U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to avoid getting entangled in another war in the Middle East after the American failure in Iraq and the 18-year war in Afghanistan. He knew that American public opinion despises military adventures far from home and so he hoped to make do with belligerent rhetoric and sanctions against Iran while throwing bones of support to Saudi Arabia and Israel. But like his predecessors over the last half-century, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, Trump discovered that the Middle East imposes itself on American foreign policy even when that superpower is no longer dependent on oil from the region and despite its justified tendency to focus on the Chinese challenge in Asia.
Trump’s lack of military response to the destruction of oil installations in Saudi Arabia in an Iranian assault in September raised deep concern among friends of the United States in the region. The Israeli security establishment was afraid of remaining exposed to Qassem Soleimani and his plots. It counted the missiles that Iran could launch from its territory directly against Israel and warned that the next war was coming closer. The weakness the United States showed was seen – and rightly so – as a temptation to Iran to raise the stakes and be more daring.
The clash was not long coming over control in Iraq, which is perceived in Iran as a client state, and in the United States as an essential outpost. After a series of events in distant places, the Iranians targeted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It is not hard to imagine the political outcome of another hostage crisis in Tehran, after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by Iranian students in 1979: a catastrophe for Trump’s reelection, the way President Jimmy Carter retired after one term following his failure to secure the release of the captive diplomats. And if that’s too far back in history for Trump and his aides, they certainly remember the mortal blow against their nemesis Hillary Clinton after the fatal assault on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi in 2012.
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The killing of Soleimani turned back the wheel. Trump made it clear that the United States will remain in the area and is committed to its interests here. The choice of target and the implementation were brilliant: a target that everyone knows, without harming civilians and without American casualties, along with total surprise and immediate taking of credit. The president apparently realized that the political price of inaction would be greater than criticism over the risk of war and entanglement that came from his Democratic opponents as well as from Republican separatists. His belated response – that the action was intended to prevent a war, not spark one – was foreseeable and unconvincing.
A strategic error
Soleimani apparently believed his own PR, the admirers who shared his photos and the enemies who glorified him. There’s no doubt that he was a courageous commander and that his frequent and well-publicized visits to the front lines strengthened his position among his accomplices and those under his command. His open movements in the Baghdad airport with his militia commanders showed an overabundance of confidence and disregard for basic security rules.
But his greater error was strategic, not tactical. With all due respect to his daring, he headed a relatively small force, which over the last decade enjoyed freedom of movement as long as it served the interests of the United States, or at least did not compromise them. He cooperated with the United States in crushing the common enemy, the Islamic State, and the Americans reconciled themselves to his rescue of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. But the moment that he worked directly against them, the “subcontractor” was taken out, like Israel did with senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad figures in the Gaza Strip.
Now Iran is threatening revenge, and the internet is full of commentaries about expected attacks. A means of responding might be found, but the balance of forces must not be forgotten for a moment. Iran has no way of hurting the United States and it is completely exposed to American military capabilities that can destroy Iran’s nuclear installations and its oil industry and target the regime’s leaders without much effort. It may be assumed that there are detailed plans in the Pentagon’s drawers to destroy these objectives from the air.
Soleimani was killed in Iraq and not in Iran, which is still out of bounds in terms of an American attack – also in the absence of congressional or United Nations approval. If Iran goes crazy and attacks the United States, it will find that this has never ended well. As the scholar Edward Luttwak wrote about Pearl Harbor, Japan would have been better off if its pilots had dropped their bombs in the ocean rather than expose their country to devastation.
New Year’s gift
The warnings of war by army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, which sounded a little detached from the Israeli agenda, focused as it was on the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, suddenly seemed more concrete. While Kochavi lost the figure he had marked has his main adversary – and he’ll have to find a new one – from now on he’ll be listened to more, and his budgetary demands will be better received by senior treasury officials.
Netanyahu gained the most from Soleimani’s killing. The prime minister had a successful week that began by suppressing the rebellion led by lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, continued with the High Court of Justice reticent about holding a hearing on whether the prime minister can form a government after being criminally indicted, followed by his immunity request, which will bog down the indictments in the Knesset for a long time. Then came the risky American action that brought the “security situation” back into the headlines, bumping off the corruption affairs. The security-minded opposition from Kahol Lavan quickly toed the line. If there is escalation, local or regional, pressure will ratchet up on Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz and his co-leader Yair Lapid to take the defense and Foreign Ministry portfolios under Netanyahu.
But it’s still too early to talk about a unity government. Israel will first have to get through the election campaign, and moving the focus from the indictments and immunity to protecting the country and the Iranian threat is a New Year’s gift to Netanyahu. Not only because he is known for his warnings against Iran, but also because of the political goal which his survival depends on: raising voter turnout in Likud strongholds and reducing voter turnout in the Arab community. More voters in Bat Yam (52 percent in the September elections) and less in Sakhnin (72 percent in September) will save Netanyahu from a trial and removal from office and will make it easier to bring Gantz and Lapid under his roof and neutralize them.
The security situation will help Netanyahu bring to the polls right-wing voters who had previously had enough of him because of the corruption affairs, but will leave that aside to save the country from Iran. On the other hand, talk of war and emergencies distances the participation of the largely Arab Joint List from participation in a future coalition with Kahol Lavan and discourages Arab voters, who went to the polls in September in the hope of such participation. Netanyahu’s survival, therefore, depends on his success in keeping the security agenda in the headlines in the coming eight weeks.
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