21 October 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Donald Trump at the White House in March. Netanyahu wants to stiffen US resolve against Iran, says the author. Photo: Bloomberg
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Donald Trump at the White House in March. Netanyahu wants to stiffen US resolve against Iran, says the author. Photo: Bloomberg

Trump and Netanyahu risk sparking Mideast nuclear arms race

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani may not be the only one to have welcomed US President Donald Trump’s cancellation of peace talks with the Taliban. Probably, so did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the run-up to this month’s Israeli elections.

The cancellation likely reduces fears harbored in recent weeks by Netanyahu and the Israeli intelligence community that the US president may reverse his hardline stance on Iran and seek to negotiate a resolution of differences with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

Israel’s fears were sparked by Trump’s repeated expression of interest in meeting with Rouhani, talks on the margins of last month’s gathering of Group of Seven leaders in Biarritz between French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Trump’s last-minute pullback in June from launching a military strike against Iran.

Trump reiterated his willingness to talk to Rouhani a day after the cancellation and hours after Netanyahu sought to prove that Iran had been violating the 2015 international agreement designed to curb its nuclear ambitions.

The US president told reporters that he had no objections to negotiating face-to-face with Rouhani. “Sure, anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem. We could solve it in 24 hours,” Trump said.

Netanyahu probably saw Trump’s firing on Tuesday of his national security adviser John Bolton, one of the Israeli leader’s foremost soulmates in the US administration when it came to Iran, as another worrisome sign.

International Crisis Group’s Iran expert Ali Vaez voiced Netanyahu’s worst fears by describing Bolton’s departure as “an opportunity for de-escalation”.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence were likely to draw two conclusions from the cancellation of the Taliban talks.

If Trump’s withdrawal in May of last year from the 2015 nuclear agreement, despite a consensus that the Islamic republic was abiding by the accord, convinced Iranians that the United States could not be trusted to honor its commitments, canceling talks with the Taliban has highlighted the risks of engaging with the US president.

As a result, Rouhani, a strong proponent of the nuclear accord who was weakened by Trump’s withdrawal and has since been on the defensive against Iranian hardliners, is likely to be even more hesitant to engage with Trump.

That is what Netanyahu, betting on Rouhani’s track record in recent weeks, will count on.

Last month, Rouhani initially expressed willingness to meet Trump without preconditions, but subsequently toughened his position by insisting that the US first lift harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran after the US withdrawal from the nuclear accord.

Rouhani told the Iranian parliament a day before Trump’s latest overture and on the same day that the US president canceled the Taliban talks that Iran’s response to American advances would “always be negative”.

The cancellation is also likely to reinforce Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s deep-rooted distrust of the US.

Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence are likely to draw a second conclusion from the cancellation prompted by the Taliban’s continued attacks despite peace talks that last week killed a US soldier and 11 others.

Trump’s declaration that the talks were “dead” raised the specter of a president reluctant to embroil the US in further military conflict ramping up operations in Afghanistan to counter anticipated Taliban activity.

In an effort to fortify his perceived, regained advantage and distract attention from setbacks in his electoral campaign, Netanyahu charged in a short, televised address on Monday that Iran’s “duplicitous” regime had been secretly developing nuclear weapons at a hitherto unknown site near Abadeh, south of the city of Isfahan.

Netanyahu asserted that Iran had destroyed the site once it realized that Israel had discovered it. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, denied the Israeli allegations.

Analysts charged that Netanyahu was recycling dated information in a blurring of the lines between his electoral needs and Israel’s true security concerns.

“In the way Netanyahu presents things … there is a whiff of manipulation; contrary to what one might understand from his remarks, this was an Iranian violation from the period before the nuclear agreement, which went into effect in January 2015,” said Amos Harel, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

In attempting to persuade the Israeli electorate that he is the leader with the security credentials needed to protect Israel from the likes of Iran, stiffen US resolve to bring Iran to its knees, and convince other nations that Iran is the source of all evil, Netanyahu risks not only escalating tension in the Middle East but also sparking a regional nuclear arms race.

Netanyahu’s assertions threaten to reinforce Saudi resolve to match whatever advances Iran may make.

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, in his first remarks since being appointed oil minister this week, said that the kingdom wanted to push ahead with the full cycle of its nuclear program, including the production and enrichment of uranium for atomic fuel.

Iran in recent weeks has gradually breached the limits set on its enriched-uranium stockpile by the nuclear agreement and installed advanced centrifuges in a bid to force Europe to take effective steps to shield it against the full impact of US sanctions and prevent the collapse of the accord.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an indication that a regional nuclear arms race could spiral out of control, this month demanded the right for his country to develop a nuclear military capability.

Not to mention that a nuclear arms race could prompt Israel, the Middle East’s so far only, albeit undeclared, nuclear power, to enhance its capabilities to maintain its strategic edge.

Said Gulf scholar Luciano Zaccara: “With its ill-advised policies in the Gulf, the Trump administration is not only encouraging a nuclear race in the region … but it is also undermining the international non-proliferation regime. … In the current volatile situation in the Middle East … the lack of a robust non-proliferation agreement will encourage a nuclear race in the region and increase the chances of pre-emptive military attacks that could lead to large-scale war.”

The same could be said for Netanyahu’s approach.

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Senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer syndicated column and blog.