He could soon be proved right on both counts.
Just hours after Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, dealing a body blow to the nuclear agreement, tensions escalated between Iran and Israel. On the night of Trump’s announcement, Israel put its troops on “high alert,” perhaps anticipating a strike on Israeli targets in Syria. Officials called up reservists and warned the residents of the Golan Heights, which borders Syria, to prepare public bomb shelters.
By Thursday, things had only gotten worse. Israeli officials blamed Iran for an unsuccessful rocket attack on Wednesday aimed at Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. That night, Israeli jets struck back at Iranian forces in Syria, bombing dozens of targets. Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, told reporters that the strikes had hit “nearly all” of Iran's military infrastructure in Syria.
Tension between Israel and Iran is nothing new, of course. But the speedy acceleration of violence between the two countries is cause for concern. And it’s almost certainly a result of Trump's decision. “While Israel and Iran have been conducting a shadow war in Syria for months under the cover of the civil war there,” the New York Times wrote, “the conflict has now burst into the open.” It’s anyone's guess how far things may now go.
Israel and Iran’s proxy war in Syria has been going on for years. As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor explained, the Iranians' “presence in Syria is a legitimate defense of their beleaguered ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And they see their capacity to threaten Israel from next door as a potential deterrent against a long-standing regional foe.”
That’s unacceptable to Israel. Since 2012, the Israelis have allegedly launched more than 100 strikes on supposedly Iran-linked positions in Syria. It’s necessary, they argue, to keep Iran away from their borders and stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese ally.
But the existence of the accord seemed to help stave off the worst. Iran threatened retaliation last month after an Israeli strike killed seven Iranian soldiers, but it had never directly struck back against Israel — at least not until after Trump’s announcement.
Now, without the involvement of the United States, said Ian Bremmer, the founder and president of the Eurasia Group, a political consultancy, “it is more likely that we see military strikes.”
Bremmer told Vanity Fair that “the Iranians have not responded, and I am sure a part of the reason for that is that they don’t want to give the Americans any reason to leave the deal. Now that they have done so, I assume that the gloves are off for the Iranians, and it makes mutual military escalation between the Israelis and the Iranians much more likely.”
A flare-up between Iran and Israel also isn’t the only — or even the biggest — threat. Last weekend, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that his country might restart suspended elements of its nuclear program in the face of new American sanctions. “We have put a number of options for ourselves, and those options are ready including options that would involve resuming at a much greater speed our nuclear activities,” Zarif told Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
If Iran can’t wrangle enough economic concessions from Europe to keep the nuclear agreement intact, it might see a ramped-up nuclear program as its only option. If that happens, “you get a nuclear race in the Middle East,” James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the Atlantic.
The prospect of a nuclear arms race in an increasingly fractured and volatile region is terrifying. Even a whiff of nuclear proliferation activity in Iran might be enough to create a disaster. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of the fact that he’s willing to intervene in Iran directly, launching targeted strikes to blow up Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Obama administration opposed such intervention, favoring diplomacy and focusing on keeping the United States from plunging into another Middle Eastern war. In Trump, though, Netanyahu has an ally who shares his aggressiveness. As retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark wrote for CNBC: “Israel has several times sought U.S. help, or at least U.S. support and backup in striking Iran’s nuclear program. Under the Obama Administration, the answer was, No. Under President Trump, and with the emerging condominium of interests between the Saudis and the Israelis, the possibility of war between Israel and Iran is rising.”
And if that happens, Trump might find himself unable to stay out of the fight. “President Trump’s actions in quitting the Iran accord would place a large share of the responsibility on the United States, increasing the likelihood that the U.S. would, in fact, support and reinforce Israel,” Clark wrote.
So the worst-case scenario may not be a brutal regional war with thousands of lives on the line. It could be an American intervention with tremendous global consequences. As The Post’s editorial board put it earlier this week: “The Saudis and Israelis may hope that Mr. Trump’s decision will draw the United States back into the Middle East through a confrontation with their enemy. The president has frequently said that he has no wish for further Mideast wars; his decision has made one more likely.”
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