Trump’s Anti-Iranian Policy Not Enough for Neocons and Other Israelophiles

Trump’s Anti-Iranian Policy Not Enough for Neocons and Other Israelophiles

Neocons (L to R) Lee Smith, Senior Editor, The Weekly Standard; Ray TakeyhFellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Hillel Fradkin, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute; Michael Doran, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution.

American neocons and Israelophiles look not only to block Iran’s nuclear capabilities but to disable its economy completely. The goal: The U.S. must keep Iran militarily and economically weak, so that it cannot challenge Israeli dominance of the region. A free Kurdistan in Iraq is also considered in Israel’s interests, as it weakens Iran’s potential in the region.
The neocons’ pro-Israel policies cause the U.S. to be involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East, which alienates potential friends and makes Israel’s enemies the enemies of the U.S. – a burden the U.S. can ill afford given its extensive global military commitments and its ever- growing expenditures on social welfare matters as its population ages.

Stephen J. Sniegoski, the Unz Review

Israel has considered Iran to be Israel’s major enemy since the end of the Gulf War of 1991. But why, it might be asked, did the neocons promote war with Iraq, rather than Iran, in 2003? The neocons were in accord with Israeli thinking but planned to begin with Saddam’s Iraq, the elimination of which, they believed, would pave the way for regime change elsewhere in the Middle East. This especially included Iran, which bordered Iraq. Despite all-out efforts by the neocons to have the U.S. attack Iran after occupying Iraq, this failed to materialize, and later President Obama moved in the opposite direction, overriding strong opposition from Israel and its American supporters, and made a deal with Iran that precluded its development of a nuclear weapon, which had been the professed main concern of Israel.

Now with the Islamic State’s significant loss of territory, which the U.S. helped to bring about, Israel and its American supporters are expressing deep concern that the void left by its defeat is being filled by Iran, which supposedly threatens to attain regional hegemony. President Trump, who takes a very negative view of the nuclear deal and describes Iran as a terrorist state, is promoting a tougher line toward Iran. However, Israel and its American myrmidons see Trump’s hard-line position as insufficient, contending that much more must be done to effectively counter the Iranian threat.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) and IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari (R) attend the 21st Nationwide Assembly of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Commanders in Tehran, Iran on September 15, 2015.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. This puts it on the same level as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.[1] And Trump followed up this action by calling for stiffer sanctions against Iran. All this implies that the American goal is not only to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability but also to prevent it from developing a productive economy, which might enable it to establish a stronger conventional military force and be more effective in arming its allies.

Handicapping Iran’s economy

As Joshua Landis, a professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, contends: “The renewed US offensive against Iran is not so much about its nuclear capability or even its missile program; it is about Iran rollback and hobbling its economy.

“Ever since President Obama signed the Iran agreement, howls of disapproval were heard from both Israel and a number of Gulf States, which were not dismayed so much at the sunset clause on Iran’s nuclear refinement as they were at Iran’s escape from economic sanctions. The real danger, in their eyes, is Iran’s economic break out and potential success. The more money Iran has, the more it can consolidate the success of its Shiite allies in the region: Hezbollah, the Syrian government and the Iraqi government.

“President Trump’s latest announcement follows increased U.S. sanctions on both Hezbollah and Syria, as well as increased aid to Syria’s Kurds in their effort to expand territorially. It is the latest in a policy of rollback that has been developing for some time. It is a policy that both Saudi Arabia and Israel have been pushing on Trump. . . . It represents the opposite of Obama’s effort at balancing Sunnis and Shiites along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention his effort to distance the U.S., ever so slightly, from Israel.”[2]

It’s all about Israel

However, for many supporters of Israel, to differ “slightly” from Israel’s position toward Iran is to differ too much.

John Hannah, who served as Vice President Cheney’s national security advisor, and who is now a senior fellow at the neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies– which is heavily funded by pro-Israeli billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer–contends that “[t]here’s not much doubt about what the Iranians are up to. As the U.S.-backed coalition drives the Islamic State from its remaining strongholds, forces led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and backed by Russian air power — the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias — are racing to fill the void, securing strategic terrain along the Iraq-Syria border and a land bridge stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. From there, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) will seek over time to establish a series of ground, air, and naval bases across the Middle East’s northern tier, dramatically escalating its ability to threaten key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and especially Israel.”[3] Note the special concern for Israel.

