In the United States, discussions of Iran have for the last few years been mostly about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama. In the Middle East, things are different.
This is because while we have been debating, Iran has been acting. And Israel has been reacting. Israel has struck weapon convoys in Syria a hundred times in the last five years, bombing when it saw an Iranian effort to move advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Last month Israel bombed the so-called Scientific Studies and Researchers Center in Masyaf, a city in central Syria, a military site where chemical weapons and precision bombs were said to be produced.
Now, there are reports that Iran is planning to build a military airfield near Damascus, where the Revolutionary Guards could build up their presence and operate; that Iran and President Bashar Assad’s regime are negotiating giving Iran its own naval pier in the port of Tartus; and that Iran may actually deploy a division of soldiers in Syria.
Such developments would be unacceptable to Israel, and it will convey this message to Russia and to the United States. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is scheduled to visit Israel soon, after which Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will visit Washington. Previous Israeli efforts (during Netanyahu’s four visits to Moscow in the last year) to get Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop Iran have failed, which suggests that Israel will need to do so itself, alone – unless the new Iran policy being debated by the Trump administration leads the United States to seek ways to stop the steady expansion of Iran’s military presence and influence in the Middle East.
That remains to be seen. Rumors suggest that the Trump administration may label the IRGC a terrorist group, which could open the door to using counterterrorism authorities to stop its expansion. Whatever the debate over the JCPOA, there may well be a broader consensus in the administration that Iran’s growing military role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region must be countered.
Whatever the American conclusion, if Iran does indeed plan to establish a large and permanent military footprint in Syria – complete with permanent naval and air bases and a major ground force – Israel will have fateful decisions to make. Such an Iranian presence in the Mediterranean and on Israel’s border would change the military balance in the region and fundamentally change Israel’s security situation. And under the JCPOA as agreed by Obama, remember, limits on Iran’s nuclear program begin to end in only eight years, Iran may now perfect its intercontinental ballistic missile program, and there are no inspections of military sites where further nuclear weapons research may be underway.
As Senator Tom Cotton said recently, “If Iran doesn’t have a covert nuclear program today, it would be the first time in a generation.” Israel could be a decade away from a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and has bases in Syria – and could logically therefore even place nuclear weapons in Syria, just miles from Israel’s border.
As one Israeli military commentator recently wrote, “If the Israeli diplomatic move fails to bear fruit, we [Israel] are headed toward a conflict with the Iranians.” That conclusion, and the Iranian moves that make it a growing possibility should be on the minds of Trump administration officials as they contemplate a new policy toward Iran’s ceaseless drive for power in the Middle East.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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