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Israel Nudges Trump Towards War With Iran

Donald Trump has put America on a path to war in the Middle East. Future historians will look back on his decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, and related actions, as a folly akin to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The consequences could be equally catastrophic.

If you wish to understand what’s really going on, don’t just keep your eye on Trump, whose zigzag pronouncements on Mideast strategy have demonstrated a characteristic lack of intellectual coherence. Instead watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who thinks in straight lines. His aim is to get America to curtail Iranian power and influence in the region—a level of power and influence, it should be noted, that was greatly heightened by America’s 2003 Iraq invasion, supported avidly at the time by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu.

In other words, Netanyahu wanted the United States to get rid of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the interest of Israeli security—and now wants us to risk another war to take care of the fallout from that destabilizing misadventure.


All this is evident in the Wall Street Journal’s lead article for Thursday, entitled “Israel Strikes Iranian Targets in Syria as Regional Tensions Mount [1].” The subhead: “Move is retaliation for Golan Heights rocket fire; escalating clashes come as Trump tries to get allies to join the U.S. in confronting Iran across the region.”

The piece, by Dov Lieber and Dion Nissenbaum, doesn’t spell out explicitly what’s going on. But the message becomes clear once the fragments of the story are pieced together.

The writers begin by reporting that Israel carried out strikes against Iranian targets in Syria after Iranian forces in that war-torn country, according to Israel, fired rockets at Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights. The piece quotes an Israeli military spokesman as saying his country’s strikes against Iranian logistics, intelligence, and ammo-storage facilities were, as the reporters put it, the “largest-ever operation against Iranian positions in Syria.”

Lieber and Nissenbaum then note “a separate incident” in which Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a barrage of missiles into Saudi Arabia. They write: “The pair of attacks were an early indication that Iran and its allies are flexing their muscles in the Middle East after Washington’s move [to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal]. The strikes heightened tensions in a region already on edge and underlined the risk of direct confrontation between Iran and Israel following the U.S. exit from the nuclear agreement.”

This passage gives the impression that Iran initiated a coordinated effort to demonstrate a feisty response to Trump’s action. This is nonsense. The Houthi rebels, who are only nominally backed by Iran, have sought in the past to lob missiles into Saudi Arabia, which is brutalizing Yemen in an ineffective effort to dislodge them. Such actions had nothing to do with Trump’s decision or with Iran. And it was Israel, not Iran, that first initiated military action in the ongoing tensions between the two countries.

This becomes clear as the story unfolds and the context comes into focus. The reporters note that:

So what does all this add up to? In pulling the United States out of the international nuclear deal, Trump has heightened tensions with Iran on a number of issues unrelated to whatever nuclear ambitions that country may have. Netanyahu, who hated the nuclear deal from the start because it eased tensions and diminished pressure on Iran, now sees his opportunity to goad the Islamic Republic with pinprick airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria. With Israel killing Iranians, a retaliatory response is inevitable, which is what Netanyahu wants. In this dangerous escalation of tensions, Trump has positioned his country on the side of Israel and against Iran; this will encourage further provocations by Netanyahu.

You don’t have to be Count Metternich to perceive where this is leading. It’s difficult to see how, under these circumstances, war can be avoided, while it’s easy to see how events could flip out of control and lead to war.

But there is a wild card: Vladimir Putin. Russia has also positioned itself in Syria and, like Iran, is an Assad ally. Thus could Israel’s goading of Iran, with America’s tacit assent, run afoul of Russian interests, risking a much broader war with a much more potent enemy. Netanyahu knows this, which is why he rushed to Moscow following his airstrikes on Iranian positions and sat next to Putin at Wednesday’s big Red Square military parade. He even pinned to his lapel the black and orange St. George’s ribbon, a symbol of Russia’s martial heritage.

Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov, writing from Moscow, explained what was going on, and his report dovetailed nicely with the piece by Lieber and Nissenbaum. Netanyahu, wrote Trofimov, had “deadly serious business to transact.” Trofimov states flatly that, with Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal and with “Israeli strikes in Syria gathering pace,” the Middle East is “sliding toward war.” Netanyahu’s fear is that some of those huge weapons on display Wednesday in Red Square could end up in Assad’s hands, “constraining Israel’s ability to operate in Syrian skies.”

Netanyahu wants assurances that Putin won’t oppose Israel’s aggressive actions in Syria so long as the Jewish state doesn’t bother Assad. Trofimov quotes a former Israeli defense official as saying, “The Russians are worrying that we may go after Assad, and we are telling them that we are not going to go after Assad unless he allows the Iranians to go after us.”

