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All Eyes on Israel as Mideast Tensions Spike


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk to each other during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018.

Right up until until the final hours, America’s European allies held out hope they could dissuade President Donald Trump from withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear accord. As the announcement deadline loomed, however, their hopes appeared ever more forlorn and desperate.

Now in the wake of Trump’s decision Tuesday to pull the U.S. out of a deal alongside America’s main European partners that was signed by Barack Obama in 2015 — in which Tehran agreed to nuclear curbs in return for sanctions relief — all involved are trying to determine what the consequences might be.

And there are few answers to a host of questions thrown up by the U.S. leader’s unilateral decision to walk away from a deal he described Tuesday as a “horrible, one sided nuclear agreement.”

Hardline Iranian demonstrators burn representations of the U.S. flag during a gathering in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, May 9, 2018, reacting to President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the nuclear deal.
Hardline Iranian demonstrators burn representations of the U.S. flag during a gathering in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, May 9, 2018, reacting to President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the nuclear deal.

How will Iran respond? Will Iran resume its efforts to develop nuclear power it claims is for peaceful purposes? What will the other signatory countries do next? Will the decision strengthen the hand of hardliners in Iran? Will Washington sanction European and Asian businesses that continue to trade with Iran, and how will Europe react to that?

Few diplomats or analysts are willing to forecast outcomes.

But there is consensus the decision will raise tensions quickly in a Middle East already mired in ugly conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, says the withdrawal could trigger cataclysmic events, including a war between the U.S. and Iran.

“Iran looms large over major U.S. national security concerns including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, cyber, energy security, terrorism, & obviously nuclear proliferation,” he tweeted. “The opportunities for direct conflict are numerous.”

Even before the U.S., leader made his announcement Tuesday at the White House, tensions were rising dangerously between Tehran and Israel, which has backed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Some analysts fear it has increased the risk of a direct clash of arms in what until now has been a shadow war between Israel and Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents material on Iranian nuclear weapons development during a press conference in Tel Aviv, April 30 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents material on Iranian nuclear weapons development during a press conference in Tel Aviv, April 30 2018.

It is being played out in Syria, where Israel has mounted more than 100 airstrikes in the past six years on Iranian military bases there and to prevent weapons transfers to the Tehran-tied Hezbollah movement.

Shortly before Trump’s announcement, the Israeli military warned of the “irregular activity of Iranian forces in Syria.” And soon after the president spoke, explosions were heard near the Syrian capital Damascus, with Syria’s state media announcing military bases were being targeted in Israeli airstrikes.

On Tuesday night, Israel announced it had opened bomb shelters and called up some military reserve units as it braced for a possible Iranian response to the Israeli airstrikes on several Syrian military bases that are used by Iranian forces, one just south of Damascus.

According to intelligence, Iran is thought to be in the advanced planning stages of carrying out an attack on Israel. Tehran has vowed to retaliate for an alleged Israel Air Force strike two months ago on the Syrian T-4 airbase near Homs, where units of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards Corps are stationed.

Israeli military officials say Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia that made major gains in parliamentary elections Sunday in Lebanon, most likely will be the force used to conduct the retaliation.

FILE - Masked gunmen of the pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim Hezbollah party, clad in military uniforms, are seen in the village of Sohmor, Lebanon.
FILE - Masked gunmen of the pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim Hezbollah party, clad in military uniforms, are seen in the village of Sohmor, Lebanon.

Hezbollah has stockpiled hundreds of thousands of rockets, many of which are able to strike anywhere in Israel. If Hezbollah launches a major attack, Israel already has warned it will strike at Lebanon.

Trump’s announcement was welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “bold decision … to reject the disastrous nuclear deal with the terrorist regime in Tehran.” Israeli officials have long argued the accord has merely served to strengthen Iran, providing it cover to expand its military and political influence in the region, a position shared by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which also backed Trump’s decision.

Israeli officials say they are engaged in a “war between the wars” with Iran and its proxies, and they welcome America more confrontational stance towards Tehran.

“We don’t make everything public but do whatever it takes so that Iranian arms don’t reach Gaza. The same is true of Lebanon and Syria ... When we undermine their capability, we are postponing the next round of violence,” said former Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon at a conference Tuesday in Israel.

Trump’s speech, according to Malcolm Chalmers, an analyst at Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, has broadened Washington’s policy aims when it comes to Iran. “The U.S. is not just criticizing the nuclear deal, but it taking on the entire foreign policy of Iran — what it is doing in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, its ballistic missile program.”

Chalmers doesn’t think those issues can be dealt with through talks. “The idea you can bring all of them to the negotiating table is most unrealistic.”

Britain’s foreign secretary told the House of Commons on Wednesday that Britain has no intention of walking away from the Iran nuclear deal — France and Germany have made the same pledge. An escalation in conflict between Israel and Iran would make it harder for the Europeans to keep the nuclear accord alive.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in the wake of Trump’s announcement that Iran for now will abide by the accord’s terms.

In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian presidency, President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, May 8, 2018.
In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian presidency, President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, May 8, 2018.

His foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted that Tehran would begin discussing next steps with the accord’s other signatories — France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia. “The outcome will determine our response,” he tweeted.

British officials say their fear is if the U.S. insists on sanctioning European and Asian firms doing business with Iran, as U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Wednesday that Washington will do, then Tehran will have even less of an incentive to stick with the accord — and any resumption of a nuclear program by the Iranians would no doubt invite either Israeli or American military reaction. “It will increase the likelihood of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon,” said Brian Klass, an American political scientist.

The U.S. president’s supporters point to North Korea’s willingness now to negotiate about its nuclear program as proof that confrontational tactics work. Authoritarian regimes are responsive to displays of power, says Davis Lewin, an independent Middle East analyst.

An earlier version of this story identified Davis Lewin as being associated with the London-based Henry Jackson Society. He is no longer with the group. VOA regrets the error.

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