Is America ready for Iran’s plans in Jordan and Lebanon?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

America is safer and the world functions better when America is engaged throughout the world.

Every time America tries to pivot its foreign policy toward China and the Far East, the Middle East comes calling. If policy makers in Washington think it’s a binary choice between the challenges of China and North Korea vs. the recurring malignant variants of Shi’ite and Sunni Islamism undermining our national security interests, they are sadly mistaken.

America is safer and the world functions better when Americais engaged throughout the world, leading from strength and not from behind. Those who equate engagement with only military action mislead the conversation, as military strength leverages diplomacy, economic sanctions and other tools.

Predicting what’s next in the Middle East is a slippery slope. Who would have predicted the Khashoggi debacle or the 2011 Arab Winter? Yet, it is still imperative for the United States to invest the time and resources to analyze the likely possibilities of what’s coming next to create flexible strategies.

The US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute says, “One of the Department of Defense’s most important tools for strategy development under uncertainty is scenario planning… using alternative future scenarios to test prospective capabilities, concepts, and policies.”

We must therefore plan for how America will respond to the dangerous and inevitable situations brewing in both Lebanon and Jordan.

First, there is little doubt Israel will attack Iranian-controlled precision missile factories in Lebanon just as it did in Syria.

Second, the precarious Hashemite hold on Jordan due to the deteriorating economic conditions is being exploited by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which is trying to undermine King Abdullah’s government.

It shouldn’t have surprised analysts that Jordan decided to terminate an annex to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jordan’s Hashemite government is continually trying to placate opposition lawmakers and Islamists who rile up the disgruntled populace suffering from economic decline in part due to reduced subsidies imposed by the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

According to The Economist, “Bread prices nearly doubled and fuel taxes climbed 30%… with “just 3% of Jordanians pay(ing) income tax (and) the unemployment rate 18%.”

Add to that the Jordanian citizenry was raised on anti-Israel rhetoric for generations, not much different from the other Arab nation, Egypt, that has a peace treaty with Israel. It is not hard to find a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in your neighborhood Amman bookstore. The 2017 US State Department’s International Religious Freedom report documented profound Jordanian and Egyptian state-sponsored anti-semitism and anti-Israel bias.

Jordan has been fragile for years, a poor country inundated with refugees from Syria and Iraq, while its monarchy isconsidered illegitimate by many because it is a relic of a colonial past that is not indigenous to the area, while ruling over a resentful populace that is becoming more Islamist every year.

If Jordan appears to be in danger of collapsing, both Israel and America will put boots on the ground to save the Kingdom, which would be the third American war in the Middle East in 20 years.

Iran plans is to take advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood’s destabilization of Jordan and wait in the wings to undermine Jordan with the Iranian Popular Mobilization Units, Hezbollah and the Iranian Republican Guard ominously lurking on its borders as they create the architecture to invade Jordan from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria at a time of Iran’s choosing.

America must let King Abdullah know that if he wants to remain in power, placating the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood by distancing Jordan from Israel would more likely destabilize his regime first, opening the door for the Shi’ite Iranian threat from the north and east.

The King must be on guard as the reopening of the Nassib crossing between Syria and Jordan to bolster Jordan’s economy also opens it up to Iranian influence, as Iran today largely controls both Syria and Lebanon. King Abdullah should also remember his grandfather’s assassination as well as the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was by Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

As for Lebanon, what comes next there isn’t likely to be pretty.

After successful Israeli attacks in Syria on Iran’s precision missile factories, Iran has decided to transfer them to Hezbollah control in Lebanon while continuing to transfer game-changing GPS guidance systems. This is a red line for Israel, which will be forced to repeatedly attack Lebanon with each new transfer of weapons and identification of missile factories, with the possibility that this can lead to a regional conflagration involving both Russia and America.

As former Israeli head of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin told the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, “If Israel does not do anything… the price will be paid in war.”

America needs to be in close coordination with Israel on a daily basis about the ever-changing situation in Lebanon and see if Russia has any appetite to help avoid a war in Lebanon where instability could undermine Russian gains in advanced air and sea bases in Latakia province in Syria.

In the past, when Assad the father had designs on Jordan, the threat of Israeli or American intervention was enough to stop him. Now it is a totally different ballgame, with an Iran that may welcome a confrontation with Israel to destabilize the region and advance its hegemonic interests.

If the Middle East is not going to continually undermine America’s other priorities in the world, the US needs to have a strategy for the day after the Iranian Northern War begins and also figure out how to stabilize the weak Jordanian regime before it falls off the cliff.

The writer, the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill and The Forward.

Will Trump’s Iran Sanctions be Weaker than Obama’s?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

The intelligence community’s rationale for allowing Iran to remain part of SWIFT is that it allows them to track Iran’s finances internationally.

Last spring President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). He re-imposed sanctions on the revolutionary Islamist regime that had previously been given tens of billions of dollars in economic relief and was reintegrated within the international banking community. The sanctions come into full effect on November 4.

President Trump has been unwavering in his criticism of the JCPOA, claiming the deal didn’t deliver any of its promised benefits – moderating Iran’s expansionist ambitions, restraining its missile development or terrorist sponsorship, improving its human rights record – while it continued threatening American allies in the region.

But is it possible that members of the president’s own administration could convince him to soften the impact of the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Much has to do with an internal fight within the administration between the intelligence community and Treasury on one side, and National Security Adviser John Bolton on the other.

The Treasury and the intelligence community are advocating for leniency on Iran and its European partners by allowing Iran to remain a part of the SWIFT international banking system, which allows Iranian banks to seamlessly exchange funds across the globe.

That the international community would even allow the world’s leading state sponsor of terror to be accepted in good standing in the world economic community is another story – one of naiveté, avarice and appeasement.

Bolstering Bolton on the other side are Trump’s years-long statements about imposing maximum economic pressure on Iran to create conditions for a better deal. Sixteen senators this summer warned Treasury about the dangers of excluding SWIFT sanctions.

Which brings us back to whether President Trump will re-impose a softer version of Obama-era sanctions on Iran by not incorporating SWIFT.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, “During the Obama era, SWIFT disconnected Iran due to sanctions threats… SWIFT leaders were in DC last week holding meetings with Trump administration officials to ensure that Iran retains access to the international banking system,” strengthening the Iranian economy and their European trading partners.

