Tag Archives: Jerusalem Post

The Question Israel’s Leaders Ask Every Day: Will Tomorrow be Too Late?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Critics of any pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities rightly claim that Israel cannot totally destroy the Iranian nuclear program. But that misses the point.

How far away is the day when Israelis and Americans will wake up and realize that it is too late to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program? This is not a new question. Seven years ago Jonathan Tobin writing in Commentary also asked, “Is it already too late to stop Iran?

Last week, I met with Israeli military, security and intelligence experts, and I asked if it is already too late to significantly affect the progress of the Iranian nuclear program with a pre-emptive strike, and the answer was always that it is not too late. But the caveat that followed was, the Americans can do it much more effectively than we can.

Critics of any pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities rightly claim that Israel cannot totally destroy the Iranian nuclear program. But that misses the point.

Delaying the program five or 10 years, which would be the case with an Israeli strike, could be game changing, especially in conjunction with continued cyberattacks and escalating American sanctions that undermine the support for the regime by the Iranian people, who are increasingly becoming economically harmed and blaming it on the Mullahs and their corrupt cronies.

We know that before the 2015 JCPOA deal, Iran was already technically capable of reaching the crucial 20% uranium enrichment level, and was within a just a few months of amassing enough 90% uranium for a nuclear weapon, even using obsolete and unpredictable IR-1 centrifuges.

So the question to ask now is, how much have Iran’s nuclear capabilities advanced over the last four years since the beginning of the JCPOA? How much closer are they to a nuclear breakout?

We know that the agreement allowed Iran to continue to develop advanced centrifuges that can enrich weapons-grade material in a significantly shorter amount of time than the older IR-1 centrifuges, reducing the critical time to produce enough fissile material to just a few months. These advanced centrifuges are also much smaller and harder to detect.

Additionally, Iran never accepted the Additional Protocol, a nuclear addendum that allowed international inspectors to visit military sites where they would likely be developing nuclear missile warhead production.

Already last year, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimated that Iran could enrich enough material for a bomb in eight to 10 months. The deal’s supporters claimed that the agreement would not allow Iran to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon for one year during the length of the agreement, something that is already probably untrue.

After Israel’s revelation of Iran’s nuclear archive, we now know without doubt that Iran planned to build a nuclear weapon, and still has the information and capabilities to accomplish this. This is not Saddam Hussein all over again.

Even if international inspectors wanted to visit a military faculty, the JCPOA gives them a month’s time to comply, more than enough time to clear away any evidence.

THE DAY Iran passes the threshold for creating a nuclear weapon, everything will change for Israel, the Sunni Gulf states, Turkey, the US and Europe, and the world will be a much more dangerous place. A nuclear arms race will begin in the Sunni world, dramatically increasing the potential dangers of a nuclear conflict in the future.

So can Israel, this late in the game, still effectively strike the Iranian program? The answer is yes – but again, the US can do it better.

Iran has a plan to make Israel think twice before attacking. According to former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror, now a Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a distinguished fellow at JINSA, Iran’s strategic plan – which is well underway – is to create a deterrence barrier around Israel, stretching from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to the Gaza Strip, in order to threaten Israel with an overwhelming and devastating strike on its homeland, should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Is delaying their program five years worth the price Israel will pay if tens of thousands of missiles are unleashed, capable of hitting everywhere in the country, while the negative diplomatic fallout will be enormous, especially if Donald Trump is not US president?

Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies wrote “In both word and deed, Israel is firmly committed to its redlines. The reddest of all is that Israel will not permit Syria to be turned into a forward base for direct Iranian operations and a manufacturing center for precision-guided missiles.”

Which means the noose will only tighten around Israel, as the Iranian operating bases in Syria over time will eventually look more like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Yet when I ask the Israeli experts if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the paper tiger that the Obama administration portrayed when a senior official called him chickens**t, the response was clear. If Bibi is convinced tomorrow is too late to stop a functioning Iranian nuclear weapon, he will indeed act today.

What will an Israeli attack on Iran look like?

Think out of the box. Not only cyberattacks and sophisticated strikes against known and presumed nuclear sites like Natanz, Fordow and the unnamed military sites conducting nuclear work, but targeting the lifeline of the Iranian economy – the port of Bandar Abbas, where almost all of Iranian commercial shipping trade transits, and Kharg Island, the location where Iran exports most of its fossil fuels.