Aha! There you have it. But left unsaid here is that Israel wants to reach this accommodation so it can target Iranians without having to worry about retaliation.

Fat chance. Trofimov quotes a Russian foreign policy intellectual, Andrey Kortunov, as saying that one of Putin’s greatest fears is a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. That would destroy not only his plans for a settlement of the Syrian Civil War but also his hopes “for reaching any kind of stability in the region.” Kortunov adds, “I think Putin will do everything possible to prevent it.”

Trofimov speculates that Putin could emerge as an interlocutor between Israel and Iran in efforts to mediate the tensions between them. But it’s an open question whether Putin has any real incentive to pressure Iran, its ally in the Syrian fight against Islamist radicals and other anti-Assad forces, to abandon positions it has acquired through hard fighting.

Can Putin dissuade Netanyahu from escalating his anti-Iranian initiatives in Syria? Will he even try? Would Netanyahu listen to Putin in any event? Will Putin give advanced weaponry to Assad, and would Assad use it against Israelis if Israel expanded its attacks against Iran? Will Netanyahu risk everything on the prospect of manufacturing a direct confrontation between Iran and the United States? Would he succeed if he tried? Would Trump even understand the ramifications of it all? Would he have the inclination or the guts to rein in Netanyahu?

On such questions hangs the ominous pivot of war and peace in the Middle East. Right now it looks more like war than peace.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [2].

83 Comments (Open | Close)

83 Comments To "Israel Nudges Trump Towards War With Iran"

#1 Comment By Dieter Heymann On May 12, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

I believe that the economic consequences of pulling out of the Iran agreement will eventually overshadow the political and military consequences.

#2 Comment By Cyrus’s memory On May 12, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

Mr. Chamberlain,

Have you not learned nuttin? Appeasement does not work.

The Islamic radicals currently occupying Persia have no plan to stop at Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. They have stated their vision multiple times. Islamification of the entire world and elimination of the Jews. Just not in that order.

If WW2 taught us anything, it’s “that whatever starts with Jews, never ends with them.”

Christian, Atheists, Hindus, Sunnis, Sikhs and everyone else are all in the gun sights of the dictators of Tehran. Even the Saudis see it.

Wake up and smell th cofefve Mr Chamberlain.

#3 Comment By Jeremy 2 On May 12, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

@Chris Ray
Most Americans Jews despise Bibi and would oppose a war with Iran.

@phillip baram
And if Iran is attacking Israel, then Israel can defend themselves, which they’re more than capable of doing. What’s ojectionable is getting the US involved in yet disastrous regime-change war.

#4 Comment By faris mee On May 12, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

Stop trying to shift the blame.
Democracy is your religion.
“government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
The buck stops at “We the People of the U.S.”.

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 12, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

Jeremy 2 said to Chris Ray (May 12, 2:00 pm): “Most Americans Jews despise Bibi and would oppose a war with Iran.”

It is possible that “most American Jews …would oppose a war with Iran.” I have no way of knowing. However, such alleged American Jewish opposition to war with Iran is of no use in the current American national debate so long as those same American Jews—once again in the lead-up to a Middle East war–remain publicly silent in their alleged opposition to such war.

Also, it needs to be pointed out that it is of no use for Jewish Americans to publicly agree with the long list of Bibi-Trump lies pushing us toward war with Iran, but then to throw in the one-liner “Of course, I hope we can still avoid a war” and to claim that such a sleight-of-tongue constitutes genuine, honest opposition to a US war with Iran.

#6 Comment By PjM On May 12, 2018 @ 9:02 pm

Xymphora, Moon over Alabama, Counterpunch and What really Happened should be consulted every day to get around fake news

#7 Comment By Mark Thomason On May 12, 2018 @ 9:08 pm

I wonder what motives will move Putin in this?

He could gain if the US became mired in an Iran war. It could do to the US far worse than all the war to date put together, much like what Afghanistan did to the Soviet Union.

He could gain economically if the oil and gas supplies of the region became embroiled in war, leaving Russia a safe supplier at very high prices.

He is also partly a rival with Iran for influence in areas where they both act. This could leave him with the gift of a win, the same way the US destruction of Iraq was a gift to Iran. He need only be cynical and Machiavellian enough to see and take the opportunity — which are not qualities in which Putin is lacking.

