The US and Israel aren’t on the same page on Iran
30 Aug 2019|

On 24 August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau announced, ‘I repeat: Iran has no immunity, anywhere … I have given the instruction to prepare for any scenario. We will continue to act against Iran and its proxies with determination and responsibility for Israel’s security.’

This declaration followed Israeli air attacks on Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shia militia targets in Syria that, according to Israeli military sources, were preparing to launch drone strikes on Israel. Such attacks in Syria, by now numbering in the hundreds, have become routine and no longer hit newspaper headlines.

However, on 19 July Israeli aircraft bombed an Iranian base in Iraq, thus escalating its provocative acts against Iran. Some reports suggest that the same base, Camp Ashraf northeast of Baghdad, was attacked again on 18 August. These air attacks follow four strikes in the past three months against munition storage facilities used by pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq.

While no one has claimed responsibility so far, two American officials confirmed recently to the New York Times that these attacks were carried out by Israel. When asked about the Israeli air attack on Iranian targets in Iraq, Netanyahu, without confirming the specific attack, replied, ‘Iran doesn’t have immunity anywhere … We will act—and currently are acting—against them, wherever it is necessary.’

Israeli attacks on Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria haven’t caused much concern in Washington because of the Trump administration’s aversion to the Bashar al-Assad regime. However, US policymakers worry about similar attacks in Iraqi territory, because that could foul up America’s relations with Iraq at a crucial juncture. US displeasure at Israeli attacks on Iraqi territory was a major reason why American officials outed Israel for the 19 July attack.

American policymakers are concerned that such Israeli attacks could lead to demands within Iraq to expel all American forces from the country, since many Iraqis believe that the US is complicit in these attacks and that Israel would not have carried them out without getting a green light from Washington. They’re concerned that America’s ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, might not be able to resist such demands, especially if they’re couched in terms of a violation of Iraqi sovereignty by America’s foremost ally in the Middle East.

Tensions between the US and Israel on this issue could well lead to increased anti-Israel sentiment in Washington, especially in the wake of Netanyahu’s decision—paradoxically at President Donald Trump’s urging—to deny entry to two Democratic congresswomen into Israel because of their criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and their support to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

That decision was harshly criticised not only by Democratic members of Congress, including several firm supporters of Israel, but also by several Republicans. Netanyahu also faced criticism from a broad spectrum of Jewish organisations in the United States, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been his faithful ally for the past decade.

Israeli adventurism vis-à-vis Iran also seems to run against Trump’s basic instincts, despite his bluster about Tehran’s ‘provocative’ policies and his decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal and reimpose stringent sanctions on Iran.

Although some of his closest advisers, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, have been promoting a policy that amounts to advocating regime change in Iran even if by force, Trump is fundamentally averse to leading the US into a full-fledged and open-ended war with Iran. He seems to be still clinging to his campaign promise of bringing American soldiers home and doesn’t relish the idea of sending more of them to the volatile Middle East.

These instincts were on display again at the recently concluded G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, following the unscheduled visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been trying to find a way to reconcile American demands and Iranian needs. Trump did not oppose Zarif’s visit, although he said the time was not ripe for the two to meet.

Macron announced at the end of the G7 conclave that a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was likely to take place in the ‘coming weeks’. Trump in turn abjured any intention of imposing regime change on Iran and said that, ‘if the circumstances were right’, he would ‘certainly agree’ to a meeting. In a speech hours earlier, Rouhani also signalled that the Iranians were willing to talk, declaring, ‘If I know that by meeting someone, the problem of my country will be solved, I will not hesitate.’

This softening of stands by both sides, especially if it acts as a prelude to a negotiated settlement, will not be music to Israel’s ears. It suggests that, in the final analysis, embroiling the US in a war with Iran with unforeseen consequences doesn’t appeal to Trump. On the other hand, Israel, and especially Netanyahu, would like nothing better than a US assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, regardless of the consequences that might have for the region.

There is, therefore, a fundamental disjuncture between American and Israeli objectives for Iran, and recent events have begun to bring the fissures between their approaches to this issue into the open.