Israel Is Growing Increasingly Worried About the Trump Administration
As Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia rush to fill the vacuum of leadership in the Middle East, the United States is AWOL.
Israel’s reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran speech last month was best summed up by a former senior official we recently met in Tel Aviv: “It sounds very nice, and I like it very much, but what’s next?”
What we heard last month in Israel on Iran was less focused on the fate of the nuclear deal and more concerned about glaring gaps in U.S. strategy to deter Iran’s destabilizing actions and support for terrorist groups in the wider Middle East.
If and how the Trump administration addresses these gaps in its regional strategy will have implications for America’s security and its allies for years to come — and what we heard in Israel is a growing worry that Trump lacks any operable plan at all on Iran.
Historically, Iran has based its own regional foreign policy on opportunism. For decades since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s regime has worked to shift political dynamics in key countries across the region to their favor. And for the last 15 years, it has sought to take quick advantage of changing regional dynamics and direct them in its favor. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eliminated two of Iran’s greatest adversaries: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes. Feeling insecure and encircled by the U.S. military in the immediate aftermath of those two wars, Iran quickly adapted and built new networks of proxies and political allies as balances of power shifted in its immediate region.
Indeed, the past decade witnessed a historic expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, rattling countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia in the process. Iran’s regional approach has been one akin to jiujitsu — the martial arts method of neutralizing an adversary by using that opponent’s own energy and force against him. This strategy has enabled Iran to build and strengthen political relationships over time and deeply embed itself in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
By the start of this year, Iran had realized more gains in Middle East influence than any other country since 2011 when popular uprising shook many Arab countries — largely due to the deep fractures and divisions within Arab countries. As one leading academic in Israel told us, “the story has not been so much about Iran’s inherent strength, but rather one of weaknesses within Arab countries.”
Iran’s foreign policy thrives off of this endemic poor governance, weak institutions, and political polarization. But in many ways, Iran is more exposed and vulnerable regionally due to how overstretched it is. Because Iran has taken advantage of division and corruption among its neighbors but hasn’t remedied those problems, there is an important opening with the populations of places like Iraq and Lebanon for the United States and its partners to counter it smartly and compete with Iran’s influence.
But doing so will require deft diplomacy, alliance building, and long-term investments in relationships that seem to be beyond the reach of the Trump administration and its obvious disdain for cohesive strategic planning and investments in key tools of U.S. power like diplomacy. Making matters worse, Trump and his incoherent foreign policy have alienated America’s partners and shredded U.S. credibility as a trustworthy global leader.
Put simply, the Trump administration’s unclear and disjointed approach to the Middle East has unnerved key allies like Israel while giving the emerging coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah a free pass. Many Israelis were dismayed earlier this week when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Iran’s presence in Syria was legitimate and that they would not force Iranian-aligned Shiite militias to withdraw from positions close to Syria’s border with Israel.
The Trump administration’s passive and incoherent Middle East policy has also fostered moral hazard with some of our closest partners in the region, as seen in the recent actions by Saudi Arabia to use threats and psychological warfare to pressure Iran’s partner in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The move appears to have backfired by prompting a backlash in Lebanon, and it may have forced Saudi Arabia to recalibrate, as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported.
In the absence of a more coherent approach by the United States, key powers in the Middle East will continue to test the limits of their power. The Saudi-led move against Qatar earlier this year and the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum this fall are two examples. And new alignments may emerge and deepen — an unprecedented interview in a Saudi news outlet by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot this week is the latest sign of Israel and Saudi Arabia sharing a common interest in addressing the threats they see coming from Iran.
But it would be a mistake for the United States to remain passive and allow its partners to shape the regional agenda. Washington needs to play a more active role and use its considerable leverage to shape the actions of U.S. partners and adversaries.
Projecting power doesn’t mean going to war against Iran — it means showing up in the places where power and influence matter most. In the eyes of many in Israel, the Trump administration’s mishandling of the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum is a prime example of how the United States squandered its potential leverage with partners and failed to stand up to adversaries.
Today an urgent test for the United States remains Syria’s ongoing conflict. Since assuming office, the Trump administration has adopted a more passive approach than its predecessor. Though the United States remains engaged in supporting Syria’s Kurds in the anti-Islamic State campaign, this counterterrorism-only focus has allowed Iran and Russia to set the terms of a future peace in Syria through initiatives like local cease-fires. Allies like Israel and Jordan are unhappy about the trends in Syria, but they shy away from strong public criticisms of the Trump administration for fear of alienating an erratic and mercurial U.S. president.
Over the next year, the ultimate question for the United States and its partners in the Middle East will come not from Iran’s nuclear program — still kept in check by the nuclear deal, for now — but whether or not they are able to effectively turn Iran’s strategic momentum against it.
Most of the potential moves to counter Iran will be diplomatic, political, and economic, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent move to encourage the budding rapprochement between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Some military moves may be necessary — for instance, sending a signal of resolve to support U.S. partners through military exercises aimed at ensuring the freedom of navigation in the region’s waters and through its strategic choke points. But the burden rests on the Trump administration to formulate a coherent regional strategy that reassures U.S. allies and sends a clear message of strength to its adversaries. Here lies the greatest challenge for the United States 10 months into the Trump administration — a creeping crisis of credibility that the United States’ closest friends notice in the gap between the new administration’s rhetoric and actions.
So as Congress focuses on the important question of the fate of the nuclear deal, the region is worried about the Trump administration’s overall Middle East approach. Congress has until Dec. 12 to decide whether it will introduce a bill for expedited consideration to reimpose sanctions against Iran after Trump’s decision to decertify the nuclear deal — but the current debate in the region is about what Iran is doing in multiple countries, not at home.
In a country like Israel, which shares many interests and values with the United States, some of America’s closest friends are worried about how steady and consistent the Trump administration’s policy implementation will be. The new tone of warmth and support to Israel projected by President Trump is widely welcomed there, as are the increased criticisms of adversaries like Iran.
But actions speak louder than words, and nearly a month after Trump’s Iran speech many top security officials in Israel are still asking: Does the United States care about the region, and does it have a plan?
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security.