The intelligence community’s rationale for allowing Iran to remain part of SWIFT is that it allows them to track Iran’s finances internationally, providing vital intelligence, and if SWIFT is sanctioned it would weaken their ability to follow other bad international actors like Russian oligarchs.

This is not a strong argument, as Iran’s most egregious transactions will not enter the transparent SWIFT system. Iran and Hezbollah fuel the American opioid epidemic with a billion dollars a year of money-laundered profits that are outside the SWIFT system. In addition, as long as SWIFT only blocks transactions with Iran, the intelligence agencies can continue to monitor all other worldwide transactions.

WITH IRAN’S economy already reeling, some critics of re-imposing SWIFT sanctions fear Iran could become more dangerous and unpredictable, with claims that it could impede the flow of oil, gas and commerce in both Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, respectively.

Iranian-supported Yemeni Houthis have already attacked two Saudi tankers this year in Bab-el-Mandeb. However, China’s dependence on Iranian oil transported through the Strait of Hormuz, combined with Iran’s desire to strengthen relations with China, make that threat less likely.

But the most challenging threat against imposing SWIFT sanctions is from President Trump’s own Treasury Department under Steve Mnuchin, which is working overtime to help Iran remain in SWIFT. Mr. Mnuchin’s perspective is shaped by his Wall Street background, which sees any interference in global trading systems as a threat to the worldwide economic order, especially with the Europeans not on board this time around. They argue that Iran’s economy is already in tatters and that SWIFT sanctions would cause more harm than good.

The reality is that if Iran is allowed to remain in SWIFT, the much-promised maximum economic sanctions of the Trump presidency will be a hollow threat. If the goal is to further starve the Iranian economy – making its support of worldwide terrorism, hidden nuclear activities, human rights abuses, and missile development more painful to continue – then the benefit of including SWIFT outweighs the arguments against including SWIFT transactions.

According to Josh Rogin in The Washington Post, “There’s another great argument for cutting Iranian banks off SWIFT: It would hamper Iran’s ability to finance the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas… SWIFT’s own bylaws require it to prevent illegal financial activities – such as funding terrorism.”

Before the Iran agreement was implemented there was bipartisan consensus on imposing sanctions on Iran for its clandestine nuclear program.
However, after the agreement went into effect in 2016, any new sanctions on Iran were treated as a direct threat to president Obama’s legacy achievement, despite the administration’s promise that all non-nuclear sanctions were on the table. The issue has unfortunately become a political one, not what it should be, a discussion of what is in America’s best interest.

This month America unveiled its first new counter-terrorism report in seven years. Tops on the list was the Iranian threat. America’s national security interest is to rein in Iran. Without including SWIFT, that interest is undermined.
As President Trump’s Iran envoy Brian Hook said, “If talking to Iran kindly worked, we wouldn’t be in this position… we need to restore deterrence.”

The writer is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network (MEPIN) and regularly briefs members of the Senate and House and their foreign policy advisers. 

America Needs a Syria Policy to Avoid a Regional Conflagration

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions.

According to Steven Cook of the Council for Foreign Relations, “the Syrian war is over and America lost… Washington has proved either unable or unwilling to shape events in the Middle East… which is to say, it has abdicated its own influence.”

But is it too late or still in American interests to influence the endgame in Syria and beyond?

American foreign policy in Syria since 2014 has prioritized the defeat of ISIS, choosing to sideline the more important and challenging confrontation with Iran over its permanent entrenchment and expansionism in the region. Syria is just one theater of operation among many interconnected pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which includes Iraq and Lebanon, where all roads lead to a malevolent Iran.

But Syria is ground zero with its outcome still uncertain, still susceptible to American influence, and affecting all aspects of Iran’s quest for a Shi’ite corridor to the Mediterranean. America’s Syrian policy or lack of one reverberates throughout the region and the world.

The Trump administration has been saying all the right things about Iran’s malign influence on American security interests. The administration has put the world on notice that it is not business as usual and has taken tangible actions, including withdrawing from JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and re-imposing escalating sanctions against Iran and her proxies, in part because of its role in the Syrian civil war.

But the next crucial step for the administration is to articulate a longer term, more comprehensive policy with a less ad hoc approach in Syria. The goal is nothing less than a return of American leverage in the region to advance our interests. This is in direct contradistinction to the isolationist approach of Stephen Walt of Harvard who wrote in Foreign Policy that he would like to forge an alliance with socialists against American exceptionalism and outsized influence in the region. (This the same Walt who, with John Mearsheimer has been arguing that America is fooled by the “Israel lobby” into thinking Israel is an ally worth supporting.)

To advance American interests, the president will need to overcome his impulse to prematurely withdraw troops from Syria, as their presence is essential to prevent Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian base threatening Israel and Jordan, which would fly in the face of US President Donald Trump’s stated vision.

This is the lesson to have learned from former president Barack Obama’s disastrous premature withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq after the successful surge, which left Iran in the driver seat in today’s Iraqi politics, undermining American interests.

America must articulate its strategic goals and redlines to all the actors operating within the Syria theater, so miscalculations can be avoided and small problems won’t snowball into a significant escalation. The accidental Syrian downing of a Russian plane with blame ascribed to Israel is a case in point.

It was just a matter of time before Russia and Israel crossed paths in the crowded skies over Syria.

Without an American Syria policy, Russia can distance itself from cooperating with Israel without repercussions, while avoiding putting any pressure against Iran’s permanent presence in Syria, which they know crosses Israel’s existential redline.

Russia took notice when America did not utter a peep while Russia invaded Syria’s de-escalation zones in Daraa and Quneitra without paying any price. With a lack of an American policy on Syria, Russia feels free to threaten Israel, now offering to supply the advanced S-300 anti-missile system to the Assad regime.

An American Syria policy should not only make clear that Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets is in American interest, but be willing to enforce a no-fly zone over its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in the 40% of Syria they still control.

The downing of the Russian jet is just the tip of the iceberg for future game changing confrontations that threaten to bring the local war of Israeli preemptive attacks into a regional conflagration. The lack of an American policy and redlines contributes greatly to regional instability, while Israel is more isolated without an American plan for its interests in the Levant.

