A Janian perspective: Trump, Iran, and Israel

By Jordan Ghasemi and Justin Leopold-Cohen

In the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the area of the Levant came to be administered by the British Empire. This established Mandatory Palestine, which the British controlled from 1917 up until Israeli Independence in 1948. In the final year of British control, political turmoil was rife, with multiple players competing for power.

In the wake of a civil war within the Mandate, Arab nations began to get involved and the United States was deciding which side it would support. U.S. Defense Secretary James Forrestal pointed out what he believed to be the obvious military conclusion, stating “there are thirty million Arabs on one side and about 600,000 Jews on the other.” Despite this dissent, in May of 1948, President Truman announced United States recognition of the State of Israel, within 11 minutes after the declaration of Independence and subsequent invasion by Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.

In 1951, the Iranian Parliament nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (currently British Petroleum) after the British refused to renegotiate the exploitative terms under which they did business. Just five years after the Israelis gained their independence from Britain, the United States and Britain overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq to bring the country and its vast oil reserves back under Anglo-American control.

Winston Churchill, determined to prevent the further unraveling of the British Empire, and Dwight Eisenhower, determined to prevent the perceived spread of communism, joined forces to overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq. In Operation Ajax, the CIA and MI6 helped to incite riots, giving the Shah an excuse to remove Mossadeq and to allow foreign oil companies to regain control of Iranian oil production. Continued exploitation and intervention from foreign powers, as well as brutal repression from the Shah’s regime, would set the stage for the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and future relations with the West.

After a half century of poor relations, the United States and Iran would conclude an historic agreement whereby Iranian assets in the United States that were frozen after the 1979 revolution against the Shah, would be unfrozen, and some of the economic sanctions against Iran would be lifted. In return, Iran would continue to maintain parts of its controversial nuclear program while allowing independent verification that it would not weaponize radioactive material. The deal was due to set the stage for a potential détente and the normalization of relations between the United States and Iran.

It has been no secret that American-Israeli relations have been strained over the past eight years. The most recent issue was the 14-0 decision in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334, which declared the building of Israeli settlements illegal and demanded that Israel cease its disputed settlement activity. The United States, which has generally protected Israel’s interests in the UNSC, abstained from this vote and allowed UNSC 2334 to pass.

The rationale behind the American abstention, explained by the outgoing Obama administration, was that the settlement activity is counter-productive to peace efforts. This has, in fact, been a long held policy of both Republican and Democratic platforms, though party leaders including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) had urged the White House to veto the resolution.

The United Nations vote was only one of the damaging moments in the tense relationship between former President Barak Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other such moments included the attempted release of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority, and the United States’ continued support for the Iranian Nuclear Deal.

Since Donald Trump won the election, Israel has closed down one large settlement and deported the residents, though has maintained plans to build new settlements with thousands of homes in the West Bank. The Trump administration released a carefully worded statement taking the position that while not detrimental to the peace process, building new settlements is also “not helpful.” This signals a return to a policy similar to that of the Bush administration.

In regards to Iran, President Trump has already imposed new sanctions following an Iranian ballistic missile test, as well added Iran to a controversial travel ban (though Iran will allow the American wrestling team safe passage after its government pledged to ban American visitation in a retaliation)—a move sure to garner support from Prime Minister Netanyahu who visited the White House  Wednesday, February 15th. The two leaders met to discuss the peace process, instability in Syria, and the nuclear deal with Iran. However, at the meeting with PM Netanyahu, the discussion reportedly focused only on the beleaguered peace process and Israeli settlements. Iran purportedly was not discussed.

What is the root of Israel’s animosity towards Iran? To begin with, it is not as simple as Iran’s policy of Holocaust denial (only recently renounced), or the fact that since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Iranian government has been vehemently anti-Western. There has, in fact, been nearly a decade of pledges of Iranian leadership threatening Israel, some coming from Iranian government leaders and others coming from various military commanders such as Revolutionary Guard Chief Mohammad Reza Naqdi, and Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari. As well, there are the parades of military hardware with banners calling for Israel’s destruction. There is also the Iranian financial- and equipment-based sponsorship of various terrorist organizations that target Israel, including the Gaza-based Hamas and Lebanese-based Hezbollah.

For Iran’s part, the root of animosity towards Israel goes back through decades of hostility. During the Iran-Iraq War, Israel, which had originally sold weapons to Iran, later at the behest of the United States, may have become part of the American operation to funnel material support to Saddam Hussein, who was using chemical weapons of mass destruction to gas Iranian troops as well as Iranian and Kurdish civilians. In recent years, pro-Israeli special interest groups, such as AIPAC, have put significant efforts into pressing the United States government to employ economic sanctions to weaken the Iranian economy and compel policy changes, which primarily hurt average civilians. Moreover, it is widely suspected that Israel has sabotaged the controversial Iranian nuclear research program by using computer viruses to destroy centrifuges, as well as assassinating Iranian scientists, while continually threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.

However, there may not actually be as much reason for Israel and Iran to feud as might seem at first glance. The two have never engaged in a conventional war with one another. This is easy to understand after all, they do not share a border, and in fact, Israel would need to use American planes and bunker buster missiles to refuel mid-air and strike at the Iranian facilities.

