Israel, Iran fight for influence over Biden administration

The entire dynamic is about to change.

A missile is launched by Iran’s military during navy drills in the Gulf of Oman yesterday. (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA)
A missile is launched by Iran’s military during navy drills in the Gulf of Oman yesterday.
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA)
Café Milano, the upscale Italian restaurant in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, was the scene of an important dinner on Monday night: Mossad chief Yossi Cohen sat down to eat with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the two were spotted by journalists.
Cohen is a frequent visitor to DC. Meeting Pompeo – who for the first 15 months of the Trump administration served as CIA director – is not that unusual. What was unusual was the timing.
On Tuesday, the morning after the two had dinner, Pompeo gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, laying out a new indictment against Iran that he claimed was the new home base for al-Qaeda. “They are partners in terrorism, partners in hate,” Pompeo said. “This axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland itself.”
That night, Israeli aircraft allegedly attacked Iranian warehouses in northeast Syria, near the border with Iraq. According to reports, nearly 60 people were killed, likely members of pro-Iranian militias.
Did Pompeo and Cohen discuss the planned airstrike at their dinner? We don’t know for sure, but the timing of their meeting and the subsequent airstrike definitely seems like something the two would have discussed, and indeed, one report cited a senior US intelligence official saying the airstrikes in eastern Syria were carried out with intelligence provided by the US.
The location of the airstrikes contributes to that theory. Al Bukamal is an area about 10 km from the border with Iraq, where America still retains a presence. Israeli activity near the border would need to be coordinated with the US.
The Pompeo declaration and the alleged Israeli attack come amid heightened tensions in the Middle East, as well as speculation and chatter that President Donald Trump, in his final days in office, might decide to act against Iran and its nuclear program. While the prospect seems extremely unlikely given the five days left to Inauguration Day, very little can be assumed about this president and his administration.
Mixed in with the recent flyovers of the Persian Gulf by strategic US B-52 bombers, the presence in the area of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, a series of visits to Israel by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Iran’s decision to up its enrichment of uranium, and the general heightened state of alert on the one-year anniversary this month of the American assassination of Qasem Soleimani – there is reason to think that something might be brewing.
In Israel, there is skepticism that anything will happen by Wednesday, although a miscalculation – possibly along the northern border or in the aftermath of a bombing in Syria – is always possible. A lot will depend on Iran and what it wants. IDF intelligence does indicate an Iranian desire to retaliate for the killing of both Soleimani and more recently the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. At the same time, a conflict initiated by Iran would not be looked at kindly in Washington, even if the new administration leans more favorably toward Tehran. That is a reason to hold off on taking action, especially in the weeks ahead.
WHILE THERE were some who read Pompeo’s speech on the al-Qaeda–Iran connection as an attempt to create a justification for an attack – like what the Bush administration did with Iraq after 9/11 – what is more likely is that the outgoing secretary of state is trying to present a harsh indictment of Iran before leaving office, to make it more difficult for the Biden administration to simply slide back into the JCPOA. As Pompeo told The Jerusalem Post in an interview this week, we are not in 2015 anymore.
The entire dynamic is going to change by this Wednesday. While there is little room to question Biden’s bona fides when it comes to his pro-Israel credentials, he is nevertheless bringing together the old band that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed with under Barack Obama: Biden is surrounding himself with the exact team that crafted the 2015 nuclear deal and still believe in it.
John Kerry, Jake Sullivan, William Burns, Samantha Power, and others will soon be sitting as principals on the National Security Council, and all will be highly influential in the direction the new president decides to take. This is one of the reasons Cohen is remaining in office for another six months. Though his term was originally supposed to end this month and the prime minister has already selected his successor, Cohen will remain in office to try to help Israel align smoothly with the new administration.
Cohen was Netanyahu’s national security adviser between 2013 and 2016 when he worked closely with Susan Rice - who is also returning to the White House albeit in a domestic role – as well as with Sullivan and Kerry. While they are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on matters like Iran, Jerusalem believes there is a benefit in having a familiar face reach out, at least in the beginning.
IRAN’S RECENT decision to up its enrichment of uranium to 20% is looked at in Israel as an Iranian attempt to move the goalpost and gain ground now that it can then cede in new talks with the Biden administration, and in this way not lose what is important to Tehran: its infrastructure and key strategic assets. In other words, it will “surrender” the increase in enrichment, but hold on to what it really wants.
Iran’s continued advancement creates a sense of urgency that plays into Iran’s interests. The ayatollahs want to see the economic sanctions lifted, and want Biden to open a dialogue as quickly as possible. Announcements of increased uranium enrichment and new IAEA reports of additional Iranian violations help transmit that sense of urgency.
Netanyahu is also making his own contribution with regular threats against Iran, including a headline in Yisrael Hayom on Thursday that the IDF has started drafting operational plans against the Islamic Republic. While the story is not new – Israel has had operational plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities for over a decade, at least – the story did make two contributions: it added pressure to the incoming administration, while at the same time scaring Israeli voters who are heading to the polls in 68 days.
Israel understands that the US relationship is going to change. It knows that what took place under Trump will no longer be the same. Nevertheless, it is trying to influence the process now to get Biden, Blinken and Sullivan to take Israel’s security needs into account.
This is a departure from 2015, when Netanyahu decided to fight the deal that Obama was forging. This time, at least for now, it seems that he wants to first try and work with the new administration before entering on a collision course, even if a fight is so tempting politically since a clash with an administration that can be portrayed as being tough against Israel could help him win votes.
This is what makes this situation so complicated and risky. Like everything else over the last two years including now, what Israel does needs to be viewed – sadly – through a political prism.
Netanyahu’s advisers know that when the public feels that Israel is threatened, people tend to rally behind the familiar candidate who gives off a feeling of security. Is that enough of an incentive to pick a fight with the new administration over Iran, or even settlement construction? We have to hope not.
This is where Israel’s alleged airstrike in Syria fits in. According to reports, Israel has attacked Syria at least four times in the last three weeks, a definite uptick. While on one hand this is a continuation of Israel’s ongoing effort to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria that we have seen over the last few years, it is also a signal to the Biden administration that this is how Israel works today – and don’t get any ideas in your head to try to get Israel to stop.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi made that clear during his talks with Milley last month. Israel, the IDF chief said, will keep attacking Iran in Syria, and will not stop until Iran is out of the country.
In other words, just like the Iranians are setting new goalposts ahead of their engagement with Biden, Israel is doing likewise. How Biden maneuvers it is what everyone is waiting to see.