The Iranians have played into the hands of the new US administration, or vice versa. One thing looks unequivocal: President Donald Trump's response to the missile trial the Iranians conducted last weekend was predictable. The only surprise is the fast pace at which the relations between the USA and Iran are deteriorating – and this is only the beginning
Based on the events of the last weekend, several conclusions may already be drawn. Firstly, Trump has completely obliterated the policy of Barack Obama, who promoted the agreement with Iran on the issue of nuclear power while ignoring the Iranian missile project and Iran's support for terrorist organizations.
Between one extreme possibility, namely – that the Trump administration will adhere to the Obama legacy, and the extreme opposite, namely – that it will promptly renounce the nuclear agreement, Trump has thus far opted for a relatively moderate path: the response to the missile trial included sanctions imposed on 25 persons and organizations. This has been a mere signal, and a higher degree of importance should be assigned to Trump's aggressive verbal messages on Tweeter or the announcement coming out of his "inner circle". He has once again placed the US military option firmly on the table after Obama had, for eight whole years, insisted on proving that the use of force was not an option as far as he was concerned (even when he had pledged to do so owing to the use of chemical weapons in Syria).
The Iranian missile trial and the response to it also served as a warm-up act for Trump's new defense 'hive', headed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, CIA Director Michael Pompeo and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
It is reasonable to assume that this hawkish 'hive' did not wait for the actual trial in order to consolidate the new policy, but had rather planned in advance the US response vis-à-vis Iran, for the first opportunity that may present itself – and it has, indeed, presented itself.
The Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Hertzliya, Professor Alex Mintz, had predicted a week prior to the trial in Iran that the Republican Congress and President Trump's new 'hive', that is hostile to Iran, would lead a more hawkish US policy toward Iran. This week, Professor Mintz has estimated that the conflict can only deteriorate.
The main problem is the fact that it is not at all certain that the steps taken by the USA are damaging to the Iranian interest, as the Iranians have already reaped the dividends from the nuclear agreement: billions of dollars were pumped into the Iranian economy, which was on the verge of collapse. States and corporations have been queuing up to do business with the rising Persian empire. In any case, the Iranians are benefiting from an immense strategic gain owing to the fact that they are on the "threshold" of a bomb, and it is not at all certain that they would actually be interested in the bomb itself, in view of the international costs it may cause them to incur.
Ineffective US sanctions will enable Iran to benefit from all of the fruits of the nuclear agreement, without having to commit to seeing it through. Meanwhile, they are doing very well. However, if Trump presses on with his charge on Iran with regard to the missiles and their support for terrorism – the Iranians will, indeed, be facing a problem.
The Iranians, like everyone else, understand the language of force. The only time they really stopped their nuclear project, for a limited period and without any agreement, was in 2003, after the previous Republican President, George W. Bush, had invaded Iraq, naming Iran as a major element of the 'Axis of Evil'.
Subsequently, the days of the Obama presidency changed Iran from a ferocious enemy into an ally in the war against the phenomenon of the Islamic State – ISIS, which was really blown out of proportion. ISIS, which is gradually disintegrating, will evolve into nothing more than a rather unimportant footnote in the history of the world.
Changes within the Ministry of Defense
The consolidation of the new US policy will probably be a primary issue during the first meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, scheduled to be held at the White House in the coming week.
This is an opportunity to introduce a player who operates between Washington and Jerusalem and with whom the public is less familiar – Col. (res.) Zohar Palti, who has been appointed as Director of IMOD's Policy and Political-Military Affairs Division, thereby succeeding Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad.
Palti has not emerged out of nowhere. Years ago he had been marked as a promising officer in the IDF Intelligence Directorate's Research Department, where he had served, among other positions, as Director of the Terrorism Desk.
Palti disappeared from the public eye for years only because he had transferred to the Mossad, where he eventually rose to the position of Head of the Mossad Intelligence Directorate at a rank that is the equivalent of major-general in the IDF. In his positions as a senior Mossad officer, he was a frequent flyer of the Israel-Washington line, and now the frequency of his trips is expected to increase.