New Persian Empire?

While neocon Max Boot, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a blogger for Commentary magazine, holds that it would be counterproductive to end the nuclear deal with Iran, he warns that “[t]he danger is that by dismantling the Islamic State — as U.S. allies are currently on the verge of doing in both Syria and Iraq — they will simply create more space for Iran to dominate. The Trump administration is unwittingly abetting this Iranian power grab by ending CIA aid to moderate Syrian rebels and by pulling U.S. troops out of an important outpost in southern Syria near the border with Iraq, effectively ceding that ground to Iranian-backed militias. Iran is now on the verge of controlling a land route running all the way from Tehran to Beirut—the new Persian Empire.”[4]

Fred Kagan, of the neocon American Enterprise Institute, similarly writes: “Iran’s military position beyond its borders is stronger than it has ever been in modern times. Iranian conventional ground forces operate in Syria, controlling many tens of thousands of proxy militias drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanese Hezbollah. Tehran has solidified its coalition with Moscow and is perfecting techniques for integrating Russian airpower into Iranian-controlled ground operations.

Israel says it fears an emerging “land bridge” from Tehran to Beirut, enabling Syria and Hezbollah to surround Israel, heavily armed by Iran.

“The United States has largely ignored the expansion of Iranian military forces and proxies in Syria while focusing on driving ISIS from Raqqa and Mosul. With that goal accomplished, the administration must correct the fatal contradiction in American policy toward Iran.”[5]

Where Israel and its supporters once spoke about the dangerous Shiite Crescent, which stretched from Iran to Syria, they now ominously refer to an emerging land bridge from Tehran, via Baghdad and Damascus, to Beirut. Key segments of this land route had been controlled by ISIS, which inhibited long-distance travel. Thus, Iran had to rely largely on much more difficult and expensive air transport to provide supplies to Syria. Israel fears that by making use of the land bridge, Iran and its proxies, Syria and Hezbollah, will be entrenched on its border and heavily armed.[6]

The neocon Hudson Institute, whose senior vice president is neocon Lewis (Scooter) Libby[7], devoted a conference on September 29, 2017 to the “land bridge” issue: “Iran’s Land Bridge: Countering a Growing Influence in the Middle East.” The online description of the conference read: “The threat of an Iranian land bridge through Iraq and Syria—measured both in established influence and a physical presence—has become a reality. Iran’s goal for regional hegemony, a strategic plan more than three decades in the making, has come to fruition. With such a route in place, Iran can increase logistical and operational support to Lebanese Hezbollah and other IRGC-directed proxies. Is it possible to disrupt this route, and can it be done without provoking further conflict?”[8]

Among the panelists with neocon connections were Hillel Fradkin, a specialist in Islamic studies and a noted Straussian[9] scholar based at the Hudson Institute; Ilan Berman, Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, who edits the Journal of International Security Affairs, the flagship publication of the neoconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA); and Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute, who was a former intelligence advisor to General David Petraeus.

Kurdistan a win for Israel

Looking to take the offensive, Israel and its American supporters are re-emphasizing a longtime Israeli strategy to combat the Jewish state’s regional enemies by supporting the Kurds.[10] In keeping with recent pro-Israeli policy in the Middle East, Israel would remain in the background while the United States would take the warlike measures. Kurdistan could provide a valuable base for Israel from which to penetrate the Iranian border and stir up trouble by working with dissident ethnic and political elements in the country. Moreover, Kurdistan could provide Israel with a source of oil which it cannot obtain from other Middle East oil-producing states.

Kurds demonstrate for independence in Iraq

The Kurds pushed a referendum in September which garnered overwhelming support from the Kurdish population not only in areas officially under Kurdish control, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), but also in adjoining areas outside KRG boundaries, most importantly the Kirkuk area, which is the center for oil production. This overwhelming electoral victory emboldened the Kurds to declare independence. Israel was the first and only country so far to recognize Kurdish independence, and the American supporters of Israel wanted the U.S. to do likewise, but the official position of the U.S. government continues to be the maintenance of a unified Iraq.

