For more than one reason, United States President Joe Biden’s call with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday was hugely consequential.
It was Biden’s second phone conversation with Bennett in four weeks. On March 30, he called to express his “deepest condolences” after the terrorist attacks that killed 11 people in three Israeli cities.
This time around, his call coincided with the joint meeting of the US secretaries of state and defense with the Ukrainian president in Kiev on Sunday, signifying that Washington is raising the ante and signaling readiness to wade deeper into the conflict with Russia after initial qualms.
The US and its NATO allies are showing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems to Ukraine. After the trip to Kiev, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told journalists in Poland that Ukraine can win the war against Russia if it has the right equipment.
“We believe that we can win, they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support,” he said.
Officials in Kiev had earlier drawn up a list of weapons urgently needed from the US, which included anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems. Ukraine is known to have sought advanced weaponry from Israel previously, including the famous “Iron Dome” anti-missile system and the infamous Pegasus spyware for use against Russia.
But Israel didn’t want to stick its neck out for Ukraine for fear of jeopardizing its tacit deconfliction measures with Moscow during its operations against Iranian targets in Syria.
However, things changed dramatically in the past two weeks or so, as Israel gave up its neutrality toward Russia’s special operation and accused Moscow of committing war crimes.
Israel and the Iron Dome
Biden’s conversation with Bennett took place as Russia-Israel relations began plummeting. Interestingly, the White House readout flagged a pointed reference by Biden to Israel’s Iron Dome system.
Both the White House readout (here) and the statement from Bennett’s office (here) mentioned the situation regarding Iran. It is entirely conceivable that the sudden unexplained shift in Israel’s stance vis-à-vis Russia in the Ukraine conflict was prompted by some sort of modus vivendi with the Biden administration regarding the lifting of sanctions against Iran.
Israel has been pulling out all stops to prevent the Biden administration from conceding to the Iranian demand for the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from Washington’s watchlist on terror groups.
The Israeli statement not only mentioned that the IRGC issue was discussed, but quoted Bennett as saying, “I am sure that President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel and cares about its security, will not allow the IRGC to be removed from the list of terrorist organizations. Israel has clarified its position on the issue: The IRGC is the largest terrorist organization in the world.”
Biden has accepted an invitation from Bennett to visit Israel “in the coming months.”
In the entire West Asian landscape, there is not a single country other than Israel that the US can count on as an ally against Russia. Clearly, the security climate in West Asia would change phenomenally if the Biden administration were to turn its back at this point on the negotiations relating to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program.
The White House readout highlighted that Biden and Bennett discussed “shared regional and global security challenges, including the threat posed by Iran and its proxies.”
A powerful lobby in the Washington Beltway, starting with none other than Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is opposed to any deal with Iran.
These lobbyists argue that with Iran continuing to escalate its nuclear program rapidly and making clear that its ballistic missiles and regional policies are not negotiable, there is little left for the US to salvage out of the JCPOA.
Speaking at the US Senate Armed Services Committee, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said recently: “In my personal opinion I believe the IRGC Quds Force to be a terrorist organization and I do not support them being delisted from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.”
Opposition to delisting IRGC
Again, in an open letter to Biden, 70 national security professionals opposed the delisting of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. In another open letter, 46 retired US generals and admirals opposed the ongoing nuclear deal.
Viewed from another angle, now that Europe is not contemplating an oil/gas embargo against Russia, Washington is no longer under pressure to lift the sanctions against Iran’s energy exports. And at any rate, the US will be mindful of the possibility that Iran may provide a lifeline to Russia to beat Western sanctions.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s priority is also shifting away from economic sanctions against Russia to “finally breaking the back of Russia’s ability to project power outside of Russia to threaten Georgia, to threaten Moldova, to threaten our Baltic allies” – to borrow the words of former US Army Europe commander Ben Hodges from a recent interview.
Austin called at short notice a meeting at the US base in Germany with counterparts from allied countries to discuss the scope for vastly increased military supplies to Ukraine on a long-term basis. Biden’s call to Bennett just prior to that meeting suggests that the US may have persuaded Israel to be an active participant in the war in Ukraine, which would “bleed” Russia “white.”
What motivates Israel would be that the Biden administration is willing to accommodate Israeli concerns over a US-Iran nuclear deal. That explains Bennett’s “confidence” that Biden will not concede to Iran’s demand to remove the IRGC from the terror watchlist.
The bottom line is that Tehran is left with no other option now but either to accept a new deal or stick to its demands and pay for the consequences. The US estimates that Tehran, having come so close to the US lifting the sanctions, which would of course be a game-changer for Iran’s besieged economy, would think twice about walking away with empty hands.
Biden’s call with Bennett messages to Tehran that the US is prepared to turn to other options if the JCPOA negotiations fail in Vienna.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @BhadraPunchline.