Israeli PM visits White House amid concerns about a rising Iranian threat

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett paid a visit to the White House last week, the first by an Israeli prime minister since President Joe Biden took office. Coming on the heels of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the discussion underscored the concern of US allies, foremost the specter of a rising Iranian threat. Despite promises by the White House that all options are still on the table, the Israelis remain unconvinced of the US commitment to their interests.

Comments by various Israeli observers, including Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman, paint a region in flux and at a heightened risk of conflict, with Israel facing the possibility of an unprecedented “multi-front war”: “Israel has opposed Iranian entrenchment in southern Syria, and there have been tensions with Hezbollah’s attempt to infiltrate near the Israeli border. In the fall of 2018, Hezbollah sent a ‘killer drone’ team to southern Syria near the Golan to threaten Israel. Over the years, Israel has carried out airstrikes to reduce Iranian entrenchment in Syria. However, Iran’s tentacles continue to grow…. It is not clear what comes next. Iran and Hezbollah may soon try to infiltrate the area. This could increase tensions in the region and between Israel and Hezbollah. For years Israel has been concerned over the possibility of a multi-front war, including a conflict in the North that would include areas along the Lebanese and Golan border with Syria.”

In an effort to dispel any notion of Iran’s bellicosity, the Iranians, as this Tehran Times article shows, are trying to signal that the incoming government has made regional reconciliation a priority, even though by their own admission “no tangible success has been achieved”: “A wind of reconciliation is blowing across the region. Many countries are patching up their relations after years of antagonism. But will this reconciliation drive expand to include a thaw in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations?… .It should be noted that Iran had already joined the reconciliation drive, but no tangible success has been achieved. Iran has announced on multiple occasions that it was ready to open a new chapter with Saudi Arabia. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif even voiced readiness to visit Riyadh and dispatch an ambassador to Saudi Arabia…. But it’s too early to get disappointed at the prospect of a thaw in Tehran-Riyadh relations simply because the talks between the Iranians and their Saudi counterparts have not reached their end yet.”

However, as Mustafa Fahs argues in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, such rhetoric is belied by the actions of the Iranian government and the incoming foreign minister’s bullish attitude, demonstrated at a gathering of regional heads of state last week in Iraq: “[FM] Abdollahian’s leap over the second row to the first as the group photograph was being taken at the latest Baghdad conference is nothing but an Iranian signal that this government will not hesitate to leap over all norms, be they related to diplomacy, regional or international relations, or those that ensure good relations with neighbors. It also emphasizes Iranian hegemony over four Arab capitals, that it will take a hardline position on all matters, and that, in any future negotiations with the international community, discussions will not go beyond the nuclear issue, that neither Iran’s influence in the region nor its ballistic missiles are on the table.”

Meanwhile, calls for holding Iran accountable are increasing, and not just from the Israelis. Writing for Arab News, Majid Rafizadeh turns his attention to Iran’s record at home, in particular, the Iranian regime’s human-rights record: “The UN Security Council has remained silent in the face of the Iranian regime’s increasing and egregious human-rights violations…. The regime’s modus operandi is anchored in abuse, the mistreatment of opponents and dissidents, and the employment of brute force and torture… One of the key issues the international community must focus on is putting an end to the culture of impunity enjoyed by regime leaders…. The international community, particularly the US and the EU, must now take the lead on this issue. The world must realize that there are no moderates in the Iranian regime and that the Iranian people are demanding its overthrow.”

Misgivings about Iran’s actions at home and its role in the region have increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, seen as strengthening Iran’s hand in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. In an op-ed for Al Ahram, Manal Lofty asserts that what is happening in “Afghanistan may play a role in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and the hasty way in which the US got out of Afghanistan could put the Biden administration under internal pressure, especially from the Republican Party. Crucial midterm elections for the US Congress take place in 2022, and after the Afghan crisis, the last thing US President Joe Biden wants is to appear weak on another foreign-policy issue, especially regarding Iran…. Any concession on the Iranian nuclear dossier will put the Biden administration under pressure, especially after the talks held with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Washington last week, in which Biden promised to use options other than the diplomatic one if negotiations with Iran falter.”

It was against this background that the Israeli PM visited the White House last week in an effort to persuade the Biden administration to take a tougher stance against Iran, a plea which, according to this Gulf News editorial, may not have found a receptive US president: “Bennett’s immediate concern was to present the White House with a solid case that repudiates attempts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran and allow the US to rejoin it. He has used the recent US debacle in Afghanistan and the election of Ebrahim Raisi in Iran to make a case that radical Islam remains a major threat to the stability of the region and presents an existential threat to the state of Israel…. Chances are that Biden and his aides, still reeling from a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, had listened to Bennett but did not give an immediate response…. The best that Bennett will get for now is a renewed US commitment to protect Israel. A post-Netanyahu reset in ties will be a credit to Bennett.”

Joyce Karam, in an op-ed for The National, notes that President Biden’s comment to the Israeli prime minister that he was willing to entertain other alternatives should the negotiations fail seems to have angered the Iranians: “US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday that Washington will ‘turn to other options’ if diplomacy fails with Iran…. Regarding Iran, Mr. Biden reiterated the US commitment to preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon and said other options were being considered if diplomatic talks in Vienna were to break down…. On Saturday, a top Iranian security official accused Mr. Biden of illegally threatening Iran following his remarks on using ‘other options’ if nuclear diplomacy fails…. Separately, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Al Khamenei warned Mr Raisi’s economic planners to assume that US sanctions would remain in place, calling Mr Biden a ‘predatory wolf’.”

Despite the Iranian interpretation of and reaction to Mr. Biden’s words to Mr. Bennett, the Israelis themselves remain unconvinced by the American reassurances, with Jonathan Tobin, the editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, concluding in his Israel Hayom op-ed, “Empty promises won’t preserve the US-Israel alliance…. The idea that the administration will pursue non-diplomatic options to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions once they concede that diplomacy has failed is a fantasy. That’s true despite the fact that neither Biden nor White House spokesperson Jen Psaki is willing to say what those alternative options might be or even to hint that force would or could ever be used. For Biden’s foreign-policy team, diplomacy is an end in itself rather than a means to securing specific objectives in the interests of America and its allies. The belief of figures like Secretary of State Antony Blinken in multilateralism is ideological in nature more than anything else.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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