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Netanyahu’s Dangerous Influence on Donald Trump’s Iran Policy

Six months following the end of Donald Trump’s bizarre term as president, a deluge of books are being published describing his last months in the White House.

A main source for these tomes is the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, who is portrayed as someone who blocked a considerable chunk of Trump’s efforts to subvert the will of American voters in the November election.

The most detailed account appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker, in excerpts from a yet-to-be published book by journalists Susan Glasser and Peter Baker (who are a couple).

According to their account, Milley was extremely worried that Trump would launch a war against Iran, using the pretext that Tehran was violating the nuclear accord (from which the United States withdrew, based on Trump’s decision, in May 2018).

One of the president’s advisers raised the idea of preemptive war, ostensibly against the Iranian nuclear program, back at the beginning of last year.

The planned timing? At the end of 2020, if Trump lost the election.

The idea also came up at another meeting among top administration officials that Trump did not attend. When the chairman of the joint chiefs asked the officials why they were so insistent on attacking Iran, Vice President Mike Pence reportedly replied in religious terms: because the Iranians are evil.

When Trump lost the November election, the discussions about an attack resumed.

According to Glasser and Baker, Milley doesn’t believe that Trump wanted a regional war; instead, the general believes that Trump sought a missile strike against Iran in response to what were described as “various provocations against US interests in the region.”

There was another player in the picture: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Glasser and Baker write that the prime minister implored the Trump administration to attack Iran, from the moment it was clear that the election results had gone against Trump. Milley is quoted as saying: “If you do this, you’re gonna have a fucking war.”

The decisive discussion of the issue took place on January 3, three days before the insurrection on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters.

Trump asked his advisers about an International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iranian violations of the international nuclear accord.

They responded that it was too late for a military response, just two and a half weeks before the end of the president’s term.

Trump gave in, and with that the matter was over.

But at the end of the meeting, Milley reportedly heard Trump say, referring to the Capitol Hill rally, “It’s gonna be a big deal,” adding: “You’re ready for that, right?”

According the recent books, Milley also stood in Trump’s way when the president sought to send in the army to confront left-wing and Black demonstrators, a pretext to let him declare a state of emergency in May 2020 during the protests after the murder of George Floyd. This came up again in November amid efforts to prevent the transfer of power following the election.

But what’s interesting here, from an Israeli standpoint of course, is Netanyahu’s role in efforts to push Trump into a major American operation against the Iranian nuclear program. In retrospect, this news explains the concern among Israeli defense officials immediately following the U.S. presidential election.

At issue were two unusual visits by Trump administration officials – first by the administration’s Iran point person, Elliott Abrams, and then by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Hints regarding this also reached Haaretz.

What was not reported was the nearly messianic sentiment that took hold of Netanyahu during that time, when he shared his hope in conversations with a few people that Trump would shake things up in the region – and actually even around the world – if he attacked Iran.

The Trump era is already a thing of the past, as is Netanyahu perhaps. But the accumulating revelations about Trump’s presidency show the depth of the former prime minister’s influence on him.

Netanyahu took their friendship to dangerous places – initially, in January 2020 with the intention of annexing the West Bank settlements as part of Trump’s failed “Deal of the Century.”

Then there was the effort to push the Americans to attack in Iran, which might have ended in as much chaos as the 2003 Iraq War.

Make no mistake, the reverberations would have also reached Israel.

Grandiose funding requests

The reports from Washington in recent days have come together with reports in Israel raising the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran.

The Israeli press has mentioned directives to the Israel Defense Forces to revise preparations for an attack and to improve civil defense preparations – and a clearly unreasonable price tag – an additional 25 billion shekels ($7.6 billion).

Yet, one can cautiously assume that the two stated goals in the reports – the grandiose additional funding and the attack itself – will not come to fruition.

The background is the negotiation process in Vienna between Iran and the major powers on the return of the United States to the nuclear accord. Six rounds of talks have not yielded an agreement. Iran is delaying a response, apparently at least until the swearing in of the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in three weeks.

There is already no doubt, however, that the Biden administration wants a new agreement and that for the time being, Iran has been taking advantage of Trump’s withdrawal from the accord to considerably advance its uranium enrichment, which is bringing it close to the final target of producing a bomb.

Briefings by defense officials are directed at four or even five audiences: Netanyahu, his successor Naftali Bennett, the Finance Ministry, the Americans and the Iranians.

Last week, Netanyahu attacked the new prime minister, claiming that he was abandoning Israel’s security in that he was not stopping the Americans from signing a new agreement. Bennett responded with hints at neglect by Netanyahu in critical areas.

The leaks were designed to send the message: “We’re already rectifying the damage committed by the previous government.”

There’s also a message here for Bennett and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman. For the past two and a half years, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has been trying to jump-start his ambitious multiyear plan for the military. The budget response has been tepid, however, as a result of Israel’s four general elections and the damage inflicted by the pandemic. Kochavi has had to suffice with partial steps that have also relied on the diversion of existing resources.

At the moment, an opportunity has been created: If the politicians want to tout the possibility of an attack on Iran, we’ll sell them a response that also meets other urgent operational needs of the military.

And there are the foreign actors.

Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran between 2009 and 2013 convinced the Obama administration to impose economic sanctions on Tehran, which led to a softening of Iran’s stance and the signing of an interim accord in 2013 and the full nuclear accord two years later.

If Israel is now threatening to burnish the offensive capacity of its air force, this message is also aimed at attentive ears in Tehran and Washington.

Since taking office as prime minister, Bennett has held an intensive “seminar” on the Iranian issue and the consolidation, if needed, of a new Israeli policy.

It can be assumed that the conclusions will include a refinement of preparations in the IDF, in case Iran surprises the world and decides to rush toward the creation of a bomb.

The coming months may pose an important strategic challenge for Bennett: a new agreement that leaves Iran a relatively short distance from a bomb.

The question of what Netanyahu would have done certainly bothers Bennett – as does how Netanyahu as opposition leader will go after him following any decision that he makes.

Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