economic recovery, countering racism and the deep political divide in America. However, there is a consensus that Iran and its nuclear developments are the prime foreign policy challenge. Further, Iran per se may even be the most important foreign policy issue on the Biden agenda given the critical importance of both Israel and the Middle East to American national interests.
It is certainly the most important foreign policy issue for both Israel and the Gulf States. Though denied by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, on 22 November, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel recently met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in secret in Neom, just across from Sharm El Sheikh in the south-east corner of the Sinai. Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also attended. Both states are committed to denying Iran or pro-Iranian groups a foothold in Syria. As Netanyahu said, “We continue to oppose attempts by Iran and pro-Iranian armed groups to establish a military base in Syria. We will not compromise on this issue, just as we will not compromise with our enemies’ attempts to build precision missiles in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.”
Washington has supported Israel’s air campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria which, according to American diplomats, have inflicted “devastating losses” on Iran’s conventional military capability and its supply lines to Syria, thereby severely limiting Iran’s regional military expansion.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia offer each other additional military might that can be deployed against their mutual enemies. Israel gains geographic proximity to Iran. Saudi Arabia now has a regional nuclear power at its back when confronting an enemy, Iran is very close to becoming a nuclear power. The Saudis also gain additional access to Israel’s formidable intelligence capabilities. Finally, both states reinforce one another and provide additional access routes in dealing with the US, a country critical to the security of both states.
Four issues were discussed at the Neom meeting: 1) Israeli participation in the planned futuristic mega-city of Neom, 33x the size of New York City (for which the Saudi government has already committed an initial $500 billion towards it development; Edelman, no relation, has the contract for public relations); Neom is to be built based on smart city technologies and, as well, to act as a tourist destination since it will be exempt from the strictures of Muslim law; 2) normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia; 3) most importantly, the mutual interest in restraining both the Iranian nuclear program and the spread of Iranian forces and military equipment into Syria as well as Lebanon, and 4) the potential re-entry of the United States into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which Donald Trump withdrew in November 2018 not long after he became president in 2017.
Locating the meeting in Neom was itself symbolic, not only because of its location just south of Eilat and the southern border of Jordan and because Neom will have a bridge across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt, not only because of the emphasis on high tech and tourism, but because of the biblical role of Neom – called Midian in the Tanach. For in addition to being planned as an energy sustainable city, it is being constructed to recall the historical and cultural heritage of both Jews and Arabs.
MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) has already declared that Israel has a right to exist in its historic land and that Israel has become a key partner in resisting Iranian expansion into Arab states, but also that Neom is a link between the Arab and the Jewish culture historically. Mount Sinai/Horeb, as some claim, may have actually been located on the Saudi side of the Gulf of Aqaba since that is where there was a very high active volcano in the biblical period – Jabal al-Lawz. (Exodus 19:16-19) Further, Moses learned from Jethro, his father-in-law, a Midian priest, how to set up the rule of law for the ancient Hebrews using trial judges. It was Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter and Moses’ wife, who circumcised their son.
Iran as the central focus of American, Saudi and Israeli foreign policy is made certain because of the practices and policies of Khamenei’s Iran. First and foremost, the main goals of the regime are to ensure its survival as a theologically-based state which represses women and resists cultural modernity, and, secondly, the preservation of its revolutionary thrust (Trotsky’s permanent revolution) in which both Israel as the cancer on the body politic of the Middle East and America as the Great Satan, are both kept at bay.
The battle between Iran and the West is not just a fight between states or even between two ideologies. It is more than that. It is truly a clash of civilizations. According to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, on 23 November 2020 at a meeting of the Supreme Council of Economic Co-ordination, Western civilization is “savage” and “dark”. Netanyahu reciprocates the sentiment. “We are faced with an evil empire, it’s called Iran.” “Iran is all of our enemy — Israel’s, the Arab world’s, and civilization’s.” Iran not only seeks regional dominance, it seeks civilizational predominance.
How? According to Netanyahu, by seeking the extinction of Israel which is the immediate first step in eventually confronting satanic America. But according to the Iranians, by the policy of “neither war nor peace,” by, on the one hand, resisting engagement if and when it leads to Iranian cultural and religious transformation, and, on the other hand, avoiding open conflict that might lead to the regime being crushed. Hence, the strong resistance to human rights protections, Western democratic practices and, especially, American cinematic and musical culture. Hence, the determination to erase the Israeli presence, which Iran identifies as the forward thrust of American imperialism into the Middle East.
How does Iran avoid war while pursuing its extreme anti-Israel existential threat and expanding its power in the Middle East? Engage with America, even put its nuclear program in deep freeze as long as its revolutionary expansion can continue on the ground, an effort greatly enhanced by Obama lifting sanctions, particularly with respect to both fossil fuels and banking. This entails broadening the gaps between Washington and both Jerusalem and Riyadh.
Whatever one thinks of Trump, and I trust not much, the Iranian thrust in this direction was set back severely when the Americans withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), increased sanctions against Iran and grew closer to both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Even at the very end of the Trump regime, Elliott Abrams, a top US envoy to Iran, upped the leverage game and announced that new sanctions would be imposed relating to “arms, weapons of mass destruction and human rights.” Trump was intent on using the various sanctions and pressures on Iran to undermine President-elect Joe Biden’s objective of re-engaging Iran on its nuclear program.
