US President Donald Trump is spinning the Middle East round on a new axis. The military steps the US took in Syria in late April and early May with its British, French and Israel allies, Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord with Iran and the US embassy move to Jerusalem are all pieces of his revamped regional design. Far from quitting the Middle East, Trump is making the US a lead actor, while assigning Israel the role of leading military power – even while it is beset by enemies and perils.
Not many Israelis have noticed this reversal in their nation’s position in the region, concerned as they are with the war threats coming from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah in Lebanon, and their struggle to rein in the Palestinian Hamas’ belligerence in Gaza. Israel is smarting under a painful international and media backlash for causing 60 Palestinian deaths in one day, while thwarting a Hamas invasion from the Gaza Strip. But now, Hamas’ tactics are beginning to look like a rearguard action instigated by Tehran while the Islamic Republic is being roughly pushed off the regional pedestal gained in 2015 from Barack Obama for signing a nuclear accord.
On Tuesday, May 15, the day after the ceremony dedicating the new US embassy in Jerusalem, the Treasury in Washington rolled out a fresh load of sanctions. They targeted central bank’s governor Valiollah Seif, and the assistant director of the bank’s international department Ali Tarzali, accusing them of “providing support for terrorist activities.” The bank officials were called “specially designated global terrorists” for allegedly helping the Revolutionary Guard Corps/Quds Force support Hezbollah. Ali Tarzali was also deemed to have helped funnel millions of Quds Force dollars to the terror organization.
These punishments found the ayatollahs already contending with growing isolation and scrabbling to keep a population of 80 million supplied with food and other essentials from coffers cleaned out by the escalating US sanctions. The new penalties aggravated their plight, by further devaluing the Iranian rial and cutting in half Iran’s 2.6 million barrels per day of oil, its main export and source of foreign revenue. Those steps have already pushed up the price of oil to $71 bpd. After crippling the central bank’s capacity to trade in dollars, the Trump administration plans to sanction Iranian shipping, including tankers and the foreign tankers calling at Iranian ports. This prospect is pushing the rial into steeper slid against the dollar and the euro. More than half of the funding sources for supporting Tehran’s military contingents in Syria, Iraq and Yemen were wiped out in a week.
President Trump is therefore conducting a strategic and economic war on the Islamic Republic of Iran, while making Israel its military spearhead. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources estimate that Israel will some time soon launch small ground operations in Syria and Lebanon to demolish the military infrastructure – and possibly also the ballistic and air defense missiles stockpiled there by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, its Shiite militias and Hizballah. This campaign may be coupled with US and Saudi special forces striking Iranian missile stores in Yemen. These pinpointed raids will aim to lift the dire threats looming over the heads of Israel and Saudi Arabia, but also meet an overriding strategic purpose. Washington hopes the European powers, Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Theresa May, will take the following message to heart: If they succeed in extracting concessions from Tehran on uranium enrichment and ballistic missiles, the White House door is open for negotiations on a new nuclear deal with Tehran. But for failure, there will be consequences, which are graphically demonstrated by systematic military operations to eradicate every last Iranian foothold in the Middle East.
Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, who is a senior partner of this US-Israeli project, grasped the guiding principle. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, a Saudi journalist close to MbS, wrote an article under the caption: The Rise of Israel in the Region in the Monday, May 14 issue of the London- based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat:
“As [US] sanctions [on Iran] are activated, and the pressure on Iran increases. Israel will have a new regional role it has never previously played,” he wrote. “In the past, Israel’s activities were confined to its own security against wars and confrontations with neighboring countries. But it is now likely to take on a new role – that of a police force that monitors and holds Iran accountable.”
Tehran was still this week pursuing its standard practice of sending a proxy, Hamas, to terrorize Israel. The IDF reacted in a manner better suited to a face-to-face contest directly with Iran.
Moscow will not have missed the regional power somersault. President Vladimir Putin is therefore staying close to the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. More about their extraordinary relationship in a separate article in this issue.