“Kurdish independence would be a win for America”

Jonathan S. Tobin, senior online editor of the neocon Commentary magazine wrote an article titled: “Kurdish independence would be a win for America.” While giving credit to Trump for recognizing that Iran is America’s enemy and thus opposing the continuation of the allegedly pro-Iranian nuclear deal, Tobin contended that “complicating matters is that Trump’s desire for better relations with Moscow has led him to follow Obama’s lead and acquiesce to giving Russia’s Iranian partners a free hand in Syria. That has created a basic contradiction in his foreign policy that he has failed to resolve.” Writing shortly before the Iraqi national government’s threat of force caused the Kurdish army to evacuate Kirkuk, Tobin argued that a “policy switch that encourages the Kurds could throw a monkey wrench into Iran’s plans to use its clients in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Hamas state in Gaza to create a sphere of influence that endangers America’s Arab allies and threatens Israel with a three-front war at any time of Iran’s choosing.” He maintained that “there would be no need for a commitment of US forces or even for Washington to guarantee Kurdish independence. The Kurds have proved they can defend themselves. All America needs to do is to place no obstacles in their path and follow through on administration promises to continue aid to the Kurds.”

Tobin’s view of Kurdish military prowess became highly questionable after the Kurdish forces fled Kirkuk, though this does not necessarily mean that they would not be capable of protecting the area officially under the control of the KRG. He concluded his article: “The Kurds have been loyal allies in our struggles against terror. Backing their independence is the right thing to do. But it is also the smart play in America’s ongoing struggle to keep the Iranians from making the Middle East their playground. Rather than listen to those urging him to betray them, Trump should embrace the chance the Kurds are offering him to hamstring Tehran at little cost to the United States.”[11]

In an article in the neocon Weekly Standard, “A Kurdish State is in America’s Interest—and the Region’s, Too,” Dominic Green wrote: “Iraqi Kurdistan is democratic, egalitarian, tolerant of religious minorities, a proven bulwark against ISIS, and an obvious bulwark against the imperial ambitions of Iran. The rest of Iraq is a disaster. The failed state-building that followed the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 has bequeathed a corrupt Iranian satrapy and a leaking ulcer of Sunni fanaticism.”[12] This assessment of Iraq reached the height of irony since the Weekly Standard has been filled by writers who had contended that if Iraq were freed from Saddam Hussein’s rule, it would be a democratic country and serve as an exemplar for the rest of the Middle East.

After the Kurdish troops were forced out of Kirkuk by Iranian-backed Iraqi forces in October 2017, Israel’s supporters would focus on the role of Iran in this development even though there were other significant factors: the U.S. had provided the Iraqi national army with far better weaponry than the Kurds and the Iraqi central government was obviously not going to give up a major oil-producing area. Furthermore, Kurdish political groups were divided over defending Kirkuk with the second most important Kurdish political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), refusing to resist the takeover.

Presenting the Israelophilic narrative, Jonathan Spyer, Director of the Rubin Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, in Israel and a fellow at the neocon Middle East Forum[13] wrote that the failure of the U.S. to support the Kurds “does not, to put it mildly, tally with the President’s condemnation in his speech this past week of Iran’s ‘continuing aggression in the Middle East.’ It remains to be seen if anything of real consequence in policy terms will emerge from the President’s stated views. For the moment, at least, the gap between word and deed seems glaring.”[14]

“Trump should protect Kurds with force if needed”

Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Washington Times, in an October 24 article in that newspaper, “The Kurdish test,” opined: “By orchestrating the taking of Kirkuk, Iran’s rulers are testing Mr. Trump. They are betting that, despite the tough talk, he won’t have the stomach to do what is necessary to frustrate their neo-imperialist ambitions.

“In the end, they think he will attempt to appease and accommodate them as did President Obama. Mr. Trump reinforced that conviction when, in response to the fighting in Kirkuk, he said his administration was ‘not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.’

“It’s essential that Mr. Trump make clear that further threats to the security and integrity of the Kurdish region will not be countenanced, that any advance on Erbil will be met with stiff sanctions and, if necessary, force. The U.S. should insist that all military operations cease immediately and that negotiations between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders commence under American auspices.

