Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
One of Donald Trump’s most vocal riffs during his campaign was “rip it up.”
He was referring, of course, to the Iran agreement that is meant to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the ayatollahs for at least a decade.
Candidate Trump boasted he would rip up the agreement, then renegotiate a much better document. This sent shivers of joy up the spine of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his conservative allies, who have opposed any document negotiated with Iran as a cave-in to their existential enemy.
But you don’t hear that “rip it up” language any longer. And you won’t. Indeed, in his landmark message to Congress on Tuesday, the President touched only once on Iran, in an all but a throwaway line that was also the only time Israel was invoked: “I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the state of Israel.”
The fact is that Trump will not be touching that Iran nuclear agreement. And, it seems, the Israelis are not unhappy about this – at least for the moment. There are several interesting reasons for this.
First, Israeli military leaders have told Netanyahu they can’t win that war. The war in question, of course, would likely be the consequence of a rapid chain of events that would quite clearly be unleashed the moment the Iranian treaty was torpedoed.
Iran would begin to rebuild its once vast centrifuge network – used to enrich uranium to bomb-making levels. Interestingly, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which the treaty designated was to monitor compliance with the agreement, reported last week that Iran has barely a third of the enriched uranium it’s allowed under the treaty – 101.7 kilos, compared with its authorized ceiling of 300 kilos.
Of course, it would likely take barely a year for a determined Iran to reverse this trend and work toward sufficient material to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons. At some point, likely quite early in that cycle, Israel, which has long believed itself to be the principal first target of any Iranian bomb, would launch a first-strike attack to put any such enterprise out of business.
What the Israeli military has come to realize is the same that the US military understands. Any such attack would require interdiction of multiple, deeply buried or hardened, targets deep inside Iran.
There is no way that Iran would put all its bomb-making eggs in one basket. Some of these targets would be so deeply buried or reinforced that the only weapons able to attack them would be the powerful bunker-buster bombs that the United States has developed and jealously guarded for years.
Their deployment would require full complicity if not participation on the part of the US armed forces. The consequences of that are too horrific to imagine, but range across all-out terrorist war against US interests worldwide by Iranian proxies, ostracism by all US allies globally, but particularly in Europe. And in the end no certainty at all that the United States, or even Israel, would wind up any more secure.
More than Israeli sensitivities, or paranoia, are at stake here these days. Iran is increasingly coming to play a central role in the battle against the threat of radical Islamic terrorists – or at least the Sunni threat. For while Trump correctly and publicly echoes the refrain of Netanyahu that Iran is a principal aider and abettor, not to mention financier, of international terrorism, or Middle East misery, it is also the most virulent opponent of the Sunni branch of Islam, which is embraced by ISIS and the various branches of al Qaeda.
Particularly when Iraqi forces, with American advisers, complete their seizure of Mosul and turn their attention to ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, then Iranian forces will be essential in these final stages of the war.
So, while Trump is prepared to continue embracing his decision to slap new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, the President has also backed away from, or at least refrained from any further embrace, of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s attitude toward Iran.
It’s still hard to forget the image of Flynn seizing presidential spokesman Sean Spicer’s podium in the White House briefing room on February 1 and before live television cameras, warning that he was “officially putting Iran on notice” after its latest ballistic missile test. No one was quite sure exactly what that warning meant, but less than two weeks later, Flynn was gone from the White House and more reasonable voices succeeded him.
At the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that if Trump were to follow through on his ill-considered threat to “tear up” the agreement, he would be doing so alone. None of the other signatories to the pact – the permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, Russia, China) plus Germany – have made any move to follow him.
Indeed, most of these countries could be counted on to seize a host of commercial opportunities that could accrue following any such move by the United States. Already, substantial commercial contracts have been signed or negotiated – including an order from Iran Air for 80 Boeing planes announced in December, a near $17 billion contract that the European Airbus consortium would be delighted to pick up.
At some point, though, it is not inconceivable that Trump could try to put his mark on an Iranian treaty by extending the accord, not with sticks, but carrots. After all, some elements begin to expire barely 10 years from now, lifting Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity to a level that could allow the production of a bomb within six months. A number of senior ayatollahs have suggested, however, that a nuclear arsenal is not in keeping with the dictates of Shia Islam, though more militant Revolutionary Guard elements are still chafing at their inability to add the atom to their palette of threats. Further incentives to more moderate elements in Tehran could prolong the agreement’s reach indefinitely.
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For the moment, too, Netanyahu is in some degree of political, even judicial, trouble as a result of corruption investigations against him and several of his top aides. Waiting eagerly in the wings, should he be forced to step down, is a host of center-left political figures who see a more flexible stand toward Iran as opportunistic, as long as Iran behaves. And behavior, at least for the moment, is very much in the interest of all parties concerned.
So, while chief strategist Stephen Bannon may believe the United States is in the midst of an existential struggle leading toward “a major shooting war in the Middle East,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told his Senate confirmation hearing in January: “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it.”
Hopefully he will not be tested by the Bannon view. But if he is, we can only hope he stands firmly behind his belief.