The most serious American intervention has been the sanctions by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) against sixteen Iranian banks, in addition to an Iranian-owned and an Iranian military-affiliated bank, for supporting terrorism. (Note, most of these sanctions would continue because they were imposed in response to human rights abuses not for breaches in the nuclear deal.) Those sanctions apply to:
- All property and interests in property of designated targets that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons
- Financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned entities after a 45-day wind-down period; secondary sanctions or enforcement action may follow
- Sanctions do not target individual Iranian citizens nor humanitarian transactions.
At the end of November, two years after Trump withdrew from the agreement, Iran launched a complaint with the International Court of Justice against the US sanctions for being imposed on its medical and health care sectors that Iran claims has crippled its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and obtain the support systems and medical supplies it needs. This took place at a time when Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Reza Malekzadeh resigned after accusing his boss, Saeed Namaki, of gross mismanagement. Thus, although Iran’s death rate is the eighth highest per capita in the world (over 45,000 have died to date), it is not clear the degree to which internal mismanagement versus external sanctions affected the terrible record in handling the disease. After all, it is generally agreed that Donald Trump’s mismanagement and irresponsibility were the almost exclusive causes of America’s horrific record, so there is no need to include an external actor in the blame game.
Trump’s Executive Order 13902 authorized the imposition of sanctions if Iran continues its support of an expanded nuclear program, missile development, terrorism, terrorist proxy networks and malign regional influence. It will be difficult for Biden to cancel this EO without running into a storm of criticism for aiding and abetting Iranian military adventurism and expanding its nuclear program. At the same time, given the American record from the pandemic, there is unlikely to be much sympathy for Iran’s claims about humanitarian sanctions since the US claims that these were strictly restricted to the major banks and a limited list of designated actors.
Subsequently, Trump sold 50 F-35s and 18 Reaper drones to the UAE while, at the same time, it compensated Israel to ensure it could preserve its military edge. Why would Iran reduce its conventional capabilities when Israel and the Gulf States are increasing their strategic strength? Recently, Alon Ushpiz, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy, stressed the mutual interests of both countries in limiting Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East.
Iran, though it has avoided a massive air attack on its nuclear facilities by either America or Israel or both, has been attacked by Israel, as in the (Israeli?) assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment and high-speed centrifuge production plant at Nantanz.
The explosions at Nantanz, 300 km south of Tehran, had already disrupted Iran’s assembly of advanced IR-2m centrifuges. With the US initiating the withdrawal from JCPOA and imposition of greater sanctions unilaterally, Iran was able to expand its oil sales to China, which helped Iran circumvent sanctions. Currently, Huawei’s finance chief, Meng Wanzhou, has been held in house arrest by the Canadian government in response to an American extradition request so that she can be tried for Huawei’s assistance to Iran in getting around the American sanctions regime. (Evidently, negotiations are currently underway for her to plead guilty for some of the charges and go free for time served in house arrest.)
Iran would need the assistance of Europe to ease the international banking and trade restrictions. Thus, although Iran suffered greatly from increased American sanctions, it was also enabled to both pursue its nuclear program and expand its trade. At the same time, following the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on 27 November (note, Iran did not charge the U.S. with responsibility for the attack), on 1 December the Iranian parliament approved a bill suspending UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and boosted its uranium enrichment to 20% if the 2015 Iran deal partners do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by the end of January 2021, giving Joe Biden almost no time to re-enter the agreement. Hence, President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill for undermining Iranian diplomatic efforts to get the U.S. to restore the pre-May 2018 status of the nuclear deal with no preconditions. At the same time, Iran has taken advantage of every pause in its nuclear program to advance it whenever the nuclear deal falters.
One side effect of the Israel-Iran nuclear imbroglio has been to push Turkey and Israel closer together, initiated by Turkey’s head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan., and following the normalization of Israel with the Gulf states. The move was also propelled by Turkey’s military overstretch and its precarious economy. Ending a two-year drought, Erdogan appointed a supporter, Ufuk Ulutas, as ambassador to Israel. He studied Hebrew and Middle Eastern politics at Hebrew University. After all, in spite of Erdogan’s support for Hamas and the PA, Erdogan would like to divide Israel and Greece and Israel offers a re-entry point to the U.S. with the Biden election and Trump’s romance with authoritarian leaders at an end. The two countries also have a number of common interests – constructing a gas pipeline to Europe via Turkey, sorting out their respective positions in the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan (Israel supplied Baku with Heron surveillance and Harop kamikaze drones, cluster munitions, rockets, Barak-8 air defense systems, LORA high-precision long-range ballistic missiles, and command and control systems), intelligence sharing, stability in Syria and limiting both Iran’s influence there as well as its nuclear program.
We are at the beginning of a dramatic realignment of politics in the Middle East. This involves far more countries and far more issues than the Iranian nuclear deal. On the other hand, the Iranian nuclear deal is at the centre of that realignment.