Iran avoiding direct conflict with U.S., top general says

Iran is attempting to avoid direct state-on-state conflict with the U.S. pending the outcome of the nuclear negotiations, General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Thursday.

McKenzie said that Iran is avoiding direct confrontation with the U.S. while continuing deniable activities through proxies with the goal of forcing the U.S. out of nations like Iraq.

“They are prepared to [conduct attacks], which they believe they can disavow by their actors, their proxies acting on the ground, to conduct low-level attacks against us,” McKenzie asserted. “Over the last year in 2020, the Iranians believed they had a political solution to eject us from Iraq. That no longer appears to be a viable way ahead for them. So we’re seeing a return to a more kinetic approach.”

McKenzie also affirmed the Israeli military’s assessment that a Syrian missile attack on Israel on Wednesday was likely unintentional, and is not a sign of a broader Syrian campaign of direct attacks on Israel. 

The incident, he said, appeared to have been an attempt by Syrian air defense forces to shoot down Israeli aircraft striking locations in Syria, but the missile missed its target and continued into Israel. It exploded in southern Israel near the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.

“I think it reflects incompetence in Syrian air defense,” McKenzie explained. “I do not believe it was an intentional attack, but just rather a lack of capability on the part of the Syrian air defenders.”

McKenzie added that he expects Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region to remain secure, downplaying concerns about U.S. arms sales to other Middle Eastern nations.

“I am confident that we will be able to preserve Israel’s QME going forward, even considering arms sales to the various countries across the region,” he said. “And we should also reflect that the arms sales across the region at least partially reflects the increasing normalization of ties between Israel and those nations.”

McKenzie spoke on the issue at a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week, noting that arms sales to countries such as the United Arab Emirates are a key part of the U.S. strategy for deterring Iran.

At that hearing, McKenzie also emphasized the threat of Iranian drones to U.S. forces and allies, which he said the U.S. is not yet fully equipped to counter.

Moderate Democrats stay mum on Malley pick as Iran envoy

Robert Malley has reportedly been chosen as the Biden administration’s envoy to Iran, confirming a report from Jewish Insider last week that the former Obama administration official was under consideration for the role. Malley, a veteran foreign policy analyst who is currently the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, was one of the key negotiators of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

“Secretary Blinken is building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views. Leading that team as our special envoy for Iran will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” a senior State Department official told Reuters. “The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again.”

The New York Times cited a senior State Department official who said that Malley and other diplomats’ first step, before approaching Iran, will be to consult with leaders in the Middle East, Europe and Congress to hear their concerns. 

Over the past week, a number of prominent progressive Democrats coalesced behind Malley, while Republicans and some moderate Democrats criticized him for his close relationships with Iranian leaders and for meeting with members of Hamas — which cost him his role as an advisor to President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“You can’t do better than Rob Malley,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “He knows the region. He’s willing to think outside of the foreign policy consensus. He has a lot of friends on the Hill. Whatever Rob Malley is being considered for, I’d be supportive. I’ve relied on him a lot during my time in the Senate.”

Other Senate Democrats are more skeptical about the pick, two Democratic congressional staffers told JI.

“Malley would be an odd choice. I say so since our ability to navigate the Iran issue from Congress will be largely dependent on the administration’s willingness to consult about their approach/decisions,” one aide said. “While some Republicans are already struggling to outflank each other from the right on anything Biden does, having an envoy that is viewed as moderate and restrained would be to everyone’s advantage.”

One Democratic senate staffer said that moderates are hesitant to speak out the pick publicly, despite some reservations.

“The consensus is that the criticism isn’t totally off-base but is a little overblown, so folks aren’t going to pile on,” the staffer said. “At the same time, he’s disliked enough in pro-Israel circles that it isn’t worth it to make a nuanced case about the criticism. It’s not like anyone truly loves this guy, either. And at the end of the day, [President Joe] Biden and [Secretary of State Tony] Blinken are in charge and we trust them.”