An Israeli attack at Kharg or Bandar Abbas would make the impact of the current sanctions look like a popgun, and the survival of the regime would hang in the balance, as an economically devastated Iran will be imperiled from within.

If Israel does launch an attack on Iran, what would Israel look like the day after?

I remember visiting the North after the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Hospitals hit, hundreds of thousands of residents displaced to the South or living in steaming hot underground shelters and millions of Israelis throughout the country feeling vulnerable and angry.

Now imagine a hundred times worse, with the Dimona nuclear faculty in the South and Azrieli towers in central Tel Aviv in the crosshairs of Iran. The layers of Israel’s missile defense are remarkable but are incapable of stopping all the missiles heading for Israeli cities.

Time is not on Israel’s side, but when will tomorrow be too late?

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

IS IT TOO LATE TO STOP IRAN’S PERMANENT PRESENCE IN SYRIA?

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

Iran has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syria, and is not about to readily abandon this investment to Russian pressure.

 The national security advisers of Russia, the United States, and Israel are scheduled to meet in Jerusalem later this month for what former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro called a potential “game changer on pushing Iran’s military out of Syria.”
 

Russia has, with Iranian assistance, gained everything it set out to accomplish in Syria. It expanded its naval and air bases and elevated its international status, while diminishing and marginalizing America.
 

However, Russia, Israel and the United States may now share some common interest in keeping the Iranian regime from getting what it wants – a permanent presence in Syria. Moving forward, Iran may be more a headache than an asset for Russian interests. This month Russia expelled Iranian allied militia from the Russian naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.
 

Anyone who understands Iranian intentions and regime ideology knows Iran will not voluntarily leave Syria or Lebanon. Its desire to destroy Israel remains a foundational pillar of their version of Twelver Shi’ism, and their land bridge to the Mediterranean
accomplishes both their hegemonic ambitions and represents a major step in their strategy to threaten Israel from the north.

What would be the price Russia will demand to rein in or oust Iran from Syria, assuming they have enough leverage with Iran to do either?
 

According Yediot Aharonot, the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted “Western sources” claiming a quid pro quo is being discussed whereby the US and Israel would recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime, and the US would remove some economic sanctions on Russia – and “in return, Russia will limit Iranian activity in Syria.”
 

The key word is “limit.” What does “limit” mean, and how enforceable would it be? And what would Russia expect in return?
 

Would they demand relaxation of the sanctions applied to Russia in response to their illegal occupation of Crimea and Ukraine, or would they require becoming a full partner in any new negotiations regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons? If it is the latter, then you may have the makings of a deal. In any case, Iran won’t be happy and will resist, and make the usual false promises and demands.
 

America should not consider waiving Russian sanctions unless every Iranian proxy is permanently removed from Syria. Last year the Russians promised to move Iran and its allies 50 miles from the Israeli border, and that Iran and its proxies would not be in the Quneitra and Daraa provinces bordering the Israeli side of the Golan. But as last week’s rocket attack on the Golan proves, the Russian promise was worthless.
 

Since at least 2017, Iran has helped Syria ethnically cleanse the country of its Sunnis, re-populating non-indigenous Shi’ites into southern Syria, providing them with Syrian citizenship and Syrian uniforms, and making them a stealth Iranian militia that may be impossible to remove.
 

According to Raja Abdulrahim and Benoit Faucon writing in the Wall Street Journal, for those Sunnis remaining in Syria, Iran is using “cash, food and public services in a hearts and minds campaign to cultivate loyalty, draw military recruits and win converts to the Shi’ite Muslim sect… to cement its influence in Syria.”
 

Iran has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syria, and is not about to readily abandon this investment to Russian pressure. Russia and Iran are not natural allies, and can easily become estranged as Iran’s Islamic fervor could encourage Muslims in the Caucuses to make problems for Russian rule.

AMERICA AND Israel should not fall for the deceptive maneuver of Iranian Revolutionary Guards withdrawing from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. So long as the Shi’ite militias remain under the control of Iran, Hezbollah holds sway in Lebanon and Bashir Assad remains a puppet of the Iranians, Iran will effectively be in control on Israel’s doorstep to the north, with Iran eyeing when to destabilize Jordan and the territories.
 

