I got up a few minutes before 0400 this morning to watch the American presidential debate. Things have changed a great deal since the previous campaign, because I can’t recall anything even close in verbal viciousness from the candidates themselves. Biden called Trump a clown, a racist, and a liar, and told him to shut up. Trump, for his part, continually interrupted Biden and talked over him, somewhat like political discussions on Israeli TV.
More immediately relevant for Israel is what PM Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly (text and video) in a ten-minute pre-recorded speech yesterday. There was a dramatic disclosure of the location of a Hezbollah missile depot or factory (in pictures and with GPS coordinates) in the middle of a civilian neighborhood in Beirut, next door to a gas company’s tanks. A similar installation in southern Lebanon exploded just last week, following the massive Beirut explosion, which was caused by explosives-grade ammonium nitrate kept at the port by Hezbollah. Bibi suggested that the folks who live around there might try to pressure Hezbollah to dismantle it before it, too, blows up. Unfortunately, nobody in Lebanon can stand up to Hezbollah.
Lebanon is a tragedy. It’s suffering from a rapidly growing outbreak of Coronavirus, although it is still behind Israel in serious cases and deaths. Its economy was already in flames before the explosion that destroyed its largest port, most of its grain reserves, and a third of its capital. Like Covid-19, Hezbollah is a parasitic organism that, in this case, is killing its host.
This parasite, however is controlled and nourished from Iran, as Bibi noted in his speech. It is the perfect remote weapon. By embedding its weapons in the midst of the population, the Iranian regime protects them from the IDF – and unlike Hamas, which also uses human shields, it doesn’t even have to endanger its own population to do so!
The other important thing that Bibi said was that in our estimation – and Israel’s intelligence in this area is quite good – Iran is expected to have enough enriched uranium in “a few” months to build not one, but two, nuclear bombs. Iran has been working on the rest of the technology for bombs for years, as well as missiles capable of delivering them. This is a real threat that must not be minimized, and – I must remind those who so strongly criticize Netanyahu – he has focused on this danger. We will not be taken by surprise by Iran.
The US under the Trump Administration has proven to be a valuable ally against Iran. By ending the JCPOA and re-imposing American sanctions, Trump has increased the pressure on Iran and made it harder for the regime to fund Hezbollah. Trump’s support helped enable the normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, and perhaps others yet to come. Trump approved the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s “Quds Force.” Soleimani controlled Iranian operations around the world, and especially in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, as well as being active in suppressing internal dissent. His loss was very painful to the regime.
When I watched the debate this morning, with its insults and posturing, I wondered if the Iranian leaders were watching as well. I am sure they were. And I am sure that they are rooting for Biden, who has promised to re-enter the JCPOA, reduce sanctions, and engage in further negotiations with Iran (which made fools of Obama’s negotiating team). Worse, Biden will likely pick up some of the same advisors that guided the Obama Administration. Wendy Sherman and Jake Sullivan may be back talking to the Iranians. And of course Biden supports the failed two-state solution with the Palestinians, which guarantees that there will be no progress and continued terrorism on that front.
But maybe the Iranians are making a mistake. On the one hand, a Trump victory will probably see a continuation of the policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. In the long term, it may succeed in weakening the regime enough that it can be persuaded to back down on its nuclear weapons project. Israel will continue monitoring Iranian activities and working with its new Arab allies to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran.
On the other hand, if Biden wins it may become clear to Israeli planners that there is a very short window of opportunity to pursue a military solution to the problem of Iranian nukes. Once Biden comes in, any Israeli actions would be off the table, just like in the days of the Obama Administration.
So either Trump wins, or the Iranians should expect a very warm November or December.