Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Is Donald Trump trying to make peace with Iran even while his close ally Benjamin Netanyahu is looking for a fight?
Recent headlines, from both the G7 in Biarritz and from Syria and Lebanon, seem to suggest that events are moving in precisely that direction. If Netanyahu’s not careful he might risk involving the US in a war that Trump doesn’t want and undermining the diplomacy with Iran that he does.
French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have made some headway in getting President Trump to consider a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the next several weeks. Meanwhile as if to underscore the unpredictability of the region, Israel conducted a series of strikes in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon against Iran and its allies.
Tensions are high, awaiting a response from Iran or Hezbollah. So are we moving toward peace or war and can a friendlier Trump on Iran be reconciled with a more aggressive Israel?
Trump and Rouhani: Summit of the vanities
With this President, it’s impossible to know whether his warming to the idea of a meeting with Iran’s president represents a strategic shift of some kind or just another confusing and contradictory day in the life of the Trump presidency. Trump has repeatedly stated his desire to sit down with Rouhani to negotiate a new deal on the nuclear issue – one he deems, unlike the Obama accord, to be to America’s advantage. And yet most everything we’ve seen from the Trump administration to date has been maximum pressure.
But there are several new elements: France’s Macron is actively trying to broker this meeting, hoping it will occur within weeks; both Trump and Rouhani will be in New York at the UN General Assembly at the end of September; and Trump even suggested extending a line of credit to Iran given how much the sanctions are hurting.
It’s a pretty sharp turnaround for Trump. But you can see why he might be interested: he loves these summits for reasons of ego and vanity, he can demonstrate to the Europeans that he can do diplomacy, he can outflank the Democrats who have criticized his warlike position on Iran without giving up much in return or loosening sanctions.
Of course, therein lies the rub. Rouhani – ever fearful of getting too far out ahead of Iran’s real decision maker, the Ayatollah Khamenei – stated Tuesday there could be no meeting without the US removing all of its sanctions against Iran. Iran isn’t North Korea where Trump could enter into a two-year negotiating process and not produce significant results. Iran desperately needs sanctions relief and Trump needs to demonstrate that he won significant concessions from Tehran for granting it.
It’s hard to see Iran playing along with Trump’s summit of vanities – and it’s hard to see what trade-offs would satisfy both sides.
Is Israel Going to War with Iran?
Probably not. But events of the past several weeks, including this weekend’s Israeli strike on an Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah position southeast of Damascus and a drone in Beirut, the city that houses Hezbollah’s headquarters, have raised tensions considerably. The Israeli-Iranian shadow war – ongoing for several years now – is no longer in the shadows.
Israel has had considerable success in preventing Iran from creating permanent bases and military production facilities in Syria through its use of air power. But the Iranians as a consequence have moved many of their assets to Iraq, especially missiles, and the Israelis – upsetting the Americans in the process – have expanded their operations in Iraq, targeting pro-Iranian militias to disrupt weapons transfers.
Indeed, the most recent Israeli operation in Syria, against IRGC and Hezbollah, which reportedly killed two Hezbollah fighters, was apparently intended to preempt an Iranian revenge attack on Israel for an attack Israel conducted in Iraq in July. The region is awaiting the drop of another shoe as Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israel after the recent drone operation in Beirut which destroyed a control panel on a piece of machinery vital for creating propellants that can improve missile accuracy.
The only piece of good news is that none of the four major actors who determine whether there will be war – Russia, Iran, Israel and Hezbollah – want a major blowup. Still, the situation remains volatile and a major Israeli-Iranian confrontation will contract, not expand, the prospects for US-Iranian diplomacy.
Bibi in a bind
The question of whether we are moving toward war or peace with Iran has been made even more complex by the onset of Israeli elections set for September 17. The possibility that Trump may actually meet Rouhani (there has not been any high-level US-Iranian engagement since the 1979 Iranian revolution) must have thrown Netanyahu for a giant loop. There has been no reaction from the Prime Minister.
But here he is running a reelection campaign on the basis of his close relationship with Donald Trump – the man who took America out of the what Netanyahu believes is a horrible nuclear accord. And here is his good friend considering meeting with the Iranian president or, worse still, negotiating with him. And unlike his determined effort to criticize Obama for the 2015 nuclear accord, Netanyahu can’t say a negative word about Trump’s possible meeting, lest he alienate him.
At the same time, increasing tensions with Iran carries an advantage that allows Netanyahu to demonstrate his credentials as Mr. Security. Netanyahu made it known that he had monitored Saturday’s attack against Iran in Syria all night at Air Force Headquarters and he’s invited his key opponent – Benny Gantz – to a briefing on the security situation in the north.
Still, it’s a fine line. Security drowns out every other issue in an Israeli election campaign. So it plays to Netanyahu’s advantage. But a miscalculation and too tough a response if and when Hezbollah retaliates could create an escalatory cycle tripping into a messy war with Hezbollah that leads to significant Israeli casualties – not a good campaign narrative on the eve of an election.