Trump and Netanyahu Align in “Maximum Pressure” Strategy for Containing Iran
A carefully choreographed strategy for containing Iran, quelling its expansionist designs in the Middle East and aborting its nuclear bomb aspirations, was launched this week in two places. In Washington, President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed tough sanctions, while on the Golan and Syria, Iran and Israel exchanged blows. The two events, heavily loaded with intelligence and military input, were but the first act of a new co-production, which augurs major repercussions for the ayatollahs in Tehran and the region at large.
For 17 months Trump’s Iran strategy was grounded by dissent among the president’s top aides – the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser and the various rival intelligence agencies. It was only when Mike Pompeo took over at the State Department and John Bolton the post of national security adviser, that the White House and intelligence players set their squabbles aside and came together for a cooperative effort to promote the president’s Iran policy. When they all coalesced, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the generals swallowed their objections to Trump’s plans to take the US out of the nuclear deal and block Iran’s takeover of Syria and lined up with the boss.
A four-man team set out the first steps: The American side was led by Pompeo, who started work on the Iranian issue when still director of the CIA. In addition to agency staffers, he chose as his second in command Andrew Peek, a Trump loyalist with a background in military intelligence, who was appointed last year as deputy US assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran. Peek gained valuable backing from John Bolton who joined the White House on April 9. Wholeheartedly behind withdrawal from the nuclear pact, Peek confirmed in interviews Wednesday that the Trump administration and the Israeli government “were closely coordinating their moves in the weeks leading up to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” Peek also explained that the administration wants to see “improvements in Iran’s behavior not just on the nuclear issue,” but also on other regional issues, as part of a potential deal that will replace the 2015 nuclear agreement.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took charge in person of the team assigned to working with the Americans. He was present at all the conferences and decisions, whether strategic or operational, for unveiling Act One of the conjoined strategy for Iran. His team associates are Mossad Director Yossie Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Shabbat. The IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot, who like Mattis and Gen. Joseph Danford, disagreed with Netanyahu on matters of principle, had no option but to fall into line behind the prime minister on the joint US-Israeli operation for dealing with Iran.
On April 30, Netanyahu fired the partnership’s opening shot in his public revelation of the Mossad’s coup in absconding with Iran’s top-secret Atomic Archive from its secured hiding-place in the heart of Tehran and smuggling the voluminous package out to Israel. (How this was achieved was described in DEBKA Weekly 799 of May 4.)
This sensation came on the heels of an Israeli Air Force F-15 air strike on Iranian command posts near Hama and Aleppo, the third in a series of similar attacks on Feb. 10 and April 9. No authoritative information on those attacks was released by the US, Russia, Syria or Iran – and certainly not admitted by Israel. However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources can confirm that these operations were a lot more extensive than their depiction by the media. In fact, they went far towards wiping out the strategic infrastructure Iran is planting in Syria, including newly imported radar networks, ground-to-air missiles and surface missiles. In the air strike on Hama alone, 100 missiles were destroyed. The number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards casualties was likely a lot higher that reported.
These strikes, apart from damaging Iran’s foothold in Iran, was also an attempt to draw Iran into a military rejoinder against a target inside Israel to justify a massive US-Israeli offensive for demolishing the forces Iran and allies had deployed in Syria. But the Iranians avoided that trap and sat on their hands for a while until it suited them.
Neither were they drawn by Israel’s campaign of disinformation, alleging that Iran was momentarily on the brink of wreaking revenge for the Israeli attack on the Revolutionary Guards command post at the Syrian T-4 air base, in which seven members of its aerospace division were killed.
Iranian caution led the Israelis and Americans to revise their plan of action. Surprising news coming from Pyongyang was also factored into their considerations.
While Washington media in late April and early May reported that plans for the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un had run into obstacles, the reverse was true. Pompeo on his first visit to the North Korean capital returned with the news that Kim was eager to go forward with the summit with all possible speed.
This shortened timeline led President Trump to bring forward his announcement on Iran’s nuclear deal from May 12 to May 8. It was delivered to the accompaniment of new Western and Israeli deployments in and around Syria. France and the UK flew two fighter squadrons to US bases in and around Syria and intelligence interaction between the US and Israel tightened. US intelligence, its air force and navy took the skies for surveillance of the slightest movements in a critical strip of the eastern Mediterranean – between Alexandretta on the Turkish-Syrian border, along the shores of Syria and Lebanon and up to the Israeli port of Haifa. Their presence overhead was a tangible warning to the Russian air units in their Syrian bases not to interfere.
On Monday, May 7, DEBKA’s military sources reported that the IDF had been placed on war preparedness, positioned air and missile defense batteries on the Golan border with Syria and ordered a selective callup of reserve units. Just five minutes before President Trump started telling the world the next day that the US was withdrawing from the nuclear deal, the IDF ordered Golan residents to open their bomb shelters after sightings of Iranian units getting ready to launch a missile attack from across the border. As Trump’s speech wound down, reports came in from Damascus of an Israeli airborne missile attack on Iranian command center and hangars holding missiles south of Damascus.
The synchrony of the two events lent Trump’s statement a military dimension and served notice to Moscow that on the Iran issue the US and Israel are walking in lockstep.
The next day, May 9, Netanyahu arrived in Moscow and joined President Vladimir Putin as his guest of honor at the annual parade that marks Nazi Germany’s defeat. The subject uppermost in both their minds was the Russian ally, Iran’s drive for a military platform in Syria and the sharp conflict of interests it presented between the Russian president and his warmly welcomed Israeli guest.