So what should be America’s Syria policy?

1. America will support its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in Syria. This does not mean any more boots on the ground, but does mean that America won’t leave Syria until Iran, and its proxies, the PMU’s (Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias) and Hezbollah are permanently gone. According to James Phillips and Luke Coffey writing for the Heritage Foundation.

“The pace of (US) withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground in eastern Syria, not on a pre-determined timetable.

2. America supports Israel’s objective to end any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. As the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s Assaf Orion, Anna Borshchevskaya and Matthew Levitt wrote, “So long as Iran and its agents – especially foreign fighters – are active in Syria, US policy should be to contain the Assad regime and oppose steps that would strengthen it.”

3. America’s goal is the complete disarmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon according to UNSC Resolution 1701, even if it is not realistic at the moment.

4. America considers Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, PMU’s, or any political entity controlled by Iran to be the equivalent of an Iranian presence, and will hold Iran responsible for any attacks on Americans or her allies.

5. Reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO, as this directly confronts Russian influence in Syria. However, all NATO members i.e., Turkey, must not integrate any non-NATO military systems into NATO defenses. NATO is still important, even if Turkey decides to commit suicide by aligning with Russia and Iran, and is forced from the alliance.

Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions. But the president must realize that the revolutionary Islamist entity of Iran will let its people starve before capitulating to the West.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry has told the Iranians that they should wait out this administration. Let’s leave aside how inappropriate this is for a former secretary of state. The Iranians do plan to wait this president out for a more compliant president, no matter how harshly present-day sanctions affect its people, and Iran will not leave Syria any time soon. That is why it is important to articulate a longterm American policy that the next administration will have a harder time distancing itself from.

America’s national interest is not isolationism. “Mission accomplished” in Syria may be generations away. America needs patience, something this president and every one before has shown little interest in. No less than American and Israeli security interests are at stake.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.

What should be done with UNRWA?

{Previously published by The Jerusalem Post} 

Hady Amr, former Obama State Department deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, wrote in The Hill that the administration’s defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) undermines a “cornerstone of America’s support for stability in the Middle East and flagship of our values to provide for the most vulnerable… UNRWA is so in-sync with our (American) values that American citizens directly donate millions of dollars to UNRWA.”

While it is true that UNRWA provides important health services to Palestinian civilians, Amr chooses not to comment about the State Department designated Hamas group’s infiltration of UNRWA facilities in Gaza, or UNRWA teachers glorifying terrorism, or UNRWA refusing to take off its rolls the two million Palestinians living as full citizens of Jordan. He also ignored a 2013 UN audit that found UNRWA vulnerable to “misappropriation, graft and corruption,” while a Newsweek op-ed in 2016 asked, “Why Are American’s Paying for (UNRWA) Antisemitic Textbooks?”

UNRWA considers Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza as stateless refugees, despite the fact that they are already living in the land the international community says will be their eventual state. The problem is that the Palestinians living in the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) and Gaza, as their “Mass March of Return” clearly states, consider themselves refugees from today’s Israel within the 1949 armistice line, demanding an unlimited right of return that UNRWA’s mission advocates for and which would effect the demographic destruction of Israel.

According to James Lindsey, UNRWA’s own general council from 2000 to 2007, “More than two-thirds of the registered refugees have moved out of refugee camps and into the general population of the countries or areas in which they live.” Yet UNRWA still adds “10,000 new fifth- and sixth-generation refugees to its lists per month” according to the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Stephen Rosen, writing in the Middle East Forum, said that the “‘Right of Return’ symbolized by UNRWA’s very existence, is a sacred issue to Palestinians.”

During a discussion last month with a current Middle East State Department official, I recommended that if you truly want to advance a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not perpetuate it, you need to change UNRWA’s mandate allowing every descendant of an original Palestinian refugee from 1946 to 1948 to claim an eternal refugee status.

What must be clearly differentiated, but too often is treated as one issue, are UNRWA’s definition of refugees, which is counterproductive to resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the important humanitarian aid it provides, which as Amr and many in the IDF and within the Israeli government believe, is an essential stabilizing force. Let’s leave aside that much of this is self-inflicted by Hamas rule in Gaza, and by 70 years of discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria

As happens so often with today’s hyperpolarized politics and Middle East analysis, the discussions about UNRWA are fraught with half-truths and historical revisionism.

According to a news article in the Washington Post, “Many UNRWA critics appear to believe incorrectly that UNHCR (the refugee agency for every other refugee in the world) does not recognize descendants of registered refugees as genuine refugees themselves. The two organizations have the same definition — giving assistance to those driven from their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence and to their descendants for as long as that status continues.”

This seems to be a half-truth. Although there are descendants of refugees other than Palestinians who are still counted as refugees, the vast majority of refugee populations throughout the world have decreasing populations of refugees over time, as the priority of UNHCR is to find a permanent home for the world’s refugees. Palestinians, on the other hand, have a perpetually growing refugee population, without a single descendant of a Palestinian refugee ever taken off the UNRWA roll.

Two million Palestinians have Jordanian citizenship but are still counted as full-fledged stateless refugees by UNRWA; they would not be considered refugees if they were part of UNHCR. These Palestinians have no “well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence.” In fact, Palestinians constitute the majority of the Jordanian population!

According to UNHCR, “Our ultimate goal is to find solutions that allow them to rebuild their lives. Many refugees cannot go home… UNHCR helps resettle refugees to a third country.”

UNRWA refuses to help any Palestinian resettle outside of Israel. It will only remove Palestinian refugee status voluntarily, which does not follow the UNHCR vision, but instead is in lockstep with the Palestinian Authority agenda that does not want a single Palestinian anywhere in the world taken off its census, which works directly against a resolution of the conflict. It is essential to those who wish to destroy the Jewish state that the “refugees” and their descendants not disappear from the news by becoming anything other than displaced persons, instead of living as citizens of Arab or other countries.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s office accused the Trump administration of “stripping millions of Palestinians of their refugee status” because it would negate the true agenda of the PA and Hamas, which can never accept a state of the Jewish people with full minority rights living in peace next to a totally Judenrein state of Palestine in today’s West Bank and Gaza.

