NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 21 MAY, 2018
Analysts are trying to figure out why Trump disregarded the obvious benefits of the deal
President Trump’s announcement of America’s unilateral withdrawal from the six-party nuclear deal with Iran on May 8 came as a surprise to those who were hoping that he would not do so, particularly after close US allies such as the UK and France publicly urged him to honour the deal. It is highly unusual, if not rare, for these countries to break ranks with the US, and that too publicly.
It is true that Trump had criticised the Iran nuclear deal even before he became President. And in the weeks and months before its renewal, he had announced that he would walk out of it. Still, some people expected him not to do so, because all the other parties to the deal had emphasised their commitment to it, and called upon the US to do likewise. In the event, their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Analysts are still trying to figure out why Trump disregarded the obvious benefits of the deal to Western security interests and pulled out of it. The appointment of John Bolton as the US National Security Advisor does not provide the full explanation.
For that, it is necessary to go deeper, to find out why John Bolton was appointed NSA in the first place. Who was behind his appointment?
An important clue is provided by the fact that there is only one major power which stubbornly opposed the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), right from the beginning: Israel. And the [unstated] reason it did so was that the deal would have lifted the crippling US sanctions against Iran, leading to an economic revival in the country.
Another reason was that the deal would have ended Iran’s isolation amongst the Western countries, and brought it into the mainstream. That would have made it more difficult for Israel to demonise Iran, as a prelude to launching military action against it on some false pretext. Three recent examples of this modus operandi are Iraq (2003), Libya (2011), and Syria (2011-present).
Israel continued its tirade against the JCPOA before it came into effect in 2015. However, despite his best efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could not scuttle it because Obama wanted to salvage his legacy during the last few months of his second term, when he had nothing to lose. Also, he detested Netanyahu, who had insulted him more than once. It was payback time.
But when Trump got elected, Netanyahu smelt an opportunity. Here was a US President who had the same views on Iran as Israel. And whose son-in-law was an Orthodox Jew who was close to Netanyahu. Moreover, the son-in-law, Jared Kushner, emerged in due course as Trump’s point man on the Middle East [though his current status is not clear].
There is an emerging view amongst an influential section of the international strategic community that Netanyahu did everything he could, including providing [fabricated] “evidence” of Iran’s violation of the nuclear deal—categorically refuted by the IAEA—to ensure that Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. This time he succeeded.
Netanyahu had done something similar in 2002, in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq the next year, stating in a testimony to the US Congress that Saddam Hussain was “hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs as fast as he can…”. He is widely seen as one of the major architects of that invasion, which resulted in a massive loss of life and large-scale destruction of that country.
Netanyahu controls America’s Middle East policy through several channels, one of the most important of which is the “neo-conservative” channel. It includes the “neocons,” a group of individuals who occupy some of the most crucial decision-making positions in America’s security and military establishment. The vast majority of them are Jewish and “Israel-firsters,” who give precedence to Israel’s interests over America’s. John Bolton is one of them.
Many observers believe the Jewish lobby in the US was behind Bolton’s appointment.
Israel has long viewed Iran and Iraq as existential threats. Iraq was neutralised by the 2003 US invasion of that country, though one of its unintended consequences was a significant increase in Iran’s influence in Iraq. That intensified Israel’s paranoia about Iran, though it is well known that Iran’s military capabilities are simply no match for Israel’s, which is widely believed to have more than 200 nuclear weapons, in addition to the latest US weaponry.
Israel nevertheless wants the same treatment for Iran as Iraq, and again wants the US to do the job. It has played a pivotal role in the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, as detailed above. But that is only the first step in a chain of events whose ultimate objective is US military action against Iran. Subsequent events in that chain have begun to appear in Syria.
On April 9 Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a Syrian military base, known as T4, in Homs, killing seven Iranian military personnel. This was the first time that Israel had directly attacked Iranian officers, who were known to be at the T4 base.
Israel again attacked a Syrian military base outside Hama in northern Syria on April 30. Known as Brigade 47, the base was run by Iranian soldiers. The attack resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen Iranians. This time Israel used its Dolphin submarines in the Red Sea to launch a salvo of missiles at the Syrian base, catching the Syrian air-defence batteries unawares.
