Trump & Iran: Should Bibi worry?

Despite being his "Best friend at the white house" it seems relations between Netanyahu and Trump don't always see eye to eye

ea-18g fighter jet (photo credit: REUTERS)
ea-18g fighter jet
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a lot to worry about these days: election, indictment, Hezbollah, Iran, Donald Trump.
He’s days away from the most important election of his career, faces possible indictment for fraud and bribery, tensions are rising on Israel’s northern border, and his “best friend ever in the White House” may be preparing to cut a deal with Iran that could leave Israel on the outside looking in.
Netanyahu placed a “barrage” of phone calls to President Trump last week at the G7 conference in France in a “frantic” effort to head off any presidential meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, according to media reports. It is unclear why Trump wouldn’t take any calls from the Israeli leader, who feared the US might be softening on Iran.
Fortunately for Netanyahu, the Iranians came to his rescue. They weren’t ready to talk to Trump, much less cut a deal – at least for now.
Trump ran for office vowing to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, in no small part at Netanyahu’s intense urging. The reality-show star called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) the worst in history (a superlative he overuses). Another reason to shred the agreement was that – merits aside – it was a hallmark foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama, whom both Trump and Netanyahu loathed.
Netanyahu felt he had good cause for worry. He was aware that Iranian state media was quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran saying that the US has been showing “some flexibility” on the oil sales embargo, and that was being viewed as a sign of the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
He also knew that Trump was anxious for a foreign policy achievement to take into the 2020 election campaign.
With no Trump-Zarif meeting at Biarritz, France, Netanyahu could continue campaigning as the man doing the most to keep Iran from going nuclear and assure American friendship.
But privately, he had to worry that the man he called Israel’s best friend ever in the White House might be pulling the rug from under him.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters that Trump is willing to “sit down and negotiate” with Iran today with no preconditions. To the Iranians that may have signaled American weakness. Iranian leadership apparently sees Trump as anxious to meet, hardening their demands that sanctions must be lifted before President Hassan Rouhani will see him.
Netanyahu has good reason to fear that Trump may be too eager for a meeting: It could turn into a grip-and-grin photo-op à la North Korea, and neither the US nor Israel will get anything for it.
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was an international pariah anxious for any acceptance and rehabilitation, and Trump gave it to him free of charge. Despite three meetings, including a stroll across the DMZ into the hermit kingdom, there has been zero progress on Kim’s promised denuclearization, and he continues launching missiles in violation of international sanctions that Trump chooses to ignore.
TRUMP HAS boasted that the Kim meeting was a historic breakthrough – although he has little to show for it – and he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. The president has said he deserves recognition but complains: “I probably will never get it.” Japanese government sources told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that the Trump administration asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him.
Heading into 2020, Trump needs some foreign policy achievements. Trade wars didn’t turn out to be as much “fun” and “easy to win,” as he had promised, and his big one with China appears to be dragging down the economies of both countries. He’s been unable to unseat Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, progress is slow on the southern border wall (and Mexico isn’t paying a single peso), and he’s close to making a deal that will essentially turn Afghanistan over to the Taliban so US troops can get out. Meanwhile, many of America’s closest allies don’t trust him and feel they cannot take him at his word.
Trump needs results – but the Iranians, for now, prefer to play the long game, feeling the American president needs a deal more than they do despite the pain inflicted by his “maximum pressure” campaign.
Netanyahu told French President Emmanuel Macron, who tried to broker a Zarif-Trump meeting at the G7, that: “When Iran is stepping up its aggression in the region, it is precisely the wrong time to talk with Iran.”
But a Rouhani-Trump meeting is still possible when the two go to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting late this month.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt shares Netanyahu’s view that a meeting would be premature, but not for the same reason. Hunt feels the US approach to Iran is a policy with no evident end goal and thus no plausible positive outcome, according to The Washington Post.
Netanyahu isn’t the only one who wants to block the meeting. Hardliners in both Washington and Tehran are reportedly also strongly opposed.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are longtime opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, and Bolton has consistently said the US should pursue regime change in Iran.
A reluctant Rouhani argues a meeting would be a big and undeserved gift for the 2020 election. His boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that, “Negotiation is an effort to deceive [Iran] into doing what the US desires.”
Columnist David Ignatius wrote: “Trump seems to think he can disrespect foreign leaders to the point of humiliating them, and then soften them up with flattery and invitations to negotiate.” 
The president may be less interested in the substance of any deal than the form. He can pivot easily because he is unencumbered by any core ideology, which makes it easy to seamlessly shift from “little rocket man” to exchanging “love” letters.
For all his talk about stopping all Iranian nuclear development, ballistic missiles and terrorism, it is not unreasonable for Israel to fear that Trump will take just about anything he can get, even if it is a reshuffled Obama agreement (remember NAFTA?) – so long as he can declare a historic achievement, put his own brand on it and use it in his campaign.