If this weren’t the truth, then Abbas would have accepted the Israeli offer in 2008 for a Palestinian state on 100% of the territory with land swaps, east Jerusalem as its capital, and continued Muslim control of the Temple Mount.

There is also the hypocrisy of UN refugee agencies ignoring the millions of Jews descended from the 750,000 Jews who lived in Arab countries for millennia, who were expelled from their native lands in response to the creation of Israel.

Those Jews who had all their property confiscated by Arab governments aren’t counted by any UN agency, but an Arab migrant worker who came from outside the British Mandate area and happened to live for two years in Mandate Palestine between 1946 and 1948, is counted to this day as a refugee, as well as the hundreds of thousands of his descendants who are entitled to indefinite UNRWA services.

Emphasizing the absurdity and danger to American interests of continued funding of UNRWA without a change in its definition of refugees is indeed a step toward destabilizing the current unsustainable situation, a step away from funding the Islamist desire to destroy Israel, and a step toward a genuine peace.

Let the Palestinians have a normal economic life, exchanging productivity with their neighbors, including Israel, to everyone’s benefit, instead of maintaining a desolate state of war, propped up forever by foreign aid, with the corruption that it almost always entails. Palestinian “refugees” receive more aide than any other refugees in the world.

America can find another way to support legitimate humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians, while insisting on reform of their anti-Israel, anti-peace, anti-American educational system.

Alternatively, the international community could also simply demand that Hamas stop firing its rockets against Israeli civilians over the internationally recognized Gaza-Israeli border and stop attacking the very checkpoints that bring humanitarian aid into Gaza. Israel would then happily open its borders to trade, give humanitarian help, set up desalination plants and move toward an equitable final resolution.

The writer, director of the Middle East Political Information Network, regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill and The Forward.

What Palestinians Mean When They Talk About A ‘Two-State Solution’

{Previously Published by Forward.com}

At a recent campaign-style rally, President Donald Trump said that Israel is going to have to pay a “higher price” in future negotiations for his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Palestinians, he added, “will get something very good, because it’s their turn next. Let’s see what happens.” Whether this was an off-the-cuff remark or preparation before his long-anticipated grand strategy to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this or a future administration will again be pressuring the parties to accept its version of a two state solution.

To American ears, the meaning of “two states” is unambiguously straightforward. The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, to them, is a struggle between two indigenous peoples fighting over the same space of land in which they share a history. A fair solution, then, would be one in which Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and alongside it will exist a separate Palestinian State.

But in the Middle East, nothing is easily understood or obviously clear. American negotiators, many American supporters of Israel and Israelis themselves use the term “two states” believing its definition is self-explanatory and accepted by all parties — but this is far from the case.

To Palestinians on both sides of the green line, “two states” is a capitulation that would leave one small state, Palestine, for indigenous people, and one state, Israel, would be given to the oppressive foreign colonialists.

Shlomo Avineri, a well-respected Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, outlined this view in a 2015 column for Haaretz:

“According to the Palestinians’ view, this is not a conflict between two national movements but a conflict between one national movement (the Palestinian) and a colonial and imperialistic [sic] entity (Israel). According to this view, Israel will end like all colonial phenomena — it will perish and disappear. Moreover, according to the Palestinian view, the Jews are not a nation but a religious community, and as such not entitled to national self-determination which is, after all, a universal imperative.”

Of course, the natural conclusion of this view is that the American conception of “two states for two peoples” is not a fair or an acceptable solution. From my extensive experience speaking with Palestinian leaders and laymen alike, I have come to learn that the Palestinian version of the two state solution leaves no room for a Jewish state.

This year, I lead an in-depth seminar in Israel trying to understand what Palestinian citizens of Israel want in the 21st century.

To almost all Palestinian citizens of Israel I spoke with, from Arab mayors to teachers, a state of the Jewish people is illegitimate in their eyes; Zionism is a colonizing enterprise of Jews stealing Arab land. Judaism, to them, is exclusively a religion, without a legitimate civilizational or national aspirational component. They view the Jewish historical claim to the land as fictional and Zionism as racism.

Their idea of a fair “two state solution” is one completely Arab state in the West Bank and one democratic binational State of Israel that allows the right of return for descendants of Palestinian refugees. It is a “two state solution,” but not the one American Jews would recognize or Israel could survive.

I asked these Palestinian citizens of Israel if, were they to have every economic advantage Jewish Israelis have, even without performing any compulsory civil service, would they then consider Israel a legitimate democracy. Almost all said no: not until the Jewish star is removed from the flag, Hatikvah is no longer the national anthem and the right of return for Diaspora Jews to Israel is rescinded.

In 2011, Fatah Foreign Relations Chief Nabil Shaath was very clear: . He said, “the story of ‘two-states for two peoples’ means that there will be a Jewish people over there and a Palestinian people here. We will never accept this… we will never agree to a clause preventing the Palestinian refugees from returning to their country.”

Today in American politics, some candidates have abandoned any façade of a fair two state solution. The first Muslim American Congresswomen from Michigan, Rashida Tlaib, told Britain’s Channel 4 that she would “absolutely” vote against U.S. military aid to Israel, and declared that she believes in the ”one state” solution, i.e. the demographic destruction of Israel.

There is little doubt that future American administrations will re-attempt negotiations with the Israelis and Palestinians in hopes of achieving some form of a two-state solution. But it would be wise, before proceeding, to have both parties sign an agreement that at the end of the negotiations, one of those states must be the State of the Jewish people, with the final resolution including a signed end-of-conflict agreement that unambiguously states that 100% of all Palestinian claims to that state are settled.

The security of Israel, and the future of a Jewish state in the Middle East, depends on it.

Is it still possible to distance Iraq from Iran? 

Turkish-American relations are at an all-time low.

Last year, American Enterprise Institute scholar Ken Pollack testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, saying: “Every year since 2003, knowledgeable Americans have been warning that the current year is absolutely critical in Iraq. They have been right every time and 2018 will be no exception.”

With Turkish-American relations at an all-time low; President Erdogan in power until at least 2029; and Iranian expansionism extending into critical American areas of interest throughout the Middle East, the new reality requires an American effort to improve its problematic and fragile relationship with Iraq.

The aftermath of the Iraqi elections this spring were a punch in the face to American interests, especially after so much blood and treasure have been lost. America’s favored party, that of current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s came in third, while the anti-American Sadrist Party of Muqtada al Sadr and the Iranian supported Fatah Party gained the lion’s share of votes.

