One of US President Donald Trump’s most longstanding conservative critics, Bret Stephens of The New York Times, recently challenged pro-Israel conservatives on why they still support the president.
“The president’s Jewish supporters are left to wonder why the Iran deal remains in force... Bashar al-Assad is stronger than ever, [and] the Israeli government is outraged by the deals the administration has cut with Russia at Israel’s strategic expense.”
While America, the media, and the world have completely focused on the presidential melodrama, America has taken its eye off potentially more consequential issues in the Middle East affecting national security interests for years to come. First among the essential decisions coming due is on Iran.
Will Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis convince President Trump, for the third time, to recertify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in October, despite evidence of serious violations? Only UN Ambassador Nikki Haley seems inclined to oppose recertification, but she is not in the inner circle.
As Ambassador Eric Edelman and Gen. (ret.) Charles Wald, former deputy commander of US European Command, wrote in Politico, abiding by the JCPOA “will only enable a nuclear and hegemonic Iran. It provides Tehran significant financial, military and geopolitical benefits... in exchange for minimal, reversible and temporary concessions on its nuclear program... the JCPOA puts Iran on track to become as intractable a challenge as North Korea is today.”
The first two certifications may have been understandable in light of a new administration getting its house in order while seriously evaluating the consequences of a difficult choice between abandoning a campaign promise to end a very bad deal, and the diplomatic and strategic consequences of withdrawal.
The problem now is that the president’s political weakness makes any choice, especially decertification, a much higher hill to climb because of its controversial nature, Democrats having been generally supportive, while Republicans on the whole against the deal from the start. It is a political sword of Damocles hanging over an embattled president, no matter the merits. The president’s political opponents include a growing number in Congress who would ordinarily back decertification on principle, but may choose to remain on the sidelines due to political expediency, avoiding any association with this administration.
Forcefully standing up to any adversary breaking an agreement is a long-term American diplomatic interest that should be beyond politics. Under normal circumstances transgressing UNSC resolutions on ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead alone would be more than reasonable grounds for renegotiation or decertification.
But these are not normal times. The impulse of the administration to avoid hard choices in this political climate and their inclination for less American involvement in the region overall may move them to again recertify compliance with the JCPOA, no matter the violations or longterm effect. Three times might well make it a fait accompli to never decertify the deal.
In this region America’s allies will perceive it as profound weakness, sending a green light for an Iranian march toward the Syrian-Iraqi border, putting a final nail in the coffin of stopping a land corridor to the Mediterranean, joining Tehran to Hezbollah- dominated Lebanon.
Politico’s chief international affairs correspondent Susan Glasser wrote, “Russia won in Syria thanks to President Barack Obama’s inaction.”
But now President Trump’s State Department has handed Russia control of enforcing a cease-fire that directly endangers Israel and Jordan.
If Iran, Hezbollah, or Syria violates the Russian cease-fire, will America respond and impose consequences, or will this administration follow the Obama policy of creating vacuums undermining American national security interests for generations to come?
There is no reason to believe that Russia will do anything to impede its allies when they inevitably move toward the Israeli Golan Heights while continuing their ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in the southwest of Syria.
Israel has sent a high-level national security team to meet with its counterparts in Washington to talk about Israel’s fear of a permanent Iranian/Hezbollah/Shi’ite presence mere kilometers from the Israeli Golan.
There is little doubt Iran will have a naval presence in Syrian territory on the Mediterranean, forever changing the region’s security balance, but an additional land link to supply Hezbollah and their bases in Syria will put a noose around Israel from the north, creating conditions for a new war.
Iran’s next logical step would be to create instability in a fragile Jordan, already home to millions of refugees. Its new relationship with Hamas could be a prelude to destabilization of the Hashemite dynasty, placing an Iranian ally like Hamas as a compliant friend in Jordan.
The threat to Israel from the west would be a war Israel could not avoid, as it is committed to militarily keeping the Hashemite Kingdom in power as a buffer with Iraq.
A tipping point could be reached if Iran coordinates with Hamas from Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Golan, to create three simultaneous fronts against Israel. You can imagine what the West Bank Palestinians would do with this opportunity to bloody a distracted Israel.
How would any of this be good for American national security interests?
Should Israel trust anyone but itself to enforce the Syrian agreement? History clearly answers with a resounding “no.”
Just a few examples:
1. A unanimous UNSC Resolution 1701 after the Second Lebanon War declared: “[T]he disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon... no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” Today Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon with 125,000 missiles, none ever stopped by the impotent UN Interim Security force.
2. American policy over many administrations, including the Obama administration, until 2013 was unambiguous: no Iranian nuclear weapons capability. The promise was turned into a lie as UNSCR 2231 and the JCPOA guarantee Iran the right to an unlimited nuclear capability in 10-15 years with international approval.
3. On to chemical weapons promises. Remember when secretary of state John Kerry told the world, “We got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” while national security adviser Susan Rice claimed that president Obama got Syria to “verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile forever.”
So much for pieces of paper guaranteeing regional security.
Have Tillerson and Co. learned anything from the broken promises of the last administration, which American allies still point to as one of the fundamental reasons of lost trust for American guarantees? Is this administration interested in repairing American credibility?
While the media was focused on Fayetteville, Reuters reported that diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that Syrian dictator Assad never gave up his chemical weapons.
Now Israel is supposed to trust an American- sanctioned agreement allowing Russian control of enforcing a cease-fire in Syria, the vital link in the Iranian land corridor. Considering that every negotiated cease-fire in Syrian eventually failed, Israel should be more than alarmed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming fourth visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin reveals Israel’s concern and the address of the major power player in the region, Russia, because of the American- created vacuum in the region.
In the Middle East, the only thing worse than overzealous American intervention is American abandonment.
Obama was wrong when he claimed that Syria would become Russia’s Vietnam, as Russia beyond all expectations now has new and upgraded military bases in Syria, including the port in Tartus and air base in Latakia.
The question now in this season of American political turmoil is, can the Trump administration rise to the occasion, reasserting American influence in the region for its own national security interests?
Or will it follow the devastating counterproductive policy of president Obama’s abandonment of the region and its allies that first led to the rise of Islamic State and Russian dominance, and next to the more consequential Iranian dominance of the Levant.
The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.