Last week we reported that President Trump had met with his closest cabinet members to discuss striking nuclear facilities inside Iran. Those advisors — which included Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — warned that a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict.
It seems like a U.S. strike against Iran’s nuclear sites was swiftly taken off the table.
But Israeli media reported this morning that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Saudi Arabia for a secret meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This marks the first time top Israeli and Saudi leadership have met privately.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also in Saudi Arabia as part of a multi-country trip.
The AP is also reporting that Yossi Cohen, the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, was at the meeting.
While Saudi officials are already denying that a meeting between Netanyahu and bin Salman took place, AP News has reported that a private Gulfstream jet made a roundtrip flight from Tel Aviv to Neom, Saudi Arabia, suggesting that someone from Israel’s government met with Saudi leadership.
The Trump Administration has made great strides in the Middle East with several nations normalizing their relations with Israel in the past few months. Getting Saudi Arabia to receive Israeli leadership could be the first step in making the powerful Gulf state the next on the list of Abraham Accords signatories. (The Abraham Accords refer to the normalization agreements with Israel, U.A.E., and Bahrain.)
In an uncharacteristic move, Secretary Pompeo held no press meetings with the U.S. traveling press corps. Instead, he gave an interview on Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned television and news outlet based in Dubai. In his brief interview with Al Arabiya anchor and host Taher Baraka, Pompeo reasserted a strong position against Iran, saying that Arab nations in the region no longer wish to be “under the jackboot of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The interview was a clear message to Iran.
Yesterday, a senior State Department official spoke to the traveling press on background, answering questions about Secretary Pompeo’s ongoing trip. When asked about the administration’s position on Iran, the unnamed senior official said this:
“Well, certainly, we’ve been consulting with all of our allies routinely throughout the region, talking about these topics wherever we go, wherever the Secretary goes. He is discussing this with the leaders, the foreign ministers, the emirs, and there is a shared, I think, threat reception. Then you have layered over that the Abraham Accords and sort of efforts to sort of integrate like-minded states to that strategic cooperation, intelligence cooperation. And so you have this sort of emerging consensus in the region vis-a-vis Iran, that I think, in part because of our efforts, has really made it a lot more conducive to regional cooperation vis-a-vis that threat.”
But what does this all mean?
Sharply put, it appears that the administration is preparing for a move against Iran.
But it won’t be American jets striking nuclear sites. It’s much more likely that the Israelis will be the boots-on-ground force, as it were. The Israeli Defense Force recently carried out a brazen daylight execution of the number two al-Qaeda leader on the streets of Tehran.
If Netanyahu did indeed meet with the Saudi Crown Prince in a U.S. brokerage, it could mean that Saudi Arabia will provide assistance to a coalition pointed at Iran. It could also mean opening up airspace providing staging areas for U.S. or Israeli troops.
In return, Pompeo and the White House would likely designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization. The Saudi’s have been mired in the Yemeni war. Designating the Houthis as terrorists could allow Saudi Arabia and its allies to unleash a more deadly military approach.
Saudi Arabia is no friend of Iran’s. Diplomatic ties between the countries have been severed since the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked in 2016. Further, Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni state, putting it fundamentally at odds with Iran’s Twelver Shia monarchy. But the rift is deeper than religion.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are all involved in proxy conflicts with Iran.
The Iranian regime has backed the Syrian government since the start of the Syrian war, a conflict that not only destabilizes Israel’s backyard but also emboldens Hamas and Hezbollah. As mentioned, the Saudi government continues to struggle in Yemen — which borders Saudi Arabia — where the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion continues.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to draw itself out of two regional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many see the resurgence of ISIS and other extremist groups in those regions to be linked to Tehran.
A strike against Iran would also force the hand of a Biden administration should he be declared the winner of the November presidential election. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia would want the U.S. to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran. If there were a coalition strike against Iran between now and the inauguration, the Iran Nuclear Deal would be nullified, especially if Iran’s nuclear program was literally in ashes.
It may seem like a long shot, but consider this: Striking Iran could be seen as cutting the head from the beast which has its tentacles in a protracted asymmetric battle against terror worldwide.
And the window for carrying out that strike is closing.
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