Moderate Senate Democrats were, at least publicly, remaining quiet about Malley ahead of Thursday’s news. A spokesperson for incoming Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — who expressed skepticism about the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the Iran deal — declined to comment to JI on Wednesday. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) — who opposed the Iran deal in 2015 — declined to comment Thursday and told JI that he needed to refresh his recollection of Malley’s background. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told JI on Wednesday that he felt it was premature to comment on reports that Malley had been offered the position, adding that he planned to review reporting about Malley that afternoon. A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) also declined to comment.

Outside Congress, progressive leaders and groups rallied around Malley following backlash over reports that he was likely to become the administration’s point person on Iran. Nearly 200 academics, foreign policy professionals, organizations and others released a letter supporting Malley, describing him as “among the most respected foreign policy experts in the United States” and “an astute analyst and accomplished diplomat.”

“Those who accuse Malley of sympathy for the Islamic Republic have no grasp of — or no interest in — true diplomacy, which requires a level-headed understanding of the other side’s motivations and knowledge that can only be acquired through dialogue,” the letter continues. “As veterans of diplomacy and human rights work, and organizations that support the same, we hope that someone as capable and knowledgeable as Rob Malley is put in charge of fixing our broken policy towards Iran.”

This post was updated at 4:55 p.m. on 1/31/2021.

Danon warns Iran deal could test U.S.-Israel ties under Biden

As the Biden-Harris transition team begins to build out its incoming administration and speak with foreign leaders, Israeli political observers caution that an immediate return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran — while renegotiating the agreement’s terms — could put the Biden administration and the Israeli government on a collision course. 

“I believe that on most issues, we will be able to work with the new administration. But I think the key question is the Iranian issue,” former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said in an interview with Jewish Insider. “This is a crucial issue for Israel. We heard Joe Biden speak about re-entering the JCPOA with some amendments. And the question is how it will look at the end. If the U.S. returns to an agreement that will be similar to the [previous] agreement, it means that Israel will have to recalculate its approach regarding Iran.” 

Danon suggested that if a new Iran deal were to have the same outcome, just “with different titles,” Israel would be obligated to oppose the deal and “take the necessary steps to ensure Iran will never obtain nuclear capabilities.” 

The former Israeli diplomat, who is a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said that Israel will have to “carefully” examine the Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East and engagement with international organizations as it shifts away from President Donald Trump’s policies. Danon, who represented Israel at the U.N. during the last year of former President Barack Obama’s second term and for most of Trump’s time in office, said that while he expects some changes to Israel’s standing at the U.N. — especially if the new administration rejoins the Human Rights Council and reinstates currently frozen U.S. funds to the U.N. body that supports Palestinian refugees — “I think we will still have the support of the U.S., but it will require more effort from our side.” 

Danon added that if Biden is “supportive of Israel, he will gain the trust and support of Israelis very fast.” 

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi suggested that the two sides will “inevitably come into conflict” over the Iranian issue, predicting a “tough fight” for Israel to keep the U.S. from returning to the terms of the 2015 deal. 

“The Palestinian issue is not going to cause a major rupture between Israel and America,” explained Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “Biden isn’t Obama. He’s not going to go to war for a two-state solution. He is a seasoned enough politician to understand what Obama did not understand, which is that you don’t go for broke on an issue that you don’t have sufficient leverage on for both sides.” 

But on the Iranian threat, he argued, Israel has more leverage than it had in 2015. In the wake of the recently signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Klein Halevi suggested, Israel now has “a shared strategic structure to confront the international community.” 

On Tuesday, Netanyahu pushed back against the notion that strained ties between Israel and the Democratic Party in recent years would undercut a good working relationship with the Biden administration. “What I see before my eyes is not Democrats and not Republicans. It is just the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said during a speech at the Knesset. “I am committed to stand behind the interests that are crucial to our future and our existence and this is how I will continue even with the next American administration.”

In his remarks, Netanyahu pointed to his decades-long relationship with Biden and the personal moments they shared “that are beyond politics and beyond diplomacy.”

