Trump can help Israel against Iran in final months – analysis

Here’s hoping…

I’ve always thought it would be totally awesome if the US gave/sold Israel some bombers (like B-2 or B-52 or B-1), together with a whole heap of whopping big bunker busters.

Game over, Iran.

US AMBASSADOR to Israel David Friedman and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner stand behind US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in August. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

It’s likely that the US and Israel have something up their sleeves that can’t be mentioned.

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his trip to the region last week, State Department officials said his stop in Israel from Wednesday to Friday will be on “a variety of issues, including the implementation of the Abraham Accords.”

Interestingly, Iran was not mentioned as a topic of discussion in Israel, despite being mentioned repeatedly in the context of Pompeo’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on this tour.

Yet it defies all logic to think that Iran is not going to be on the agenda for Pompeo’s visit to Jerusalem. Yes, there is much to discuss about the Abraham Accords, but Israel is one of the primary targets of the Iranian nuclear threat.

And in the two months remaining for the Trump administration, it is more likely to be able to take effective steps directly countering the Iranian threat than on expanding the circle of Middle Eastern countries establishing relations with Israel.

When it comes to the Abraham Accords, the State Department official said the UAE and Bahrain are working toward opening embassies in Israel and starting cooperation in education, healthcare, security and other issues.

“The accords represent a historic breakthrough, and we believe more Arab and Muslim-majority countries will soon follow down this path of peace,” he said.

In Israel, however, officials are more circumspect about the chances of convincing more Arab states to normalize ties.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen (Likud), a member of the security cabinet, said many processes in the region were put on hold ahead of this month’s US election. That situation will likely continue until presumed President-elect Joe Biden makes his positions clear, he said.

“I think many countries in the region will now sit, wait and see what the American policy will look like,” Cohen said.

Saudi Arabia is one country that has been mentioned as a likely candidate to establish relations with Israel soon. Biden, however, has made statements about distancing his administration from Riyadh, especially in light of its human-rights violations, which the Trump administration ignored.

The Saudis will likely wait and see what they can get out of a Biden administration in exchange for normalization with Israel, whether it’s weapons sales, more favorable policies or both.

Cohen expressed hope that Biden would pick up where US President Donald Trump left off.

“We’re in a process of peace agreements, of promoting stability in the region,” he said. “If I were Biden, I would strengthen this axis and not make things easier for Iran.”

In the meantime, Israel is encouraging the Trump administration to take direct action to reduce the Iranian threat.

It’s likely that the US and Israel have something up their sleeves that can’t be revealed. A recent report in The New York Times that Israel in August killed al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, who was based in Iran, is a reminder that there are always things happening behind the scenes when it comes to Israeli and American efforts to curb the threat from Iran.

SOME HAVE suggested the possibility of an attack on Iran in the next two months. But this seems unlikely in light of acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller’s letter to all Department of Defense employees on Friday, calling for an end to the state of war the US has been in since 2001.

“This is a critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to a supporting role… All wars must end,” he wrote. “Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

The US can, for example, send bunker-buster bombs to Israel, like a bill proposed last month by Congressmen Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Brian Mast (R-Florida) would allow. The 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb the bill mentions would allow Israel to defend itself against Iran if it develops nuclear weapons and would “shore up Israel’s qualitative military edge,” Gottheimer said.

One expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel would need B-1 or B-52 bombers to carry the bunker buster to Iran without its air force being able to stop it. But the Obama administration refused to give Israel the bunker busters or allow the IAF to train on the planes.

The Trump administration is in favor of giving Israel bunker busters, but it has said the US only has 18 B-1 bombers. Still, America has plenty of Cold War-era B-52s that can do the job.

When Pompeo visits Israel this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could push for the US to give Israel these capabilities, which will shift the balance in the region so that the Jewish state can destroy Iran’s nuclear program if need be.

As for what’s being discussed more openly, the Trump administration clearly is not relaxing its “maximum pressure” campaign during its final months. The US plans to pile on more and more sanctions in the coming weeks, with a goal to make it difficult for Biden to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal that gave Iran a long-term path to a bomb.

Some of these sanctions would be placed by designating entities and individuals as terrorists, others would be on human-rights violators, and still others would target Iran’s ballistic-missile system.

These kinds of sanctions are technically easy to undo: Whatever Trump can do with a flourish of executive power can be reversed by Biden the exact same way.

But the Trump administration is relying on the idea that lifting sanctions on terrorists and human-rights violators would be politically toxic. It would raise the question of why the Biden administration cares so much about restoring the Obama-era agreement that it would overlook atrocities, thus making it much more challenging for Biden to take the necessary steps to rejoin the Iran deal. 

FORMER ISRAELI ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who was in Washington as the Obama administration began talks with Iran, said the Trump administration was giving Biden “the gift of leverage” going into negotiations and called on the president-elect not to squander it.

“As Bibi [Netanyahu] used to say, We have them on the ropes. Don’t let them get off the mat,” he said.

However, Oren mentioned efforts that Biden associates have been making to counter the Trump administration by spreading “myths” about the efforts to curb an Iran nuclear weapon.

“The lie of the JCPOA… [is a] false dichotomy that it’s either the Iran deal or war,” Oren said. “That isn’t the choice: The choice is between the Iran deal and a better deal. Nobody in the Middle East believed the choice is war. The only people who believed that is the American people because they’re so war-weary – and it worked.”

“I think that Biden would [present that dichotomy] again, and that’s a lie,” he said.

A “multidimensional lie” that some in the Biden orbit have been spreading is that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than it was before Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA, Oren said.

“[For] one [thing], the IAEA says Iran has not enriched enough uranium to produce even one nuclear weapon,” he said. “Two, the JCPOA enables Iran to develop centrifuges that enrich uranium at four times the present rate, reducing the breakout time to a quarter of what it was, which means [that it’s] much closer than Iran was to a bomb in 2015.”

Taking that into account, strategies that Israel and the Trump administration are not discussing openly are likely to have more staying power and be far more effective in protecting Israel from the Iranian threat at this juncture.

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