But no party in Iraq can govern without forming a coalition – and America may still have enough influence to marginalize Fatah, empower Prime Minister Abadi and even support Muqtada al Sadr, who although anti-Western is not a fan of Iranian influence. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Good news seemed to have arrived in early August when Abadi shocked both America and Iran by stating that although he thinks new US sanctions against Iran are a “strategic mistake… we [Iraq] will abide by them.” It seemed this was an opportunity not to be missed. At first there was reason for optimism as Voice of America reported that Iranian merchants claimed that Iraq was turning away Iranian goods.

On August 13, the pressure on Abadi from Iran and its minions within Iraq forced him to backtrack on his promise regarding American sanctions. The news headline from Al Jazeera read, “Iraqi PM walks back on commitment to US sanctions on Iran.”

But looking deeper, all is not lost and there remains a window of opportunity to advance American interests. What Abadi did say was that the sanctions were being “reviewed” and “we honestly have not made any decision.” He also did confirm that Iraq would abide and not use dollars to transact business with Tehran.

SO IS IT too late to help Iraq disentangle itself from growing Iranian control?

It would be naïve to believe that America could engineer a complete break in relations between the two Shi’ite nations. Not only do they share the same version of Islam, but Iran is also Iraq’s largest trading partner. Yet Iraq does not want to be dominated by Iran. This is where a new well-thought-out strategic policy could help Iraq create some distance from Iran, furthering American interests while stabilizing the region.

There may be an uphill climb convincing the Trump White House. Last year before John Bolton joined the administration, he said in The Wall Street Journal that it was against American interests to continue our military support of Iraq.

What should not be glossed over is that the Shi’ites of Iran, the majority of whom are Persian, are very different from the Shi’ites of Iraq who are Arab – no small difference. Shi’ite Iraqi Muslim leaders like the Grand Ayatollah Sistani remain religiously independent from the Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini, in contrast to Hezbollah’s Nasrallah in Lebanon, who follows Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of the jurist), compelling all Shi’ites to unquestioningly follow the Iranian Supreme Leader. This is why Hezbollah does not have an independent foreign policy, allowing Iran to exert far too much influence in Lebanon, both militarily and politically.

To help Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi fulfill his promise to uphold sanctions, America must creatively reach out to Iraq and see how we can help mitigate whatever economic damage Iraq will sustain from abiding by the sanctions we want to place on Iran.

One of the missed opportunities of American Middle East foreign policy post 9/11 was not appreciating the region’s fault lines other than the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in formulating strategies to advance American foreign policy interests. The sectarian divide is just one way to see the region, where interests sometimes outweigh ideology. Shi’ite Persian Iranians ally with Sunni Arab Hamas in their shared ambition to destroy Israel, which they both have been taught to believe resides on Islamic land.

FOR MANY in the post-Iraq invasion era, they see two Shi’ite majority countries that were politically divided by Saddam Hussein, where a minority ruled a Shi’ite majority country. Once Saddam was sent to the dustbin of history by the United States, many thought and feared the two nations would naturally gravitate together, despite American soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars sacrificed to liberate the Iraqi Shi’ite people from their Sunni Ba’ath tyrant.

At the height of Islamic State’s power in 2014, Iran saw an opportunity to exert control over Iraq. A weakened Iraq under the siege of ISIS accepted Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU’s) controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran then used the vanguard of these PMU’s to complete its land corridor to the Mediterranean, undermining American interests and allies, especially the Kurds in the North.

America needs a more pro-Western Iraq, especially with long-term ally Turkey crossing over to the dark side, and Iran and America on a collision course in the post-JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) era.

The US is considering creating an Arab/Sunni alliance – something like NATO – against Iran. Although the Iraqis are Arabs they are not Sunnis and would have zero interest in being involved with such an alliance. However, the more realistic goal to advance American interests is an Iraq that remains more neutral and less under Iranian influence.

Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has offered America a fleeting opportunity; it is up to us not to waste it.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the Director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.

What to do about EU’s Pathological Relationship with Hezbollah

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Europeans have criticized US President Donald Trump for distancing America from her traditional allies in NATO, while favoring his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After relying on America for protection for over 70 years since the end of World War II, Europe is “now more worried about an America withdrawing from the transatlantic relationship than an overbearing superpower”, according to Richard Wike writing in the Atlantic.

Yet when European financial interests were threatened last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized bipartisan congressional legislation that proposed increasing sanctions against Russia because it targeted the European- Russia Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in which German companies are invested.

The legislation toughened sanctions on Russia over its Ukrainian invasion. Mrs. Merkel’s doesn’t seem to realize that she lives in a glass house.

American critics of Europe have focused on European underfunding of their NATO obligation, spending under 2% of their GDP, below their promised commitment.
However equally as troubling to both Congress and the administration is Europe’s associations and protection of the American-designated terrorist organization Hezbollah that operates freely in Europe, raising funds while threatening American and allied interests. The Europeans stick their collective heads in the sand as multiple Hezbollah planned attacks on European soil have been foiled within the last few years.

European appeasement of Hezbollah begins and ends with their failure to designate its political wing as a terrorist organization, despite Hezbollah itself having no distinction between its terrorist and political entities.

For the past four decades Europe has had an unspoken arrangement with Arab terrorist organizations, that they won’t commit terror on their soil if they are allowed to raise funds and operate freely there.

Germany’s history of capitulating to terror is long and unflattering. Just one month after the Palestinian Black September massacre at the Munich Olympics, they released the remaining perpetrators of the attacks.

A Der Spiegel investigation of German government documents released forty years after the attacks said, “Despite the still-vivid images of masked terrorists on the balconies of the Olympic Village…there was already active but secret diplomatic communication between…
German representatives…talking to men like Abu Youssef, Ali Salameh and Amin al-Hindi, all of them masterminds of the Munich murders.”

In fact, Germany chose never to prosecute or even pursue the terrorists who murdered the unarmed Olympic athletes.

Today’s Hezbollah is yesterday’s Black September, except they are exponentially more powerful, literally control a country Lebanon, and are themselves directed controlled by the Iranian “supreme leader” and his Revolutionary Guards. According to the State Department, Iran is still designated as the number-one state sponsor of terrorism.