Iran is clever and knows it can con the Europeans into believing that a token Syrian withdrawal is real. The Europeans eat up this nonsense of Iranian plausible deniability, just as they say with a straight face that they believe the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Agreement) will permanently end the Iranian nuclear program.
 

But is it realistic to aim to get Iran and all of its proxies completely out of Syria, short of a massive ground operation?

Probably not.
 

Should America and Israel take half a loaf and be happy if they can, with Russian help, remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from Syria, leaving the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units) and Hezbollah untouched?
 

What if the Russians could really enforce the 50-mile zone on the border, as they originally promised?
 

These half-measures would kick the can down the road, the easiest option for any politician and the most likely, but that would almost guarantee that Iran would never leave Syria under the current regime. That is why the ultimate answer short of a massive ground assault is regime change, preferably peaceful, by supporting the Iranian people’s inevitable next insurrection.
 

Israel has been mowing the grass in Syria for the last few years, targeting transfers of game-changing weaponry to Hezbollah, and more recently attacking Iranian weapons and drone factories. But just as in Gaza, it is unlikely to dislodge Iran and its proxies from the region unless one considers a massive ground operation and occupying territory for the long haul.
 

Israelis think of the Second Lebanon War and the divisive 18-year occupation of Lebanon and pause, just as Israelis have no desire to reoccupy Gaza again.
 

So, what are Israel’s options?
 

The easiest option is to just keep hitting Iranian targets while keeping the Russians in the loop. But this falls far short of the Israeli stated goal of having no Iranian or Iranian proxy presence in Syria.
 

With Israel in electoral chaos, putting off any significant action unless a critical mass of missiles starts flying from Syria is what is most likely to happen. Israel with the full support of its populace and the United States will strike Iran again and again in Syria, hoping that the unprecedented trilateral meeting of the United States, Russia, and Israel can at least rein in some Iranian gains, and buy more time.
 

Except that time is on Iran’s side.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), and is a regular contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ and i24 TV. MEPIN is a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists, and organizational leaders.

HOW ISRAEL’S CHOICES FOR GAZA AFFECT AMERICAN PLANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

According to Avi Issacharoff writing in The Times of Israel, Israel has already lost the Fourth Gaza War. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar “has not only managed to score military and diplomatic victories, but can even claim to have likely brought about the end of Netanyahu’s government.” 

A positive spin would see a Hamas victory as possibly giving them political cover to accept a longer-term ceasefire, much as Sadat was able to claim success after the 1973 war before reconciling with Israel. Make no mistake, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas is an American-designated terrorist entity that will never accept a Jewish state, but Israeli and American interests may be served if its claim to victory delays the next war, giving Israel and America some more years of quiet before Israel has to “mow the grass” again. Unfortunately, the more likely assessment is that Hamas will see their victory as evidence of Israeli weakness, encouraging them to be aggressive sooner rather than later.

For America, the first fact we need to be clear about is that the agenda of radical Islamist ideology will continue to trump the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people. Economic incentives or sanctions will not alter Hamas’ goal. After years of incitement against Israel, the people of Gaza would still re-elect a radical Islamist government over the corrupt Palestinian Authority.

Israel has no apparent military answer for Gaza, despite the Israeli public being in favor of a significant operation against Hamas to end the constant threat of missiles that have made life intolerable for Israelis living in the South in a perpetual state of traumatic stress.

Senior Likud official Tzachi Hanegbi was forced to apologize this week for publicly stating the unspoken truth that within the government and IDF leadership, Gaza’s conflict is considered a “minor” and non-existential threat, as long as life goes on in the Tel Aviv bubble. 

We hear from Israeli politicians like former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and Jewish Home Party leader Naphtali Bennett, whose call to war is more calculated to influencing voters before the next election, but whose demand that their government protect its citizens from the constant threat of mortars is completely reasonable. 

So then why is Israel not contemplating a full-scale invasion to remove Hamas from Gaza once and for all? Why is the IDF so leery about conquering Gaza?