“Anything less will be interpreted as acquiescence to the Islamic republic’s drive to impose its brand of jihadism and Islamism on its neighbors and, in due time, far beyond.”[15]

“The Reagan Way”

Resurfacing is the neoconservative idea of “regime change” that helped to fuel the 2003 war on Iraq. Since that plan led to chaos, the example being used is the Soviet Union not Iraq. In their Washington Post article “How Trump can help cripple the Iranian regime,” Neocon Reuel Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, opined that “the Islamist regime resembles the Soviet Union of the 1970s—an exhausted entity incapable of reforming itself while drowning in corruption and bent on costly imperialism.” The authors asserted that “[i]f Washington were serious about doing to Iran what it helped to do to the U.S.S.R, it would seek to weaken the theocracy by pressing it on all fronts.” This would entail “crippling sanctions” that “punish the regime for its human-rights abuses” and demanding “the release of all those languishing in prison since the [2009] Green Revolt.” The United States effort against Iran “will be costly and will entail the use of more American troops in both Syria and Iraq,” though the authors do not specify what the American troops would actually need to do. They do state, however, that if the U.S. fails to take the steps outlined by their essay, “sectarian violence” will continue and Iran will ultimately gain nuclear capability.[16]

May 31, 1988: U.S. President Ronald Reagan, left, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in front of St. Basil’s cathedra, Red Square,l after talks in the Kremlin.

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote an article entitled, “Confront Iran the Reagan Way,” which was quite similar to the strategy described by Gerecht and Takeyh. He called for the United States to adopt a Reaganesque strategy of short-of-war offensive measures against Iran, which, Dubowitz held, had caused the Soviet Union’s demise.

A fundamental assumption about the Soviet Union, which Dubowitz applied to Iran, was that it was innately aggressive but also fragile. He maintained that an offensive strategy would involve eliminating Iran’s alleged “terrorist networks and influence operations” which meant “working closely with allied Sunni governments against Iranian subversion of their societies.” Central to the effort to destabilize Iran was the need to weaken Iran’s economy by sanctions, which should especially be directed at the IRGC. Dubowitz maintained that while “[c]onventional wisdom assumes that Iran has a stable government with a public united behind President Hassan Rouhani’s vision of incremental reform. In reality, the gap between the ruled and their Islamist rulers is expanding.”[17]

Warmonger supreme John Bolton also offered a potpourri of actions that the United States should take to bring down Iran. He suggested “imposing new sanctions”; supporting “Kurdish national aspirations, including Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria”; and providing “assistance to Balochis, Khuzestan Arabs, Kurds, and others — also to internal resistance among labor unions, students, and women’s groups.”[18]

Conclusion

As this essay has made apparent, the supporters of Israel believe that the Trump administration, even though better than Obama’s, has not done what is necessary to prevent Iran from achieving regional dominance. It is highly significant, however, that they do not provide actual substantive evidence to show that Iran poses a threat to the United States, the defense of which is the stated purpose of the American military. More than this, there is no real evidence to show that Iran threatens Israel’s survival.

Regarding Syria, Iran did not expand its geopolitical reach but only was able to retain it within its geopolitical orbit, the two countries being allies for almost four decades. And it should be added that the Assad government controls most but far from all of Syria, with other areas being controlled by Turkey, Syrian Kurds, U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and remnants of the Jihadi groups, all of which are hostile to Assad. It is far from certain that Assad will regain control of these areas.

Assad’s downfall would have been an egregious blow to the Islamic regime’s security, Iranian leaders referring to Syria as Iran’s “35th province.” Syria provides a crucial conduit for moving weapons, including short-range missiles, from Iran to Hezbollah, which provides a first line of defense against Israel. This is why Israel wanted Assad’s regime removed, or at least stripped of the ability to transport arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Assad’s Syria also provides a crucial ally against the surrounding Sunni states. If Sunni jihadists had gained control of Syria, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies could then put pressure on Iraq and even Iran itself since both countries have disgruntled ethnic, religious, and political groups.

And in regard to Iraq, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a majority rule government guaranteed that Shiites would dominate it. The Iraqi population was largely Arab whereas the Iranians were non-Arab, but Saddam Hussein’s discrimination against the Iraqi Shiites and the Sunni jihadists’ lethal hostility toward them caused the Iraqi Shiites to identify far more with members of their religion than with their ethnic group.

Israeli PM Netanyahu displays an illustration of his take on Iran’s nuclear ambitions at UN General Assembly, September 2012.