After the EU listed Hezbollah’s military but not its political wing as a terrorist entity in 2012, after they attacked a tourist bus in Bulgaria targeting Israeli civilians, the French foreign minister pledged, “there’s no question of accepting terrorist organizations in Europe.”

According to Mathew Levitt, a Washington Institute Counterterrorism and Intelligence expert, just three years after the attack “there is abundant evidence that Hezbollah is…engaging in terrorist activities in Europe.” Yet the EU continues to do business as usual with Hezbollah’s Iranian sponsors.

Far too many in Europe, especially Germany, fail to live up to their western values, favoring Iran over American interests, refusing to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization.

Just a few weeks ago, an Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was charged by German police with giving a high explosive bomb to an Iranian couple to detonate at an Iranian opposition rally outside of Paris.

How did the EU respond? According to Struan Stevenson writing in UPI, “ EU lawmakers on July 5 (one week later) approved plans for the European Investment Bank to do business with Iran… The EU appeasers seem to think that if you keep throwing steaks to the tiger it will become a vegetarian.”

So what needs to be done? America must fundamentally change its policy towards Lebanon and acknowledge the reality that differentiating Lebanon from Hezbollah at this point is as incoherent as differentiating the military and political wings of Hezbollah.

They are all one in the same, and America would be much more persuasive to Europe if it had a unified policy on Lebanon and Hezbollah.

Just as America viewed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega as a narco-terrorist in the 1980’s and acted decisively, Hezbollah’s leadership needs to be viewed through the same prism. Hezbollah funds their terrorism through drugs and money laundering in Europe and South America, directly fueling the cocaine trade into the United States.

That is a primary reason why America and Europe need both to call Hezbollah what it is, an enemy terrorist organization.

According to former Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor, “The moment it is classed as such, its bank accounts, businesses and finances would be treated as illegal, and heavily sanctioned. Its members would be placed on no-flight lists, and law-enforcement agencies can then use more effective tools. Hezbollah’s “free-trade zone” would officially be closed…Less money means fewer weapons.”

As Hezbollah expert Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies writes, in foreign policy, “Latin America is an indispensable theater of operations for the criminal networks that generate much of Hezbollah’s revenue. Paraguay hosts a significant and growing money laundering operation connected to Hezbollah in the Triple Frontier, where Paraguay intersects with Argentina and Brazil.”

There is bipartisan consensus in the House of Representatives with the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Ed Royce a Republican, and ranking member Elliot Engel a Democrat, co-authoring legislation sanctioning individuals and businesses that are the lifeblood supporting Hezbollah’s illicit operations.

As for Europe’s unsavory relationship with Hezbollah, just as the address to do anything in Syria is Moscow, the address to stop Hezbollah resides in Europe with Angela Merkel.

Merkel cannot plead ignorance. The German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution figured there were nearly 1000 Hezbollah operatives and 300 Hamas members actively working within Germany.

German diplomats have claimed that Germany is resisting the US demand to outlaw Hezbollah because it will hurt Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The rationale to defend Hezbollah is becoming more flimsy all the time.

To make the point absolutely clear that Europe has no interest in reigning in Hezbollah, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini, justifies engaging with a terrorist entity like Hezbollah, because it allows for constructive engagement. This is the same person who defends Iran and actively undermines American interests by promoting Iranian trade, despite the direct complicity of Iran and Hezbollah in their ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq to make way for a forced population transfer of Shi’ites controlled by Iran into Sunni areas, flying in the face of international law.

America needs to lead and demand that Europe will follow. As Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said, “This Administration will expose and disrupt Hizbollah and Iranian terror networks at every turn, including those with ties to the Central Bank of Iran.”

Your turn Chancellor Merkel.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, and The Forward.

Can Trump’s Peace Plan Avoid the Pitfalls of Previously Failed Negotiations? 

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Has the Kushner/Greenblatt peace initiative learned from the mistakes of previous negotiation efforts?

The long-awaited Trump peace plan to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict is finally ready for its unveiling in June, coincident with the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

American presidents for generations have been grasping for the elusive gold ring of a final solution to the conflict.

Whether out of a misguided belief that all the problems of the Middle East revolve around the conflict, or a sincere desire to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, American efforts more times than not have worsened the situation.

The failures have not lacked for effort, especially on the part of Bill Clinton and his inexhaustible determination at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001. Unfortunately, that failure laid the groundwork for the Second Intifada – the profound unintended consequence of which was to convince many Israelis who really believed in the possibilities of peace offered by the Oslo agreement that Israel will never have a Palestinian partner it can trust.

Has the Kushner/Greenblatt peace initiative learned from the mistakes of previous negotiation efforts? Can they offer a different course, perhaps incorporating the fleeting window of opportunity offered by the new confluence of interests between America, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, to move the negotiations forward? Here are some of the conventionally accepted wisdoms for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that should be avoided: 1. Believing this conflict is primarily territorial. If it were, the conflict would have been resolved as recently as 2007, when Israel offered 100% of the territory with land swaps and east Jerusalem as their capital, but was dismissed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

2. Believing the conflict is the key to unlocking the other problems of the Middle East. Even if Israel did not exist today, almost all of the Middle East’s problems from the 1400-year-old Sunni- Shi’ite divide to the quest for Iranian hegemony would still be raging.

3. Believing you can make peace without effectively addressing generations of fervent Arab incitement in their media and classrooms that says Israel has no legitimate right to exist in any territorial dimension, with no Jewish historical association to the land.

4. Believing America cannot be a fair intermediary unless it is a neutral negotiator. America can make the effort to be balanced in mediation, but the reality is that Israel is an indispensable security interest, and consistently since its inception, an ally of the United States.

5. Believing the Palestinians subscribe to the Western nation-state model, where in reality Palestinians identify themselves by clan and tribe.

6. Believing financial incentives are the primary lever to influence the Palestinians. It is certainly true in any final peace deal, billions of dollars may be paid the descendants of Palestinian refugees as compensation for not demanding a return to Israel proper, and none to the greater number of Jews who, at the same time, became refugees from Arab lands. But the ingrained Palestinian narrative to this day demands an unconditional return. Although ordinary Palestinians are one of the most subsidized people in the world, the Palestinian leadership’s primary grievance, the existence of Israel, will not be addressed simply by monetary compensation.

