Now that President Donald Trump has officially withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the world has to figure out how to live with that decision. Strategic reappraisals are taking place in Tehran, Europe and, most importantly, Moscow.
There are only two leaders who are happier now than they were yesterday: One is Trump himself; the other is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu. Tearing up the Iran deal was Trump’s call, but it would not have happened without Netanyahu’s stubborn willingness to stand up to the world - and especially Israel’s own generally hawkish security experts.
The prevailing view among Israeli security experts remains one of pragmatic opposition to scrapping the deal. But Netanyahu rejects that view as accepting an unstable status quo when more radical action could achieve lasting change that would enhance Israeli and global security. Bibi may just be right.
In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak aired the consensus view: “Is it smarter to tear the deal apart or keep it in place?” he mused. His conclusion: “There’s a lot of logic in maintaining it in place.”
Barak’s rhetorical question recalls something I heard last October from Isaac Ben Israel, a retired major general who heads the National Council for Space Research and chairs the Department of Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Before the deal, Iran was two months away from having enough fissile material to complete its project,” he told me. “It had enriched uranium, not only 3.5 percent but also 19.7 percent. This was acquired despite an international sanctions regime. If the deal collapses, is it likely that more sanctions will deter Iran from resuming its project?”
These comments reflect considered expert opinion more broadly. But decades in office have convinced Netanyahu that he knows more, and sees further, than his advisers and generals.
After all, it was against the better judgment of the same experts that Netanyahu made a long-odds bet on Donald Trump winning the presidency in 2016. Not only was Trump electable, he wagered, but for the first time there would be an American president who saw the dangers of Iran in his way.
After Trump’s Iran decision, Netanyahu no doubt feels vindicated. It appears that the two leaders now share the same playbook. But what happens next is crucial. For both Trump and Netanyahu, scrapping the Iran deal is only a first step to a bigger goal.
If Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reacts with threats or a visible move to restart Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a devastating, American-backed Israeli military response will likely follow. Netanyahu doesn’t want this (and it’s unlikely Trump does either). What they want in the short-term is regime change in Tehran. This does not mean an Iraq-style invasion; Trump would never have the public support for that. But tough new American sanctions could destabilize the Iranian regime. So, too, would Iranian casualties and military humiliations of the kind Israel is presently inflicting on Iranian proxies in Syria.
Trump and Netanyahu can’t do this alone, of course. On May 10, Netanyahu will fly to a previously scheduled meeting with Putin. Netanyahu will tell Putin that Russia and the U.S. now have a once in a century chance to wipe away dysfunctional borders and redraw the map of the Middle East into mutually acceptable spheres of influence. Russia has its own strategic interests in Syria: It wants to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and project military influence in the region through its air and naval bases there. But Netanyahu will tell him that they are not necessarily inimical to U.S. or Israeli interests. Putin may want to stand by Iran to the bitter end, but that seems unlikely; the Russian leader is in the Middle East as an opportunity seeker, not a bodyguard for the Ayatollah or even the Syrian president at any price.
A Middle East without a “Death to America” government in Tehran - or a Hezbollah in Lebanon - has been a key U.S. interest since the administration of Ronald Reagan. Mediterranean seaports in Syria have been a Russian dream since the time of Peter the Great. And brokering a deal like this has been Netanyahu’s goal from the day Donald Trump entered the White House.
Back in October, Ben Israel, the retired general, dismissed the Trump-Netanyahu plan to end the Iranian nuclear deal as impractical. “They are two people who have their own opinion,” he said. “In both cases, it is not shared by their professional advisers and intelligence communities.”
That is still true. But what Trump and Putin have to consider is a bigger picture. Expert opinion is important, but Netanyahu is betting that sometimes great deals just take two (or even three).
Zeb Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books.