Putin could see exactly what Netanyahu is doing, and be happy to let him do it.

#8 Comment By TR On May 12, 2018 @ 9:46 pm

Stalin asked about the Pope, “How many divisions does he have?”

I ask about TAC, how many votes in the Senate does it have? Apparently none.

How utterly depressing.

#9 Comment By dave On May 13, 2018 @ 1:25 am

Parthian wars marked the end of the Roman Republic, I thought. Then drained the treasury for a while after, and things went downhill.

If it goes poorly, and I expect it would, I’d guess just having to deal with the refugees- Iran being much larger than Syria – will push the EU into a more independent policy orbit.

The business of China increasingly seems to be business, while the business of the U.S. increasingly seems to be war. Not a hard choice.

#10 Comment By questions On May 13, 2018 @ 2:55 am

Netanyahu, cited by Trump as his intel source on Iran, has been referred for prosecution by the Israeli police on fraud charges. In other words, Trump used evidence provided by someone already suspected of fraud with regard to other important matters.

Why would Trump seek support for pulling out of this deal from someone battling not just fraud, but corruption and bribery accusations brought by Israel’s top law enforcement officers?

Didn’t anyone around Trump tell him about this, try to stop him from looking like a complete idiot? Or is he already completely surrounded by Netanyahu’s agents?

#11 Comment By pro union label On May 13, 2018 @ 5:31 am

What a very long way Trump has come. From sneering at the neocons during the campaign, to hiring them, and now to doing their bidding. And from swearing to build a wall to protect America to spending the money on wars for Israel.

#12 Comment By John Dirlik On May 13, 2018 @ 10:12 am

A decade before Irgun terrorism convinced the British to hand over Palestine to the UN (1937) David Ben-Gurion candidly articulated Zionist strategy: “We shall accept a state with fixed boundaries today, but the boundaries of Zionist aspirations are the concern of the Jewish people and no external factors can limit them.”

Iran (through Hezbollah) ended Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon. Through Hamas, it pushed it out of Gaza. With Russia, it just scuttled Israel’s “regime change” plans for Syria.

Tehran’s intolerable behaviour, cardinal sin and unforgivable crime is that it is the “external factor” trying to “limit Zionist aspirations.”

#13 Comment By Jon On May 13, 2018 @ 11:21 am

When former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert listened to his military advisers and raged war against Lebanon he saw first hand the capability of the Revolutionary Guard trained Hezbollah. They defied Israeli military intelligence, operated in a well coordinated manner with comlinks that defied detection, and squirreled within tunnels moved about without much resistance.

It is perhaps the intelligence from this fiasco of a war that may have encouraged the previous administration here in the U.S. along with crucial European allies to negotiate an accord with Iran over its nuclear program. A direct war with Iran would be costly to American personnel. How does one encounter an array of underground bunkers and tunnels for deploying troops? What ground forces would be up against identifying and destroying tunnels might prove a daunting task and one accomplished at a great cost.

How the present administration views the material gathered in Olmert’s failed gambit at a military adventure remains a mystery to me. Perhaps as with Olmert’s Lebanon war there is an overconfidence in U.S. air power and we enter this conflagration casting a blind eye to the exigency of such a conflict for ground forces. Or, perhaps we, that is, the U.S., sit on the sidelines once again watching as Israel has her hands freed to pummel Iran bearing the brunt of war only for us to step in with air support. Or, perhaps the conflict continues without accelerating into a hot war. But the war dance has become increasingly dangerous as the dancers no longer tread on hot coals but now gingerly alight over burning flames.

#14 Comment By Donald On May 13, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

By Chris Ray “ logic”, Peter Beinart must be an antisemite.


#15 Comment By ukm1 On May 13, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

American voters still have a choice!

Please do not vote for incumbent president D.J. Trump in 2020, no matter whatever heaven-on-earth promises he makes again.

Because, incumbent president D.J. Trump will become even more erratic during his second term in the Oval Office as he will have nothing to lose anymore.

Plus, his vice president Mike Pence is an open-border, free-trade, warmonger Republican politician who supported Iraq and Vietnam wars.

With Mike Pence in the Oval Office in 2024, American citizens will get another evangelical George W. Bush in the White House.

