With new Iran strategy, Trump rips page out of Netanyahu’s playbook
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AnalysisDid some of that speech sound familiar?

With new Iran strategy, Trump rips page out of Netanyahu’s playbook

US president not only adopts PM's 'fix it or nix it' approach to nuclear deal, but also has identical demands for countering regime's conventional aggression

Raphael Ahren

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

When US President Donald Trump outlined his new strategy to counter Iran in a major policy speech Friday, he said that his views were formed “after extensive consultations with our allies,” but he could really only have been talking about Israel and some Gulf states.

Most of America’s allies — most notably France, Germany, Britain — and other world powers vehemently condemned the president’s change of tack, which included a direct threat to terminate the Iran nuclear agreement if it is not significantly modified.

Only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, of course, Israel welcomed Washington’s new confrontational course on Iran.

And while it was no secret that the Gulf states shared Jerusalem’s ferocious opposition to the 2015 pact, which was intended to roll back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, it was Israel’s leader who most vocally and most persistently attacked it from any possible stage.

In formulating his new Iran strategy, Trump clearly took a page or two out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s playbook.

The president’s main demands — improved enforcement of the deal in the present, preventing it from expiring in the future, and killing it if this can’t be done; plus additional sanctions to punish Tehran for its missile programs and other aggressive behavior — are virtually indistinguishable from those the Israeli leader presented just a few weeks ago at the United Nations.

“President Trump has just created an opportunity to fix this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression and to confront its criminal support of terrorism,” Netanyahu said on Friday evening, in a pre-recorded statement based on a briefing he had received ahead of Trump’s speech, before the start of the Shabbat, from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Trump never hid his disdain for the agreement his predecessor Barack Obama struck with Tehran, though it was unclear if he’d leave it in place or seek to dismantle it. In his speech Thursday, he announced his unwillingness to certify that the pact was in America’s national interest, and instead asked lawmakers to “address the deal’s many serious flaws,” while promising to cancel it altogether if Congress failed to do so.

He attacked the pact’s so-called “sunset clauses,” which, he said, “in just a few years, will eliminate key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.”

US President Donald Trump speaks about the Iran deal from the Diplomatic Reception room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2017. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

He announced the “long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Though stopping short of declaring the IRGC a terrorist organization, he authorized the Treasury Department to “apply sanctions to its officials, agents and affiliates.”

And he vowed to “counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region,” and its missile program.

If Congress “and our allies” don’t reach a solution that strengthens enforcement of the deal, prevents Iran from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and does away with the sunset clauses by making all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under US law, “then the agreement will be terminated,” he threatened.

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because Netanyahu said much the same on September 19 during his speech at the UN General Assembly.

Israel’s policy regarding the nuclear deal, Netanyahu declared one day after talks with Trump at a bilateral meeting in New York, is very simple: “Change it or cancel it, fix it or nix it.”

The prime minister elaborated: “Nixing the deal means restoring massive pressure on Iran, including crippling sanctions, until Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons capability. Fixing the deal requires many things, among them inspecting military and any other site that is suspect, and penalizing Iran for every violation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses world leaders at the 72nd UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)

Above all, Netanyahu said, “fixing the deal means getting rid of the sunset clause.”

In addition to dealing with the nuclear threat, the prime minister went on: “We must also stop Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and roll back its growing aggression in the region.”

What happens next?

What will Congress do, and will that satisfy the president? Answering reporters’ questions soon after Friday’s speech, Trump said bluntly of Congress, “They may come back with something that’s very satisfactory to me, and if they don’t, within a very short period of time, I’ll terminate the deal.”

What will the other signatories to the Iran deal do?

And how is Iran going to react to additional sanctions?

None of that is immediately clear.

What can be said with some degree of certainty is that Netanyahu and Trump are totally aligned when it comes to Iran. Both leaders loathe the nuclear deal but are ready to let it survive if enforcement is improved and, crucially, if the restrictions on Iran are never lifted.

They also have identical demands regarding the need to ratchet up pressure to confront Iran’s non-nuclear aggression in the region.

Trump may not have aligned with Israel’s government as much as Netanyahu would have liked on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the settlement enterprise and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But on Iran at least, the two seem to be in total lockstep.

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