Brothers in Spirit? Trump, Netanyahu and the Conflict with Iran

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been warning for years that there is an existential threat to Israel from Iran. Only recently, Netanyahu again made clear that Israel will do all in its power to block the nuclear armament of Iran. At the same time, Israel’s attention has been caught by Iran’s regional ambitions in Syria, its support for Hezbollah and for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Israeli army has been carrying out military strikes in Syria for months, with two principal objectives: firstly, Israel hopes to prevent Iranian troops from establishing a permanent presence along the Israeli-Syrian border. And secondly, to prevent Hezbollah from being armed with precision weaponry. In Israel, this policy enjoys broad-based support, including among the ranks of the opposition and the general public.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the greatest critics of the nuclear deal with Iran. From the beginning, he has seen it as a failure, as it has by no means permanently kept Iran from aspiring to nuclear weapons and also because he considers that it enables an aggressive and destabilising regional policy on the part of Iran. Accordingly, Netanyahu got behind Trump and encouraged him to confront Iran over its regional policy as well as the development of conventional weapons systems. The Israeli Premier is thoroughly convinced that brute force is the only language the Iranian regime understands. He therefore subscribes entirely to the American policy of maximum pressure on Teheran. Unlike when Obama was in power, however, an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not on the agenda. 

Risks to Israel of a military escalation 

The tension between the US and Iran carries enormous risks for Israel. Certainly, there have been no signs from either Iran or the Trump administration that there are any plans for a full military escalation. However, the current situation is unsustainable to Iran due to the economic costs of the sanction regime, meaning that the Iranian regime is trying to put pressure of its own on the US. This bilateral logic of maximum pressure is prone to miscalculations and spiralling momentum. Israel fears that Iran may initiate a provocation on Israel’s northern border in order to drag it into the conflict. The Israeli army is preparing for such a situation and has recently conducted comprehensive manoeuvres. 

If the US were to carry out a military strike on Iran, there would be the danger of massive retaliatory strikes on Israel by Iran – either directly or through Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s thousands of missiles stationed on the border between Israel and Lebanon could cause an enormous amount of death and destruction in the major Israeli population centres. However, there is almost no public discussion of these risks in Israel. Instead, the former National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror, has called for an American preventative strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, pointing out that the mission could be successfully completed within two hours. The Israeli army, on the other hand, continues to be highly sceptical on the subject of military strikes. Furthermore, it is believed that Israel is currently able to deter Iran from any military action, as shown by the covert military operations in Syria. Despite the strong rhetoric, Netanyahu has a lot less room for manoeuvre in these circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been trying to use the split between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for a rapprochement with the Arab world. On the basis of their mutual enmity with Iran, Israel is cautiously creating ties, mainly in the field of security cooperation, and is hoping for a normalisation of the relationships – but without having to make any concessions to the Palestinians.

Miscalculations are keeping communication channels closed

The maximum-pressure strategy assumes that the dire economic situation will either bring Iran back to the negotiating table or lead to the collapse of the regime and thus to regime change. There is support for both outcomes from both the American administration and Israel, but neither is particularly realistic in the short term. Accordingly, the first signs of frustration on the American side are already apparent, over the fact that the sanctions have not led to the start of talks. For Iran, the economic costs of the American policy are already so high that the initially adopted strategy of sitting and waiting has been challenged within the Iranian leadership. In such a situation, the short-term aim must be to avoid miscalculations and escalatory dynamics and open up communication channels, particularly as the conflict between the US and Iran is also about respect, reputation and status. 

Uncertain future: US strategy with question marks

The Trump administration has no consistent diplomatic and military strategy towards Iran, apart from threats to bomb its nuclear facilities. It is entirely unclear what the US will offer Iran in return for a comprehensive agreement. A strategy of pure force will in any case not be enough, particularly as Iran has doubts as to the credibility of Trump’s military threats. It is therefore likely that in the short term, Iran will not bow to pressure from the US, leading to repeated, limited escalation stages. It remains to be seen how Trump will react to this, as he needs to balance his desire to show strength against his promise of military withdrawal. The situation is therefore one of enormous uncertainty and unpredictability.