Israel’s reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran speech last month was best summed up by a former senior official we recently met in Tel Aviv: “It sounds very nice, and I like it very much, but what’s next?”
What we heard last month in Israel on Iran was less focused on the fate of the nuclear deal and more concerned about glaring gaps in U.S. strategy to deter Iran’s destabilizing actions and support for terrorist groups in the wider Middle East.
If and how the Trump administration addresses these gaps in its regional strategy will have implications for America’s security and its allies for years to come — and what we heard in Israel is a growing worry that Trump lacks any operable plan at all on Iran.
Historically, Iran has based its own regional foreign policy on opportunism. For decades since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s regime has worked to shift political dynamics in key countries across the region to their favor. — And for the last 15 years, it has sought to take quick advantage of changing regional dynamics and direct them in its favor. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eliminated two of Iran’s greatest adversaries: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes. Feeling insecure and encircled by the U.S. military in the immediate aftermath of those two wars, Iran quickly adapted and built new networks of proxies and political allies as balances of power shifted in its immediate region.
Indeed, the past decade witnessed a historic expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, rattling countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia in the process. Iran’s regional approach has been one akin to jujitsu — the martial arts method of neutralizing an adversary by using that opponent’s own energy and force against him.Iran’s regional approach has been one akin to jujitsu — the martial arts method of neutralizing an adversary by using that opponent’s own energy and force against him. This strategy has enabled Iran to build and strengthen political relationships over time and deeply embed itself in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
By the start of this year, Iran had realized more gains in Middle East influence than any other country since 2011 when popular uprising shook many Arab countries– largely due to the deep fractures and divisions within Arab countries. As one leading academic in Israel told us, “the story has not been so much about Iran’s inherent strength, but rather one of weaknesses within Arab countries.”