7. Believing this is the last opportunity to end the conflict. It is not.

President Abbas is in very poor health and anything he signs will be suspect the minute he passes on.

That is why any new peace initiative must include an “end-of-conflict agreement” as the agreed goal of all parties. Israel cannot be asked to make territorial concessions endangering its security, without knowing the result is to be such an agreement. If the Palestinians are unable give up all further claims, which is what an “end-of-conflict” agreement is, then Israel should only be asked to make modest concessions for a stable long-term ceasefire.

It is not in America’s interest to pressure Israel to give up large portions of territory, if the Palestinians are only, as in the past, looking to use this as a step to eventually conquer all of Israel.

This is something American negotiators – from Nixon/Rogers, to Bush/ Baker, to Clinton/Ross, to Bush/Rice, to Obama/Kerry – never understood and appreciated.

ANY SUCCESSFUL initiative will need to answer the following questions in order to achieve a true end-of-conflict agreement.

1. Can Israel accept a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem?

2. Can the Palestinians accept Israel’s minimal demands for a demilitarized state, no right-of-return, Israeli control of Jordan River Valley and control of airspace.

3. Does Israel have the will to remove tens of thousands of its citizens from the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) who live beyond the major settlement blocs and Jerusalem? 4. Has the peace plan been drafted to prescribe how to deal with contingencies that would set the treaty on fire? For instance, suppose there is a Hamas coup in the West Bank endangering not only Israel but also the existence of Jordan. The unspoken secret is that the Jordanian Hashemite monarchy is fearful of the creation of any Palestinian state next door that might empower its Palestinian majority population and destabilize the state, a vital American ally.

You will know that peace has taken root when the Palestinians stop preaching their current defining narrative, which is the nakba (“the catastrophe”), the negation of the Jewish people and Israeli state, and begin celebrating the anniversary of their independence, accepting living in peace next to the Jewish state.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East.

He is a contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ ‘The Hill,’ and ‘The Forward.’

Managing an Anti-American Turkey

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Now is the time for American resolve and if need be significant consequences imposed on Turkey to advance our interests.

Turkish antagonism to America, Israel, and the EU, and the Islamization of this once proudly secular nation must be seen in historical context. Relations between the US and Turkey today are, as they have been over the last 70 years, primarily based on shared national security interests, which often shift and have been unpredictable.

Modern American Turkish relations began at the dawn of the Cold War with the Truman Doctrine in 1947 guaranteeing the security of Turkey and Greece. Turkey remained a linchpin of American military strategy in the Middle East through the Cold War, a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. But times have changed in the 21st century with the ascendancy of the neo-Ottoman authoritarian strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In light of the most recent Turkish election, Congress, American security experts, Turkey’s neighbors, and Israel must now ask if the newly empowered authoritarian Erdogan has irreversibly transformed Turkey into an anti-western, anti-Semitic, malevolent state that is to be no less radical than the Iranian Islamic republic, where we have learned that no amount of accommodation can temper their nationalistic expansionist Islamist vision.

Unlike Iran, where it is reputed that the Iranian population, especially it’s urban middle class, leans toward the West, and would welcome the chance to be freed of the repressive Mullahs, a recent PEW survey of Turkish citizens revealed that an astounding 79% of the populace harbor a negative view of America, no doubt fostered by years of anti-American propaganda.

Many pro-Western Turks have left or worse, have been fired from their jobs, imprisoned, or tortured in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup. Erdogan’s monopoly on power has been consolidated since that time, tightening his control over the military, judiciary, academia, business, and media. Turkey has the infamous distinction of imprisoning more journalists than any nation in the world.

America, for strategic reasons, gets into bed with many unsavory nations, but few states may threaten our safety net more than Turkey, since it is intertwined in our security through NATO. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, houses a vital US air base in Incirlik, and is located in an absolutely critical position in the Middle East next to Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the Black Sea.

In the coming decades, is Turkey to be friend or foe? Turkey believes the US cannot live without its Incirlik airbase, and that we need Turkey as the eastern flank of NATO. So Erdogan calculates that he can take liberties against American interests in the region, while advancing his own distasteful agenda – undermining the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who have been loyal American allies, supporting Hamas, which is designated a terrorist enemy by the US State Department, and its parent the Muslim Brotherhood, and working with American nemesis Iran, which is making every effort to destabilize the region.

So, are there any red lines Turkey cannot cross for it to continue to receive American support, or has Turkey already crossed a line with Congress and this administration? Turkey, Russia and Iran are three peas in a pod. Turkey occupied and ethnically cleansed Cyprus, Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, northern Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the Iranian controlled Popular Mobilization Units ethically cleansed Iraq and Syria of its Sunni residents. Three bad actors, and Turkey is the only one of them that is a member of NATO.

Last year, National Security advisor H.R. McMaster said that Turkey had joined Qatar as a prime source “funding groups that help create the conditions that allow terrorism to flourish.”

Analysts expect Erdogan will be unchallenged and in power for years to come, and there is no expectation of moderation based on his record over the last 14 years.

America fears that Turkey might ally with Russia, Iran or China, if America imposes any meaningful consequences for Turkish behavior. This calculation is a serious foreign policy mistake, as Turkey realizes that those alliances carry with them significant risks to Turkish security in the long term, and even Erdogan must know he will need America as an ally again.

Being held hostage and extorted by Erdogan is a sure prescription for undermining American national security interests around the world. If Erdogan cannot be quietly persuaded through diplomacy to moderate his policies, then at the very least the United States should halt arms sales beginning with suspension of deliveries of F-35 fighters, and limit security cooperation that might already have been compromised by his relationship with Russia and Iran.

Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell told the Senate recently that the “acquisition of the S-400 [Russian anti-missile system] will inevitably affect prospects for Turkish military-industrial cooperation with the US, including F-35.”

Significant American consequences for Turkey would not be unprecedented, as we have employed this strategy with Turkey way back in 1974 after their invasion and ethnic cleansing of northern Cyprus.