The Israeli premier said that over the last four years, he has met with 134 Democratic members of Congress — of the 292 who have visited Israel since 2017 — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), as well as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Netanyahu said the meetings occurred “because I believe that strengthening the bipartisan support for Israel is a basic foundation of our foreign policy.” 

Netanyahu noted that even amid tension with the Obama administration, Israel and the U.S. signed a record $38 billion memorandum of understanding of security assistance. “That’s how a prime minister in Israel must act,” he said. “Not by submitting or groveling and also not arrogantly but with the wisdom, courage, dignity of a person who fights for his people, for his land and for his country.”

Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst and commentator, told JI that Netanyahu’s defense “was mainly about domestic politics at the moment.” According to Meir, Netanyahu needs to position himself as “a strong experienced prime minister” who is able to handle relations with the U.S. regardless of which party controls the White House. 

Meir noted that while Netanyahu speaks perfect English, “I don’t think he speaks their language.” 

Klein Halevi concurred: “Bibi has burned most bridges with the Democrats.”

In new book, H.R. McMaster describes White House debate over Iran deal

In a new book looking back at his time in the military and in several presidential administrations, former national security advisor H.R. McMaster expounds on what he thought were “fundamental flaws” in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and why he tried to persuade President Donald Trump not to withdraw from the deal. 

In Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, released on Tuesday, McMaster called the original JCPOA negotiated by former President Barack Obama “an extreme case of strategic narcissism based on wishful thinking” that led to “self-delusion and, ultimately the deception of the American people.” 

Yet, when Trump wanted to make good on his campaign promise to leave the deal, McMaster made clear his opposition to withdrawing from the accord. In the book, McMaster explains that he wanted the U.S. to maintain leverage to punish Iran for its behavior on matters unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program and to get the parties in the agreement to fix the deal’s flaws. McMaster said he also wanted to avoid giving Tehran the opportunity to portray itself as a victim. But as he attempted to work on a comprehensive Iran strategy, McMaster wrote, Trump grew “impatient.” 

McMaster details how he intervened in former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to certify the deal in April 2017, and how he successfully lobbied the president to recertify the agreement over the next two 90-day deadlines as required under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. “We had created a window of opportunity for our allies to demonstrate the viability of staying in the deal while imposing costs on Iran,” McMaster writes. “That window closed soon after I departed the White House.” A month after McMaster left the administration, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal. 

The former national security official accuses the Obama administration of ignoring Iran’s behavior in the region and avoiding confrontation in an effort to preserve the accord. According to McMaster, Obama officials “focused on selling the deal rather than subjecting it to scrutiny” by using a “red herring” talking point — the Iraq War — to pose “the false dilemma” of either supporting the deal or going to war with Iran. 

McMaster also offers his view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Trump peace plan announced in early 2020. Trump’s moves on Israel, he writes, “communicated support for Israel, but also removed incentives that might have been crucial in a future agreement.” While he described the rollout of the peace plan as “dead on arrival” due to lack of participation from Palestinian leaders, McMaster posits that the plan itself may at some point “help resurrect the possibility of a two-state solution.” 

The book itself is not a tell-all on the Trump administration. McMaster does not write about being excluded from Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the president’s trip to Israel, or his disputes with Trump and Jared Kushner. “This is not the book that most people wanted me to write… a tell-all about my experience in the White House to confirm their opinions of Donald Trump,” McMaster writes in his preface. “Although writing such a book might be lucrative, I did not believe that it would be useful or satisfactory for most readers.”

McMaster accuses the Russians and the alt-right movement of leading a campaign against him, under the hashtag #FireMcMaster, because they viewed him as a threat to their agenda of undermining America’s national security. McMaster writes that the attacks against him were “often inconsistent” in nature. “For example, one caricature on social media portrayed me as a puppet of billionaire George Soros and the Rothschild family (both of whom were frequent targets of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories), while articles in the pseudo-media charged me and others on the NSC staff as being ‘anti-Israel’ and soft on Iran,” McMaster recalls.

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