It would seem more that this is a self-fulfilling feud, in that after the 1979 revolution, Iranian support for Palestinian self-determination laid the foundation for potential conflict. While historically, relations between Iran and Israel have not been good, there has never been a compelling enough reason for a war, either. In context, the hyped-up rhetoric from either side can be seen as red meat for the base, as both the Israeli PM and Iranian President are elected figures who cannot afford to appear weak politically. The new American administration will soon have to address the issue affecting Israel, Iran, and the United States: the controversial Iran nuclear deal. The Israeli perspective on this is rather mixed. Though originally Netanyahu’s government had expressed major doubts about the deal, recent defense plans did not include the Iranian Nuclear Program as an imminent threat, instead focusing on more immediate issues such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and instability in Syria.

However, President Trump has called it a horrible deal, and expressed that he plans to “rip it up.” This pledge has split some of Israel’s leadership, some taking the view that the deal prevented a Middle East Arms race that could have spurred other powers like Saudi Arabia or Egypt to obtain nuclear weapons; others including the Prime Minister have stated the deal needs to be re-worked to put stronger constraints on the Iranian Program. Netanyahu recently stated that he looks “forward to speaking to him (President Trump) about what to do about this bad deal.” Though as previously stated, coverage of the meeting did not mention any discussion of Iran.

The key to understanding the Iranian perspective on the nuclear deal is to understand the history behind the Iranian nuclear program. First, it was not the current government, but rather the Shah’s regime, that signed the non-proliferation treaty. Even so, Iran has honored the treaty, and officials, including former President Ahmadinejad, have publicly disavowed nuclear weapons, calling it “retarded.” Even still, Iran probably has one of the stronger arguments for needing deterrence, as it, like Israel, has been invaded multiple times since the 1940s, suffering over a million casualties. Further, Iran is a state victim of chemical and biological WMDs by a foreign aggressor. It would seem more so that the sanctions imposed on Iran are geared to bring about regime-change, rather than preventing or deterring Iran from developing a bomb. In 2012, the CIA concluded that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapon, a belief supported by leaked intelligence from Israel. Still, for decades, others have continually said Iran has been months away from developing a nuclear weapon; this has never materialized.

Balancing the differing opinions and maintaining a semblance of stability will be a major challenge for the Trump Administration. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump did pledge to rework the deal and be stricter with sanctions on Iran, which as previously mentioned; new sanctions have been placed after Iran’s missile tests. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that the tests were done out of a need for self-defense.

Newly confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has echoed Trump’s expressed policy, and stated the nuclear deal will be subject to a “full review.” However, President Trump’s Secretary of Defense, the retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, split from the ranks, stating in regards to the deal that, “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” Clearly, President Trump will have to get his cabinet in order and decide on the best policy moving forward, and any diplomatic course will have to come with some form of cooperation.

President Trump has taken on the mantle of Commander in Chief of the United States and leader of the free world. It is reasonable to assume he will have many issues that could distract from the arguably stable Israeli-Iranian relations.

Domestic policy concerns  in the first one-hundred days are issues of a federal government hiring freeze, replacing the Affordable Care Act, and tackling immigration reform.

Foreign policy also will come with its fair share of issues, from dealing with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to choosing a policy on how to deal with Russian cyber intrusions. While on the campaign trail, President Trump had made various statements about bombing the Islamic State, and likewise expressed a willingness to deploy U.S. troops in numbers as high as twenty to thirty thousand. Plus, there is the administration’s recent vacancy following the resignation of national security adviser, Michael Flynn on Tuesday, February 14th 2017.

All of these issues could place Iranian-Israeli relations low on the Head of State’s to-do list.  Though there is one area for the three nations to find common ground: they all find themselves fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Israel, which has considered itself one of the front lines in the War on Terror, is opposed to the Islamic State, seeing it as an instigator to the instability in neighboring Syria. Recent months have already seen a border clash in the Golan Heights of Israel’s north between Israeli soldiers and ISIS militants, a truck driver crashing his vehicle into a crowd of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem (in what Israeli authorities believe an ISIS linked attack), as well, a rocket attack on Israel’s southern city Eilat, claimed by ISIS fighters in the Sinai peninsula. The Sinai is believed to be home of some 800-1000 militants.

Iran is also fighting against ISIS, with reports of the Revolutionary Guard fighting in both Iraq and Syria. The Iranian-supported Hezbollah is fighting against ISIS in Syria while supporting Assad.

Can the three states ease relations by fighting ISIS? Perhaps, but if that fails, mutual trade has worked in the past to bring Iran and Israel together with Israelis importing world-renowned Iranian pistachios via Turkey, and Israel selling Iran its second-to-none irrigation technology. Whether commerce made it onto the agenda of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump’s February 15th meeting is yet to be seen, but if it did, such a move at the minimum would get Iran and Israel talking about something other than conflict and the United States would gain heightened stability between two nations that have been hostile towards each other for decades.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, or any other government or institution. 

Jordan Ghasemi holds a B.A. in Political Science as well as a J.D. Justin Leopold-Cohen is currently an MA Candidate at Johns Hopkins University, in the School of  Advanced Academic Programs in Washington D.C., focusing in Global Security Studies.

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