President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel are usually on the same page, especially on Iran. But over the last few days, their scripts have diverged.
Trump, at the G-7 summit on Aug. 26, emphasized that “Iran is not the same country that it was two and half years ago when I came into office.” It is no longer the No. 1 nation in terms of supporting terrorism, he said, “Because they can’t spend like they used to spend.” The implication is that the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has so severely damaged Iran’s economy that its behavior is changing for the better.
Contrast that with a statement by Netanyahu on the same day. “Iran is operating on a broad front to carry out murderous terrorist attacks against the State of Israel,” he said. “Israel will continue to defend its security however that may be necessary. I call on the international community to act immediately so that Iran halts these attacks.”
Netanyahu was speaking directly about the steps Israel has taken recently to ensure its security: Destroying Iranian rockets at Shiite militia bases in Iraq; reportedly using drones to attack a facility enhancing the precision capability of missiles provided to Hezbollah by Iran; and pre-emptively striking Iranian forces and Hezbollah operatives near Damascus as they prepared a terror attack into Israel.
From Israel’s standpoint, Trump’s comments notwithstanding, Iran is not a different country today posing less of a threat. Indeed, shortly before the Netanyahu statement, Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group that has always been close to Iran, fired four rockets from Gaza into Israel — clearly to add fuel to the fire.
What is particularly noteworthy here is that Netanyahu called on the “international community” to act in Israel’s defense. I’ve served in five different U.S. administrations, often as the point person with Israeli leaders, and I know that Israeli prime ministers, when seeking to deter broader threats, always have come to the U.S. first. They counted on America to act or to mobilize others to help counter possible threats and raise the costs to those who might be thinking of carrying them out. But Netanyahu realizes that the U.S. does not play that role any longer, and so he directly seeks the help of the rest of the world.
Implicitly, at least, Netanyahu seems to recognize that the Trump administration has little “soft power” – the diplomatic and other non-military efforts that draw others to support U.S. objectives. Similarly, his statement indicates that he has little faith in the U.S. ability to deter Iran — not a huge surprise, as Iran has adopted its own version of maximum pressure on America’s allies and interests in the region after the U.S. ended waivers permitting eight countries to receive Iranian oil.
That decision, which took effect in May, surely squeezed the Iranians. But their answer, in addition to incrementally walking away from the 2016 nuclear agreement, has been to attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, have their Houthi surrogates in Yemen escalate attacks against Saudi airfields and oil facilities, and expand their range of threats to Israel. All of this after John Bolton, the national security advisor, declared on May 5 that any such threats would be met with “unrelenting force.”
No doubt, Bolton meant it — but Trump calls the shots, and he does not want a conflict with Iran. Moreover, the president seems to believe that Iranian threats to U.S. friends in the region are their own responsibility to deal with, not America’s. Trump, reversing the policy of every president since Jimmy Carter, applies the same logic to the Strait of Hormuz: Since other nations depend on it being open for their oil supplies, they are mainly accountable for safeguarding it.
Taken along with Trump’s decision not to retaliate for the shooting down of an American drone earlier this summer, this gives the Iranians reason to believe that the U.S. will respond only against direct attacks against its own forces that result in fatalities, and that there is little reason to fear a U.S. reaction to Iranian aggression against America’s friends.
Trump may criticize President Barack Obama for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in terms of its sunset provisions on Iran’s nuclear program ending too soon, but he speaks of an objective of “no nukes” — surely the same objective Obama had — and seemingly downplays Iran’s regional behavior. Moreover, in acknowledging the point made by French President Emmanuel Macron that the Iranians might need “compensation” to enter talks, he went so far as to say the Iranians might “need some money to get them over a very rough patch,” and “if they do need money, it would be secured by oil, which to me is great security.”
There is nothing wrong with Trump wanting to talk to the Iranians. But the signals he sends now suggest that it is not American maximum pressure that will produce those talks — it is Iranian maximum pressure that is working on the U.S. and the Europeans. Perhaps this is why Netanyahu reportedly tried to persuade Trump not to meet soon with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif; he clearly fears what might be given away at this point.
Yes, the Iranians are hurting economically and are likely to go for talks eventually. But the demand of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the U.S. must first drop the sanctions — something he knows Trump is unlikely do now — suggests they are in no rush. In the meantime, the Iranians will heighten their pressure, believing that will give them more leverage. They seem to be taking a page from Trump: Squeeze harder, and the other side will come to the table.
For now, the Iranian position means there will be no prospect of an early deal between the U.S. and Iran. Yes, that will ease Netanyahu’s concerns of what a deal would look like now. But the irony is that because the Iranians are trying to increase their leverage, Israel will likely face increasingly aggressive behavior from Tehran’s proxies. And, while the Trump administration will absolutely support Israel’s right of self-defense, it will also leave Israel largely on its own to face the consequences of a new American policy. This may be a classic case of Israel’s prime minister needing to be careful about what he wishes for.
Ross is counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and served in senior national security positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.