1. Logistics: Within the dense urban networks are miles of advanced tunnels crisscrossing Gaza with booby-trapped civilian structures set as traps to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

2. Lawyers and Proportionality: Israeli commanders may fear lawyers more than Hamas. Israeli lawyers will be embedded within all levels of the IDF, perpetually second-guessing every operation, knowing every Palestinian civilian killed will be part of the evidence used against Israel at the ICC (International Criminal Court). The army’s hands will be tied as it tries to fight a terrorist entity that uses human shields as canon fodder, and hospitals and schools as forward bases of operations. Israeli lawyers will also be dealing with the politicized definition of proportionality where Israel will be accused of disproportionality if more Palestinians are killed than Israelis.

3. Keeping the Eye on the True Existential Threat: According to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, “Many senior security officials see Gaza as a distraction from Israel’s primary military challenge: keeping Iran from entrenching a Hezbollah-style military infrastructure in Syria. 

Former Military Intelligence head and National Security adviser Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror said, “A war in Gaza will only benefit [PA President] Abu Mazen and Iran, and we don’t want to give Iran any gifts.”

4. Nation Building With a Hostile Neighbor: The last thing the IDF wants to do after defeating Hamas is control and provide for two million Gazans who have been indoctrinated to blame Israel for all of their ills. Just think of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 after the Second Lebanon War, except this time with much more dangerous possibilities.

So what happens the day after Israel “wins”?

Does Israel hand Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as many American foreign policy advisers advocate? If it did, Gaza could turn into an even more chaotic territory where Iran and Turkey would support an Islamist insurgency, while Israel supports an unpopular Palestinian Authority who will be portrayed as Jewish collaborators without the support of the Gazan people.

That new reality in Gaza may also be a lightning strike destabilizing the West Bank and Jordan, empowering jihadists to ramp up terrorism while challenging both the PA and the Hashemite monarchy, a pillar of any American peace plan. A domino effect could also motivate Iran to unleash Hezbollah in the north, while it enjoys weakening Israel in a new proxy war in Gaza.

Some American Middle East experts say the end game would include Egypt, or a consortium of Arab states working with the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately no Arab nation wants any part of Gaza, knowing it is a basket case that will cause political repercussions with its own citizens.

Egypt has enough on its hands with al-Qaida in the Sinai and chaos next store in Libya. All Egypt wants from its enemy Hamas is for it to stop supporting the jihadists in the Sinai. The Saudis do not want to be involved in another Yemeni proxy war with Iran in Gaza, and Israel would never allow Qatar or Turkey into Gaza, knowing that both are in cahoots with Iran.

So where does that leave us?

“Cutting the grass” every few years, unless Hamas steps over a red line such as hitting a school bus full of children, or incinerating a kindergarten. That would automatically elicit an overwhelming Israeli response where Israel might finally take the fateful decision to take Hamas out of Gaza.

Then the law of unintended consequences will rear its ugly head.

The writer, a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post, is the director of MEPIN™ (Middle East Political and Information Network™), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.

AFTER PITTSBURGH, TIME TO HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT ANTISEMITISM TODAY

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

After Pittsburgh, it seems that the pendulum has swung and Jews fear that America has changed.

For years I have given talks at universities, professional organizations, churches, and synagogues, and would recite FBI statistics of American hate crimes. Almost all audiences were shocked to learn that in regard to religiously motivated hate crimes, including the most recent 2016 statistics, Jews were targeted more than twice as often as Muslims, and three times as often as blacks. My aim was not to frighten, but rather to educate Americans who seem to believe that due to the lack of reporting on antisemitism – Islamophobia is the predominant threat.

After Pittsburgh, it seems that the pendulum has swung and Jews fear that America has changed. Jewish communal institutions are wondering if they will now have to be armed to the teeth as they are in Europe. But is this simply an overreaction?

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre, the media has focused on a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which cite a 57% increase in antisemitic incidents which news organizations have blamed on US President Donald Trump. But are we dealing with fact or fiction?

According to Adam Kirsch in The Wall Street Journal and Jonathan Tobin in the New York Post, this figure is misleading, as the 57% rise was due to threats from a single mentally disturbed Israeli teenager who threatened countless Jewish institutions. Until he was identified as the culprit, the media overwhelmingly blamed white supremacists.