One of the unintended consequences of the proxy war launched against Syria by the West and Gulf in 2011, in which Israel is also deeply involved, is that Iranian military presence in Syria has increased significantly. Some Iranian and Hezbollah fighters are also operating close to the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied illegally since 1967. The Iranians are virtually at Israel’s doorstep, which is not acceptable to Israel.
Israel has lately been threatening that it will not tolerate Iranian military bases and fighters in Syria. The direct attacks against the Iranians [mentioned above] last month are aimed at provoking a retaliation, which would provide Israel with an excuse to widen the war in Syria, and attack Iran directly. If that happens, Israel and the neocons will also drag the US into a war with Iran. That is Israel’s game plan.
It is also one of the important implications of the unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA engineered by the neocons, acting on Israel’s behalf. There are many other implications, including rising instability in the Middle East; a rift between the US on the one hand and the EU, Russia, China, India and others affected by the [extra-territorial] US sanctions against Iran on the other; the US threat to penalise nations which do business with Iran; and the likelihood of deterioration of economic conditions inside Iran, which the US and Israel hope will lead to regime change in that country.
So far Iran has not retaliated against Israel for its attacks on Iranian military personnel in Syria, though Netanyahu has also been trying to instigate a US attack on Iran for many years now. As mentioned above, he did not succeed when Obama was President. This time, however, he has all the pieces in place, including Trump, Bolton, and other neocons. He will, therefore, try his best to orchestrate a US attack against Iran; such opportunities do not arise every day.
It remains to be seen what is Iran’s red line and how long its patience continues, before it responds to the killing of its military personnel in Syria by Israel. An Iranian response will invite a direct attack on Iran by Israel and the US, which will likely trigger a wider regional conflagration involving Syria, the Hezbollah [in Lebanon], and possibly Russia, which has so far remained a passive spectator, unable to prevent Israeli attacks on Syria and Iranians in that country.
In the meantime, the war in Syria grinds on, causing extreme hardship to its people. Though Assad controls the major cities in the west and the country’s Mediterranean coastline, US forces continue to illegally occupy almost one-third of the country in the East, from where they harass Assad’s forces with the help of the Kurds.
The Syrian Kurds have become the foot soldiers of the Americans in the [vain] hope that they will be rewarded with a state of their own in northeastern Syria— something that both Turkey and Syria will never allow to happen.
As for the Americans, they will use the Kurds, and discard them when they are no longer useful. That is how the US has often behaved since the Second World War. Unfortunately for the Syrians, the Americans show no sign of leaving Syria; they have signalled that they will continue to retain their dozen-odd bases and more than 2000 soldiers in the country indefinitely.
Though Trump had recently announced that he wanted to pull American troops out of Syria, he was quickly overruled by elements of the US Deep State, particularly the neocons and the CIA, described by some observers as “armchair warriors,” who have never served in the armed forces, and have no experience of actual combat. They, therefore, resort to the use of force at the slightest opportunity, unmindful of the death and destruction wrought by it.
The US Deep State vetoed Trump’s plans to leave Syria because they have gotten used [since 1991] to achieving a “military victory” and “regime change” at any cost, including the killing of millions of defenceless civilians. They cannot stomach the prospect of a military defeat and failure of their regime change plans in Syria, which is the first country where they have been defeated.
Having failed to achieve their primary objective of regime change, the US, Israel, and the Saudis are now falling back on their Plan B—partition of Syria by detaching northeastern Syria [east of the Euphrates river] and parts of southern Syria, from Western Syria controlled by Assad. This entity will be ruled by a Sunni puppet regime and will host US bases and troops.
By doing so, the US and its allies aim to cut Assad’s Syria off from Iraq, thereby preventing the emergence of a land route from Iran to Lebanon, described as a “Shiite Crescent” by some commentators. This route, which will traverse Iraq and Syria, could be used by Iran to supply arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The partition of Syria will prevent that from happening.
It is not clear at this stage how the Syrians, Russians, and the Iranians plan to eject the US and its allies from Syria. Guerrilla warfare has been mentioned as one of the possibilities.
But with Israel’s direct attacks on Iranian troops in Syria, Iran is likely to be preoccupied with the Israeli threat. And, as mentioned above, the next objective on Netanyahu’s agenda is to precipitate a US attack on Iran. Whether he succeeds in achieving this objective remains to be seen, but the chances of that happening have increased significantly. This is one of the more unfortunate geopolitical consequences of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran.
[The writer is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several Indian missions around the world, including in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the United States.]