What bothers Israel is not that Iran has the military might to overwhelm it, but that Iran has the capability to defend itself to the extent that Israel could not bully it without serious consequences. Moreover, Iran is a major financial supporter of Hamas at the present time, this support being completely restored recently after a rupture caused by significant sections of Hamas backing Sunni jihadi groups against Assad. Such outside aid helps to perpetuate the Palestinian resistance. Without outside aid, both moral and financial, the Palestinians would be more apt to give up hope and acquiesce to whatever solution the Israeli government might offer.

The basic view of Israel’s supporters is that the U.S. must keep Iran militarily and economically weak, so that it cannot challenge, in any way, Israeli regional dominance. But is maintaining Israel’s current degree of regional dominance—dominance that Israel is not able or willing to maintain by itself in the absence of American forceful actions—beneficial to the United States? That is, do the benefits derived from this policy outweigh its negative effects? Most likely it is a burden to the United States, requiring it to be involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East, which alienates potential friends and makes Israel’s enemies the enemies of the U.S. And this is a burden that the U.S. can ill afford given its extensive global military commitments and its ever- growing expenditures on social welfare matters as its population ages.

Endnotes

[1] Hooman Majd, “Trump Is Inching Toward War With Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/11/trump-is-inching-toward-war-with-irans-revolutionary-guards/

[2] Joshua Landis, “Trump’s Iran Policy Is More about Rollback than Nukes,” Lobe Log, October 17, 2017, http://lobelog.com/trumps-iran-policy-is-more-about-rollback-than-nukes/

[3] John Hannah, “Does Trump Intend to Thwart Iran’s Ambitions in Syria?,” Foreign Policy, August 24, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/24/does-trump-intend-to-thwart-irans-ambitions-in-syria/

[4] Max Boot, “Keep the Iran Deal, Attack the Regime,” Foreign Policy, October 2, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/02/keep-the-iran-deal-attack-the-regime/

[5] Fred Kagan, “Trump faces a reckoning with Syria,” The Hill, October 22, 2017, http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/356568-america-faces-a-reckoning-with-syria

[6] Bassen Mroue and Qassim Abdul-Zahrea, The Times of Israel, “Iran extends reach with fight for land link to Mediterranean,” The Times of Israel, August 23,2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-extends-reach-with-fight-for-land-link-to-mediterranean/

[7] Libby was an important neocon who served as Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff.

[8] Hudson Institute, https://www.hudson.org/events/1462-iran-s-land-bridge-countering-a-growing-influence-in-the-middle-east92017

[9] Many significant neoconservatives were followers of political philosopher Leo Strauss, who was a strong supporter of Israel. These included Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, and Robert Kagan.

[10] Support for the Kurds was part of Israel’s periphery doctrine that originated during David Ben-Gurion’s leadership. This strategy meant that Israel would seek support from countries and groups that were farther away than its enemies, but shared the same enemies.

[11] Jonathan S. Tobin, \“Kurdish independence would be a win for America,” New York Post, September 15, 2017, http://nypost.com/2017/09/15/kurdish-independence-would-be-a-win-for-america/

[12] Dominic Green, “A Kurdish State is in America’s Interest—and the Region’s, Too,” The Weekly Standard, September 25, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/a-kurdish-state-is-in-americas-interestand-the-regions-too/article/2009812

[13] The president of the Middle East Forum is neocon Daniel Pipes.

[14] Jonathan Spyer, “The Fall of Kirkuk: Made in Iran,” The American Interest, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/10/18/fall-kirkuk-made-iran/

[15] Clifford May, “The Kurdish Test,” Washington Times, October 24, 2017, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/oct/24/kurdish-independence-may-depend-on-trumps-moves/

[16] Reuel Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, “How Trump can help cripple the Iranian regime,” Washington Post, April 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2017/04/07/how-trump-can-help-cripple-the-iranian-regime/?utm_term=.fcbbc2baaa46

[17] Mark Dubowitz, “Confront Iran the Reagan Way,” Wall Street Journal, July 4, 2017, http://www.defenddemocracy.org/media-hit/dubowitz-mark-confront-iran-the-reagan-way/

[18] John R. Bolton, “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” National Review, August 28, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450890/iran-nuclear-deal-exit-strategy-john-bolton-memo-trump