#16 Comment By connecticut farmer On May 13, 2018 @ 5:09 pm

One of the few reasons to even consider supporting Trump was his sympathy towards the notion of reducing our foreign policy commitments. Well, so much for that. The Iran nuclear deal, however tenuous, was one of the few instances in which Obama could justifiably claim a foreign policy victory. Now it’s out the window. How much of this is due to Trump flexing his ego in getting back at Obama and how much is due to the counsel of the neocons is a matter of conjecture but it doesn’t matter. The deal is off and tensions are now escalating–and God only knows how this will end.
All of which raises the following thought question:

Who, in reality, controls America’s foreign policy in the Middle East? The President of the United States? Or the Prime Minister of Israel?

#17 Comment By Jeremy 2 On May 13, 2018 @ 8:59 pm

@Cyrus’s memory
And the Saudi-supported Sunni Islamic radicals who would be running Syria if Assad falls (and emboldened by regime change in Iran) don’t support the Islamification of the world and the elimination of the Jews? It is you who needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
Also, the Iranians wouldn’t have been able to spread their influence in Syria if the US hadn’t put an pro-Iran government in charge of Iraq in the first place.

@Kurt Gayle
I wrote that in response to Chris Ray’s allegations of anti-Semitism.

#18 Comment By Luther Perez On May 14, 2018 @ 10:05 am

It looks like the eager soldiers at Breitbart are all excited about a war with Iran.

#19 Comment By Sid Finster On May 14, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

It seems that I am forced to post this yet again:

“A wolf, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf’s right to eat him. He thus addressed him: “Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me.”

“Indeed,” bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, “I was not then born.”

Then said the Wolf, “You feed in my pasture.”

“No, good sir,” replied the Lamb, “I have not yet tasted grass.”

Again said the Wolf, “You drink of my well.”

“No,” exclaimed the Lamb, “I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother’s milk is both food and drink to me.”

Upon which the Wolf seized him and ate him up, saying, “Well! I won’t remain supperless, even though you refute every one of my imputations.”
Moral: The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny.”

For a few more years, the US will have absolute power over other people and we will use that power in an absolutely corrupt way at the behest of our overlords in Riyadh and Jerusalem. When retribution finally comes our way, no one will shed a tear for us.

Nor should they, for long we have don but little good and much evil.

#20 Comment By EarlyBird On May 14, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

Mark Thomason has it right: Russia could end up a big winner if Israel was able to push the US into a war with Iran.

#21 Comment By Waz On May 14, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

@Mark Thomason
Russia is in no position to call the shots in this embroglio orchestrated primarily by Israel. Putin can however take an opportunistic stance to extract as much for his country as possible. Question is – why would he take such a huge risk and intervene in Syria? Israeli/US control of Syria would embolden them to follow through and attack Iran immediately. So if Russia was to gain from the war with Iran they had all the incentives not to go to Syria other than protect their assets there. But how can Assad and Russian assets in Syria outlive the war with Iran? Putin would be a fool, and he’s not, to expect any deal with the US guaranteeing his assets in Syria to survive in the aftermath of the war. Such calculus is simply too convoluted to offer any odds of success.
Potential Russian gains from the war as a motivating factor to facilitate it is a very dubious proposition, to say the least.

#22 Comment By Mayor of NYC On May 15, 2018 @ 10:19 am

As Americans we must ask ourselves can we really afford another war? Are we ready to accept perhaps 10s of thousands of our youth dead because Iran may have nuclear weapons? Are we ready to exhaust what little wealth we may still have to fight another war? Even if Iran was to possess 100 nukes tomorrow, our overwhelming nuclear deterrence (and Israel’s) would insure that the Mullahs would think twice of lobbing one in either one of our directions.
It is time that Americans take back their country from those Neo-Con war mongers who have morphed great democracy into a nightmarish militaristic totalitarian empire that the whole world despises.

#23 Comment By Jeff On May 15, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

@connecticut farmer:

Who, in reality, controls America’s foreign policy in the Middle East? The President of the United States? Or the Prime Minister of Israel?

If you can form, let alone ask, the question, sir, then surely you already know the true answer?

#24 Comment By Donald Berrian On May 15, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

If we are going to worry about foreign influence on our elections and government generally, It is time to address the largest of them: Israel.

#25 Comment By Long Time Progressive On May 16, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

Somehow I never ran across TAC before. As my handle implies, I’m coming here from the middle-left, so I am understandably pleased to see this well-written, insightful article and all the similarly thoughtful and smart comments! If only more people from both sides could recognize the need for more of what you are doing here, and I would add, to stop labeling similar responsible journalism (e.g. the NYT) as fake or hopelessly biased.

So glad I found your site.