When one removes this disproportionate factor, “antisemitic assaults actually decreased by almost half” in 2017. One act of hate is one too many, but it seems the statistic has been used to advance an agenda that sees right wing hatred of Jews as the only form of antisemitism in America. Far too many use the tragic events to score political points even before the dead were buried. We should fight Nazi right wing antisemitism with all our strength, but it isn’t the most dangerous form of antisemitism in the US, and certainly not in the world.

Despite the fact that around 10-14% of Americans harbor antisemitic views, my impression of my fellow Americans hasn’t changed; they are overwhelmingly tolerant and accepting of Jews of all walks of life.

It is wonderful that so many Jews and gentiles came together for the AJC’s #ShowUpShabbat to show solidarity against antisemitism and hatred against anyone, but America even after the Pittsburgh massacre is still the safest place for a Jew living in the Diaspora anytime in the last 2000 years. Assimilation and intermarriage are far greater threats to Jews in the US than antisemitism.

We first need to understand contemporary antisemitism in all its forms, and not allow Pittsburgh to completely define today’s antisemitic challenges. We need to ask; does everyone stand against all forms of antisemitism, or only against the sickness from the neo-Nazi radical right?

WHAT IS antisemitism in 2018?

Antisemitism is hatred of Jews. Despite the tragedy of Pittsburgh, the worst incident of antisemitic violence in America to date, it is dwarfed in magnitude by hatred of Jews throughout the world, which is found in almost every Islamic society. Classic European antisemitism as well as anti-Zionism are alive and well in almost every Muslim capital in the world, yet Jews in America choose to ignore it.

In the 21st Century, antisemitism’s most virulent form is the hatred of the Jew among nations, Israel. It is a pandemic that infects European elites, the majority of Muslim nations, the racist Louis Farrakhan who is supported by the leaders of the Women’s March on Washington, and even by some fringe Jews like Jewish Voice for Peace, which acts as a cover for antisemites who are accused of antisemitism.

In the US it is most evident on colleges campuses where Jewish students are intimidated for supporting Israel and receive little support from university administrations. There are no safe spaces for Jewish students, and they seem to be treated differently than other targets of hateful speech and acts because they are Zionists.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, contemporary antisemitism began at the UN 2001 Durban Conference that united “radical Islamists with human rights NGO’s, the right wing and the left wing against a common enemy, the State of Israel.”

As the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein said, “I hate Israel instead of I hate Jews does not cover up the fact that both mean the same thing.”

The founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein said that antisemitism is “deeply ingrained and institutionalized” in Arab nations in modern times,” while Harvard professor Ruth Wisse said, “antisemitism  and anti- Zionism has been the cornerstone of pan-Arab politics since the Second World War.” According to Josef Joffe of Newsweek, antisemitism in the Arab world is “as much part of the Arab life today as the hijab or the hookah…in the Arab world, Jew hatred remains culturally endemic.”

SO THE QUESTION we must ask is, who is in more danger from 21st century antisemitism, American or Israeli Jews?

To an objective observer, the Jews of Israel are in far more danger, due to a combination of diplomatic antisemitism of the UN that is singlehandedly trying to destroy the state of Israel by demonization and delegitimization, to the physical threats of annihilation from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

The claim that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism doesn’t hold water. This is the antisemitism which Jewish students face on college campuses from pro-Palestinian organizations. The US State Department’s definition of antisemitism makes it clear that if you claim the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor, apply a double standard requiring certain Israeli behavior which is not demanded of other nations, use symbols like Jews drinking the blood of Palestinian children, or draw comparisons of Israel to Nazis – that is antisemitism.

Both the far right and left give succor to dehumanizing Jews. The progressive media darling Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March said, we must “dehumanize the oppressor (Israel).” Yet too many mainstream politicians and organizations have no qualms about being associated with her. She says feminists cannot be Zionists, yet few question why she is silent about misogyny in the Muslim world. Political correctness regarding antisemitism must end in the US.

We need to fight antisemitism everywhere, in America, in Europe, at the UN and South America. But there are seven million Jews living in Israel that are truly in the crosshairs of antisemites. They are Iranians, Syrians, and Palestinians, whose words and actions have been the very definition of hatred of Jews.

You cannot be against antisemitism if you are only against right wing antisemitism, or if you only care about it if it occurs in the US. Let’s stand together and fight all forms of antisemitism and stop using it for a political advantage.

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.




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.