Seeing Events in Iran Through the Lens of Trump’s Polling Numbers

For nearly four years now, Donald Trump has been a blank check for Israel. That check may be about to expire.

From recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to plans to annex the West Bank to freedom to bomb in Syria, the Donald Trump blank check keeps on being cashed. But Trump’s polling numbers for the November election have brought the check’s expiration date into focus. And Israel may be acting fast to fully cash that check.

History suggests that a Biden presidency may not change much in US foreign policy to places like Ukraine or Venezuela. But it may change much in Iran. Biden may still be the bearer of the Obama administration’s policy on the Iran civilian nuclear program. He has intimated that he favors diplomacy with Iran and is open to a return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement that was negotiated while he was vice president. That is the nightmare scenario that erases all of Israel’s gains during the Trump administration. The panic to cement its gains before the Trump opportunity ends, before the blank check expires, is one possible explanation of recent events in Iran that seem to point back to Israel and the United States. As former National Security Advisor John Bolton said recently, "the next few months is an optimal time for Israel to act in its own national security interests."

Cashing the Blank Check

Several explosions have crippled Iran’s civilian nuclear program in recent weeks. The most mysterious, perhaps, is the June 26 explosion at the claimed missile production facility near Parchin. Early sources attributed that explosion to missiles dropped by Israeli F-35 stealth fighters. However, Israel has denied involvement, and one person I spoke to raised the question of how likely it is that a sortie of Israeli military aircraft could avoid detection while flying into the middle of Iran and dropping a bomb.

The story is much different for the July 3 obliteration of Iran’s Natanz civilian nuclear enrichment facility, the same nuclear facility that was torn apart by the joint Israeli/US cyber attack known as Stuxnet. Like the Parchin explosion, early sources placed responsibility on Israel. This time, though, Israel did not offer a clear denial of involvement, and subsequent reporting, including reporting by The New York Times, continued to lay the blame on Israel. Making the case against Israel stronger still, former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman, on July 6, publicly implied that the Middle Eastern intelligence source was Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

But blowing up nuclear facilities is not the only way Israel and the US are trying to provoke Iranian officials into responding in a way that would justify more overt attacks on Iran.

On July 23, a civilian Iranian plane had to dive to avoid a collision with two American fighter jets that intercepted it. The U.S. military’s Central Command dismissed the incident as "a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters."

But the interception and near collision were neither "standard" nor "at a safe distance" as evidenced by passengers’ videos capturing the US jet flying much closer. Assistant professor of American studies at the University of Tehran, Foad Izadi, told reporter Reese Erlich that the US does not have the right to inspect a civilian airliner in a recognized civilian air corridor.

Panic over the expiration of the blank check seems to have led Israel to provoke Iran not only by bombing nuclear cites and buzzing civilian planes but also by bombing Iran’s allies. On July 27, retaliating for an attempt by three to five Hezbollah fighters to cross into the Israeli occupied Sheba Farms in Lebanon, Israel bombed south Lebanon.

However, Hezbollah has denied that any raid into Israeli territory was attempted and restrained themselves from returning fire. “All the enemy media claims about thwarting an infiltration operation from Lebanese territory into occupied Palestine … is absolutely not true,” a Hezbollah statement said. But it’s not just Hezbollah that is casting doubt on Israel’s account of the events. Even Netanyahu’s allies are questioning the Israeli claim, saying that an analysis of the reports about the incident leaves a lot of questions. The Jerusalem Post’s editor doubts the Israeli account and has challenged the Israeli army spokesperson to release the video of the alleged Hezbollah raid.

And there is no way for Iran to interpret the last minute appointment of Elliott Abrams, the heavily tenured holder of the chair of regime change who just told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that America would continue its support for Venezuelan coup leader Juan Guaido after Venezuela’s December elections, to the position of US Special Representative for Iran other than as a provocation and continued regime change pressure in Iran. Abrams once advocated for Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear sites quickly before the US had a chance to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran. "He expressed concern that Israel’s capacity to impede the deal was ‘already being narrowed considerably by the diplomatic thaw, because it is one thing to bomb Iran when it appears hopelessly recalcitrant and isolated and quite another to bomb it when much of the world – especially the United States – is optimistic about the prospect of talks.’"

Not Taking the Bait

But if Israel is trying to provoke Iran into a response that would justify an Israeli or American retaliation before the US election, then Iran is not taking the bait. And if Israel is provoking Iran because they are watching the polls, Iran is not taking the bait because they are watching the polls too. Iran is not acting for the same reason Israel is acting: the possibility of a Trump defeat rising on the horizon.

"Officially, Tehran says it does not base its policies on domestic American politics," Trita Parsi, the Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute told me. "But its conduct . . . reveals a more pragmatic reality." Parsi says that "Iran is playing the long game. While it is under pressure to retaliate, it knows that escalation does not serves its interest right now."

Reese Erlich, the author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy, told me that, based on his conversations with both reformists and hardliners, or prinicipalists, inside Iran, "The reformists definitely oppose any military response at this time, fearing it will give Trump an excuse to attack Iran overtly. The prinicipalists call [for] a response, but are vague on details because they also realize that US policy may change in a matter of months."

While the US and Israel exert "maximum pressure," Iran seems to be exercising maximum restraint, believing that that pressure may ease after the US election. Biden may cease the provocation and return to the nuclear agreement. Erlich told me that, despite their tactical differences, Iranian reformists and hardliners "agree that the current sabotage is a sign of weakness by the US and Israel, not strength. The Trump policy of maximum pressure has failed to pressure the government to give up its nuclear power program, let alone resulted in an uprising against the government. They believe the US will change policy after the November elections. Either Trump will win and have to change the failed policy. Or Biden will win, and they hope the US will return to the nuclear agreement."

Parsi says that any return to a nuclear agreement means waiting out the US/Israeli provocation: "Iran has little incentive to negotiate with an administration that neither America’s friends or enemies can trust, that lacks the ability to engage in real negotiations, and whose Secretary of State undermines whatever desires for diplomacy its President exhibits. . . . [T]he Iranians do not want to reward Trump for his policy of pressure by engaging him."

As Israel and the US ratchet up maximum pressure one desperate final time, Iran strains the muscles of its restraint, and both for the same reason: both are harmonizing their policy to the tuning fork of US polls. Trump is having as much of an effect on Israeli/Iranian policy in the hint of his leaving office as he did in arriving in it.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.