The appointment of Zohar Palti, fairly close to the expected date when Gilad was scheduled to step down, is an unusual case in recent years of a proper and objective appointment process. Palti had been recommended to Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman by a search committee headed by the Director General of IMOD, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Udi Adam.
Other members of the committee were Maj. Gen. (ret.) Professor Isaac Ben-Israel; Sima Shine, formerly a senior official in the National Security Council and the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs; Jeremy Issacharoff, Deputy Director General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Ayala Gonen-Ashri, in charge of the defense establishment at the Civil Service Commission.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad was the person who established IMOD's Policy and Political-Military Affairs Division following his retirement from IDF and the only person, up to the appointment of Palti, who headed the Division for not less than 13 years. Gilad made a unique contribution to the defense relations Israel has with a long list of countries. One of Gilad's fundamental principles was to position the strategic relations with the USA and Egypt at the very top of Israel's scale of priorities. In retrospect, the fact that Minister Lieberman and Gilad managed to work together for more than six months is nothing short of miraculous.
The truth is, Lieberman and Amos Gilad had quarreled furiously as far back as when Lieberman, in his days as Member of Knesset, suggested that Israel bomb the Aswan dam in Egypt, which caused an uproar in Egypt.
The fact that Gilad and Lieberman were not in agreement regarding issues associated with the relations with Russia did not contribute to the chemistry between them during the few months of their working together.
Incidentally, Gilad's retirement may lead to a change in the division's mode of operation, which has hitherto relied primarily on the personality and enterprise of Maj. Gen. (ret.) Gilad (contrary to the original intention of former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who had established the division so that it would also provide a conceptual counterweight to IDF military thinking, which naturally generated strong opposition in the IDF Planning Division and other elements of the IDF General Staff).
The Missile Race
Another aspect of the Iranian missile project, which is not normally the focus of public attention: Israel is preparing for the missile threat through massive projects of its own, which are currently maturing: the Arrow-III and David's Sling.
Both projects are provided with massive budgets and are being executed through close cooperation with the USA by the Israel Missile Defense Organization (IMDO), a division of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Regardless of the Iranian projects and the fact that the Iranians do their best to deliver their best defense products to Hezbollah in Lebanon – both major missile defense projects have crossed significant milestones almost simultaneously.
Rafael's David's Sling system, being developed in cooperation with Raytheon, has recently conducted a highly significant trial with tremendous success. The system is already capable of intercepting surface-to-surface missiles with the emphasis on intermediate-range missiles, as well as cruise missiles.
Meanwhile, a first Arrow-III system, a major project of IAI involving a system capable of intercepting missiles outside the earth's atmosphere, has been delivered to IAF last month.
Moshe Fattal, Head of the IMDO, said on this occasion that a new era has begun and that "The preliminary system offers a defense and interception capability that is far higher and much more distant than anything we have known to this day. The Arrow-III system joins the multiple-tier theater missile defense system and in fact provides the State of Israel with a greatly improved envelope against long-range missiles."
Zucker & the Naval Vessels
Another senior IMOD official who has concluded a particularly long defense career this month is Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zucker, who in the last few years headed IMOD's Procurement & Production Administration (MANHAR) – one of Israel's largest procurement organs, responsible for purchases worth billions of ILS every year.
Zucker handed over his administration to Col. (res.) Avi Dadon. At the same time, Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe Zin was appointed as Head of IMOD's Defense-Social Division.
A few months prior to the conclusion of his term in office, Zucker gave an interview to Israel Defense and spoke, among other things, about the submarine and naval vessel procurement transactions with Germany.
The interview had been conducted a short while before the affair was blown up by the media and presented as a suspected scandal, which also pertains to the involvement of the personal attorney of the Prime Minister, Adv. David Shimron, in the procurement transactions. Now, it is safe to assume that the Israel Police investigators will address a few clarification questions to Zucker (unless they had already done so while he was still in office).