As calls rise for the US to ease sanctions on Tehran, why is Netanyahu silent?

Despite Iran’s dire situation, Pompeo initially increased pressure on the regime but may now reevaluate his position. Jerusalem has good reason to sit this one out, analysts say

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A firefighter disinfects a square against the new coronavirus, in western Tehran, Iran, March 13, 2020. (Vahid Salemi/AP)
A firefighter disinfects a square against the new coronavirus, in western Tehran, Iran, March 13, 2020. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

In February 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casually dismissed Israeli socioeconomic worries because, in his view, the greatest threat to the state’s existence is Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. “When we talk about the price of housing, about the cost of living, I don’t forget life itself for a single moment,” he tweeted, earning much scorn from people poking fun at his apparent Iran obsession.

No politician in the world has been as outspoken about the need to confront Iran as Netanyahu. But since the novel coronavirus started spreading several weeks ago, the prime minister has not mentioned Iran even once. Rather, his public statements focus exclusively on two issues: the need to prevent the pandemic from spreading lest thousands of Israel die — what he called “life itself,” if you will — and, in the political realm, the need to establish a unity government.

Over in the United States, Donald Trump’s administration has continued to wage a verbal and economic war with the Islamic Republic, despite thousands of Iranians dying from COVID-19, the sickness caused by the virus. By contrast, the Israeli government has been absolutely silent on the issue.

Is Jerusalem in favor of temporarily easing sanctions on Tehran, as a humanitarian gesture? Or does Netanyahu fully back the White House’s ongoing “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime?

Official Israel has not taken a stance on these questions. The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to several Times of Israel queries on its position vis-a-vis Jerusalem’s regional arch-enemy during this time of unprecedented crisis.

Iranian Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi wipes the sweat off his face, during a press conference with the Islamic Republic’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei in the capital Tehran, February 24, 2020. (Mehdi Bolourian/Fars News/AFP)

Notwithstanding the radio silence, the coronavirus has not replaced Iran as Israel’s public enemy number one, several analysts said this week.

“I’m not sure what added value it would have for Netanyahu to chime in here. It seems to me that it’s actually better for Israel to keep a lower profile from Israel’s standpoint,” said Michael Makovsky, the president and CEO of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Iran has lots of money and could easily divert some of it to health care rather than its military adventures, he added, noting that he is in favor of the US increasing the already-biting sanctions on the regime.

“But it’s better for the US to be seen as acting alone,” he said.

Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold on November 14, 2017, in New York. (Perry Bindelglass)

While Netanyahu hasn’t said so explicitly, Jerusalem still supports Washington in its struggle against Tehran, according to Dore Gold, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who is known to be close to Netanyahu.

“As long as Iranian-backed militias in Iraq continue to attack American troops on Iraqi soil, the US has a right of self-defense. The use of economic sanctions is far less escalatory than opting for full-scale military response each time. And to rule out America’s right to use economic sanctions would be leaving it defenseless in light of continuing Iranian aggression,” Gold said.

“I would assume that Israel has a similar view,” he added.

Ehud Eiran, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Haifa, offered several reasons that would explain why Israel is staying out of the picture. For one, the US is pressuring Iran without Israel’s encouragement, so Netanyahu doesn’t need to waste diplomatic capital to push for more sanctions.

Secondly, Israel has its hands full fighting the pandemic, “so there’s no need to add more items to deal with, such as an angry exchange with Tehran,” he said.

Furthermore, there is “no internal need for rallying the nation around [Netanyahu’s] leadership, as the coronavirus serves this purpose,” Eiran posited. And lastly, the government “does not want to come across as seeking to harm the Iranian people at their great moment of distress, [since] Israel claims it has a conflict with the regime, not the Iranian population.”

People in protective clothing walk past rows of beds at a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for coronavirus patients set up by the Iranian army at the international exhibition center in northern Tehran, Iran, March 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran is one of the countries that has suffered the most from the coronavirus, with nearly 45,000 people infected and more than 2,800 dead. The regime has been using the crisis to call on the international community to ignore the US sanctions, arguing that they prevent Iranian doctors from properly treating the country’s ill. Officials in Tehran accuse the US of “medical terror.”

Undeterred, the US State Department has continued and even intensified its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, increasing sanctions and retaliating against Iran’s proxies when they attacked US interests.

Iran’s poor healthcare system is the regime’s own fault, officials in Washington argued, noting as well that Tehran refuses to accept humanitarian aid from the US.

As the weeks went on, and the death toll in Iran continued to rise, some of the regime’s allies, senior United Nation officials and even prominent politicians in the US started urging the administration to ease economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

“Rather than continue to invoke new sanctions in the Iranian people’s hour of need, we urge you to substantially suspend sanctions on Iran during this global public health emergency in a humanitarian gesture to the Iranian people to better enable them to fight the virus,” 34 Democratic lawmakers, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, wrote on Tuesday in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news briefing at the State Department February 25, 2020 in Washington, DC (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Pompeo was the face of the administration’s persistent hostility toward Iran, even as the country was overwhelmed with the deadly virus, which has earned him much criticism.

“Even close U.S. allies, such as Britain, are calling on the Trump administration to ease sanctions that are inhibiting shipment of medical supplies and humanitarian aid to Iran’s 80 million people. Yet Pompeo appears to view the epidemic as a handy means to compound ‘maximum pressure.’ To what end?” wondered Jackson Diehl, a prominent columnist at the Washington Post.

“Regime change, which the secretary of state has made clear he favors, is hardly likely to be the result. More probable is wholesale death of innocent people, and the further discrediting of America’s claim to humanitarianism,” he wrote earlier this week.

On Tuesday, France, Germany and the United Kingdom announced that INSTEX, the financial instrument they designed to circumvent the US sanctions against Iran, had successfully concluded its first transaction, facilitating the export of medical goods from Europe to Iran.

The prime minister is wise enough to keep his words for the critical junctions

Later that day, Pompeo indicated for the first time that he was willing to reconsider his position.

“Well, of course, we evaluate all of our policies constantly. So the answer is would we ever rethink it — of course; we’re constantly trying to make sure we have our policies right,” he told reporters at a press briefing.

Netanyahu’s office on Wednesday refused to comment on Pompeo’s statement. But Yaakov Amidror, his former national security adviser, said the prime minister’s actions speak louder than words.

Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror (Flash90)

“There’s a classic saying that every American knows: If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Yesterday, Israel attacked targets in Syria, according to foreign sources. The State of Israel continues to do what it needs to do, without talking. We continue to do what we deem necessary, and the Americans do whatever they think is right in terms of sanctions.”

The current debate in the US is not about terminating all sanctions on Iran but merely about possibly easing some of them to alleviate the suffering due to the pandemic, Amidror stressed. Even if the administration were to do that, in the framework of a humanitarian gesture, Israel would be well-advised not to publicly comment on the matter, in his view.

“The prime minister is wise enough to keep his words for the critical junctions,” Amidror said. “Right now, it’s not critical. What’s critical for us right now is to deal with the coronavirus.”

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