I agree with most of the comments here for this article. Netanyahu, Trump, Bolton, Pence…sadly, they all benefit politically and (warped) ideologically from war. Hard to say what Russia will do, but many Russians are deeply anti-semitic and the Trump administration’s one-sided policies only throw gas on that fire. American Jews (the subject of a number of comments here) may be in a quandary. They know Trump is basically a fascist with many parallels to Hitler or Mussolini, vs. Russia, a place that many of their ancestors fled from to escape brutal pogroms…

#26 Comment By Long Time Progressive On May 16, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

Isaac Asimov’s solution for a future where people are reluctant to leave Earth was the planting of a slowly-expanding, radiation zone where no one is hurt…they just have to leave. Since the world’s three major religions have a strong enough attachment to various piles of rocks in “the Holy Land” to endlessly kill each other over them, this sounds like a solution. Little to no casualties, since all would be forewarned. the limits of the zone would have to be carefully calculated. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

#27 Comment By Jeff Stanley On May 17, 2018 @ 4:46 am

@Chris Ray
Most Americans Jews despise Bibi and would oppose a war with Iran.
Most American Jews are not Israelis.

#28 Comment By Pete Wagner On May 17, 2018 @ 8:37 am

The days of us fighting their wars are over.

#29 Comment By MJR On May 17, 2018 @ 10:26 am

For better or worse Trump is just fulfilling a campaign promise. Something, traditional politicians, he actually does. Netanyahu has little to do with it. Same with W. Of course it’s convenient to blame Netanyahu instead of the republican presidents. Obama seemed to have no problem ignoring Netanyahu. During the second Iraq war, W’s own father’s nation security adviser, warned against it, but W had decided, because after all he was the decider. Just more alternative facts!

#30 Comment By Herrnhut On May 17, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

In the first generation of the twelve tribes, Joseph was sold off by his 10 brothers to Egypt. He suffered much as a slave and in prison to rise up to become the savior (as Jesus) of Egypt (gentile world) thru hard time. He married an Egyptian woman (gentile church) and was called savior in his Egyptian title.

In the mean time (just one chapter of Genesis) Judah went off to marry a Canaanite (the world) woman named Shuah (wealth). They had three sons. Two of them died (slewed by God). In the end time even their family will be saved by heavenly Joseph when they recognize him the long lost brother was dead now lives while Jacob (Israel) suffer ALL his life. This IS the picture of the history of the nation of twelve tribes and the church still happening. All the other gods from 4000 years ago are in the museums.

The wheel of time is on time for the end of His story

#31 Comment By Ed On May 18, 2018 @ 11:16 am

Two more years and Trump will likely be out. Thank goodness!

#32 Comment By You’re Both Wrong On May 18, 2018 @ 11:45 am

I love you guys. You rail against the Israel lobby but embrace the gun lobby. One is a sinister manipulator of the U.S. government, the other a harmless influence peddler. But which is which?

What does Russia want in Syria? What it’s always wanted: a naval base on the Mediterranean.

Why does Bibi want the U.S. to align with its interests against Iran? Because Iran has threatened grave harm against Israel and has shown that it can–and will–act on those threats, either directly or via proxy.

Why did Israel back the Iraq war? Because, like the West, it was mislead by Hussein’s boasts of chemical and nuclear weapons programs. It’s not Israel’s fault that the Neocons and the Pentagon so badly mismanaged that war, to Iran’s advantage. Remember, Israel supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, for the same reason.

Does Israel seek world domination? Hah! After 2000 years of exile and oppression for the crimes of not being polytheistic, Christian, or Muslim, it seeks only respite within secure borders. It has no quarrel with anyone but everyone has a quarrel with it.

I’m tired of seeing the same stupid, ignorant, non-historical canards foisted on the public from both the Left and the Right. Read a little history and learn from it; isn’t that the point of Conservatism? Study the evidence and test your theories; isn’t that the pride of the Progressives? Paranoia, whining, and self-delusion is for losers.

#33 Comment By Karen Holmes On May 18, 2018 @ 7:12 pm

The first requirement for conflict resolution is that both sides must be considered equal. Wars are started by people who believe they are more important than another. If you consider court cases to be like mini wars, for a fair trial, both sides must be considered equal under the law. Therefore, Trump’s policy of maximum pressure leads to perpetual wars, and I just saw on an article that Putin has a new underwater drone that can carry nuclear weapons with the capacity to destroy US naval bases. Does that sound like a man who sees others as equal under the law?