As for undermining our vital allies Israel and Egypt, this too goes against a core US strategic interest, and Erdogan needs to pay a price for it. Erdogan, Hamas and the MB are all ideologically Sunni Islamists, and dissuading Erdogan will require strength, admonishments with teeth, as we learned that President Obama’s 2009 accommodations and oratory met with failure.

Critics rightly claim that America is already aligned with other human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, so why punish Turkey. The difference is that those nations are not pursuing strategies that directly undermine our security interests. However, they too will have to moderate their human rights record, if our alliances have any possibility for longevity.

Turkey is vital to our interests but not indispensable. The risks have begun to outweigh the benefits of trusting Turkey to remain the eastern flank of NATO and not share our security secrets with our enemies. It is probably not possible to have a grand quid pro-quo offering Turkey conditional EU membership, American investment, and continued US military support in exchange for ending their military relationship with Russia, Iran and Hamas, but incremental steps can be accomplished as long as we are not afraid to use a diplomatic big stick with economic pain.

Turkey and Israel have had mediocre relations for years.

Most recently Erdogan intends to bring Israel to the International Criminal Court for its actions on the Gaza border during the Hamas March of Return.

According to the Times of Israel, Erdogan said “Israel is a terror state” that has committed “a genocide”, and ‘There is no difference between the atrocity faced by the Jewish people in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality that our Gaza brothers are subjected to.”

At least he acknowledges the Holocaust as a historical fact, something his Iranian friends cannot do.

Further infuriating Turkey is the new Israeli-Cyprus-Greek alignment over natural gas reserves. Dr. Spyridon Litsas of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies referred to it as a “tectonic shift” in the Eastern Mediterranean altering “the geopolitical configuration” that “holds the interest of the great powers, (the United States, Russia and China).”

Now is the time for American resolve and if need be significant consequences imposed on Turkey to advance our interests. Ignoring what Turkey has become and where it is most likely to go over the next decade is not a sound foreign policy strategy.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™.

Understanding American and Iranian Choices in the New Middle East

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Have the Iranians come to the same conclusion as their archenemy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman?

Everything has changed in the Middle East. The combination of the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), American support for Israel to enforce its red lines against the growing Iranian military presence in Syria, and the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem have forced every player to reevaluate not only how to respond now, but how to prepare for the events that may follow.

Have the Iranians come to the same conclusion as their archenemy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman? Namely that America doesn’t view the Middle East through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore, but now prioritizes thwarting Iran’s ambitions as America’s most important national security interest in the region? The three-year experiment that promised moderation of Iranian behavior in exchange for a limited suspension of some of its nuclear activity, retreating from the previous administration’s vow to stop Iran’s nuclear arms program forever, is now over.

How Iran will respond to this game-changing new reality that could threaten its regime, beyond the customary curses of defiance, remains to be seen. Critics of the withdrawal claim there is no strategy for what should come next, predicting catastrophe as the status quo has been upset.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, the administration’s strategy “deemphasizes US military intervention, instead focusing on a series of moves to embolden an Iranian population that has increasingly grown angry at the ruling regime.”

America is now positioned to make some real progress, if our national security team has a clear vision of where we want to move the region while avoiding the temptation to reach too far, too quickly. The administration knows that the Iranian economy is in trouble, and that Iranians are not happy with their economic situation. Iran also knows that the perceived lifeline of continued trade with China, Russia and the EU cannot be sustained if America fully enforces sanctions on third parties.

The US Treasury did not waste time, addressing the long-standing but unchallenged problem of Iran’s central bank’s money laundering in the Gulf States to help finance the blacklisted Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force.

How Iran responds to the new economic levers the Trump administration can use will depend on how Iran thinks it can exploit the political division in America between supporters and detractors of the Iran agreement, and how much economic pain ordinary Iranians will withstand before taking to the streets again, potentially threatening the stability of the regime.

Iran knows that the Middle East has always been an area America has misunderstood.

They know Congress and Americans think in days and months, impatient for solutions when there are none, while Iran thinks in decades and centuries, willing to wait out American impatience.

Iran is a rational state actor whose primary goal is self-preservation. It may have learned that it underestimated its citizens’ disappointment when the $150 billion in sanctions relief was used for Iranian expansionism in Syria and Yemin, not for their benefit. Has it reassessed the potential pain of new sanctions, especially if the EU decreases trade because it, too, will feel the pain from doing business with Iran?

Could it force Iran to change course and even consider renegotiating the JCPOA? Will the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard respond with pragmatism to the new sanctions, or will they choose to escalate the situation as their best option, directly confronting Israel and pursuing Iran’s long-stated policy of erasing the Zionist entity from the earth?

Or do they now believe Israel’s stated intent not to allow an Iranian presence in Syria, and that any attack by one of its proxies will be considered an Iranian-orchestrated attack, making Iran itself vulnerable to retaliation.

Israel doesn’t have to touch a single Iranian nuclear facility to decimate Iran economically. According to Prof.

Hillel Frisch writing in The Jerusalem Post, Israel could just threaten to attack Iran’s Kharg Island, which handles 90% of Iran’s natural gas and oil.

This is well within Israel’s military capacity now, and with Trump allowing Israel greater latitude in military action, Iran must seriously decide if its expansionism is worth the risk.

David Goldman writing in The Asia Times said, “Two dozen Israeli missiles or bomber sorties could wipe out Iran’s economy in a matter of hours… fewer than a dozen power plants generate 60% of Iran’s electricity, and eight refineries produce 80% of its distillates.”

A more likely, lower risk scenario with some plausible deniability would be returning to terrorism outside the Middle East, targeting Israelis and Jews, as Iran did in Argentina and Bulgaria in the past. How would Israel respond? Most likely in a more restrained way, without targeting Iran directly. As of now, only restarting of their nuclear weapons program or an overwhelming Hezbollah war endangering major Israeli cities would elicit an Israeli attack on Iran proper.

Other options Iran could choose are to move closer to the Syrian-Jordanian border trying to destabilize Jordan, indirectly threatening Israel, or increasing Iran’s already significant presence in South America, part of its longterm strategy to undermine America and project Shi’ite hegemony into the Western hemisphere.

If this administration has a plan and plays it right, Iran’s choices will be more limited and its regime could even be endangered, something not possible the day before president Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. As Dan Henninger of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “a year from now, the world may be safer without (the Iran agreement).’ 

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, and The Forward.