The Intercept / March 1, 2023
The Biden administration is appearing to endorse Israel’s escalations against Iran — a move that would necessitate U.S. involvement in a new Middle East conflict no one wants.
Almost two decades after the U.S. launched the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Biden administration is on the verge of sleepwalking into yet another major armed conflict in the Middle East. Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides appeared to endorse a plan for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities with U.S. support. “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran], and we’ve got their back,” he said at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Nides’s words come after recent high-level military drills between Israel and the United States intended to showcase the ability to strike Iranian targets, as well as recent acts of sabotage and assassination inside Iran believed to have been carried out by both countries.
It was not clear whether Nides was speaking on his own behalf or outlining an official change in U.S. policy, though the Biden administration has not walked back the remarks. In a press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the remarks reflected consistent U.S. support of Israeli security. The U.S. has continued to support Israel’s increasingly hawkish Iran policies, including its “octopus doctrine” of strikes inside Iran as well as at Iranian targets throughout the region.
Meanwhile, at first blush, the U.S. has little to lose, diplomatically speaking: The Iran nuclear deal is dead, thanks in large part to the Biden administration’s hesitance to reenter the agreement.
On closer examination, though, the Israeli escalations mean that the U.S. now faces the unsavory prospect of a major crisis flaring up in the Middle East at the exact moment when its bandwidth is already stretched thin because of a major war in Europe and its deteriorating relationship with China.
“It’s now abundantly clear that the decision to leave the JCPOA was a blunder of enormous proportions, because it allowed Iran to restart its nuclear program and raise once again the question of what the U.S., Israel, or anyone else might do about it. This is exactly what many people warned about, and it’s exactly what’s happened,” said Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, referring to the nuclear deal by the initials of its former name, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “One of the reasons that you want to try to negotiate settlements to issues in dispute is that there are always new issues that come along. Now, while the administration has its hands full in Europe and elsewhere, it is possible that they will have another major crisis to deal with in the Middle East.”
The nuclear deal was intended to avoid the Middle East confrontation now visible on the horizon. Signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, the deal traded strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for its reintegration into the global economy.
When President Donald Trump violated the deal, in an apparent fit of personal pique at Obama, this pragmatic arrangement went out the window — not only removing limits on Iran’s nuclear program, but also politically empowering hard-liners inside Iran who had balked at negotiating in the first place and helping them to victory in Iran’s 2021 presidential elections.
“From the Iranian perspective, Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA made it look like the moderates inside Iran had simply been fooled — taken to cleaners by the Americans. They did all the things we asked them to do, they were in compliance, then we reneged on the deal,” said Walt. “That allowed the hard-liners to come in and say that we should not talk to Washington anyways because they’re untrustworthy.”
With the Iran deal buried, there is no realistic prospect of dialogue with an increasingly hermetic and repressive government inside Iran.
The U.S. conflict with Iran is, in many ways, a product of Iran’s conflict with Israel — a resolution to which was never part of the initial talks around the nuclear deal. Today, both Middle Eastern countries find themselves in a state of crisis. Iran is reeling from mass protests, economic turmoil, and domestic repression. Israel is experiencing widespread civil unrest over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the Israeli judiciary, alongside moves to formalize apartheid-style annexation and military control over millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank.
It is not uncommon for governments to deflect their citizenry’s ire by directing it at a foreign adversary — something both the Iranian and Israeli governments could benefit from.
However much the U.S. public may not want it, a conflict between Israel and Iran would inevitably draw the U.S. military into the fray, as Nides’s recent comments recognized. Far from keeping Netanyahu in check — as past administrations, including Republican ones, sometimes did — the Biden administration appears to be giving tacit approval for steps likely to lead to war.
“What we are seeing now is the Biden administration being very relaxed about threats from Israel that they would have to pay for,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. “Israel can’t meaningfully strike Iran’s nuclear program themselves — they know they can’t, and we know they can’t. We would have to get involved.”
With anti-government protests inside Iran ongoing, hawkish analysts in the United States recently began arguing that the Iranian people would jump at the opportunity to overthrow a government that has increasingly lost its legitimacy. A similar notion motivated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to invade Iran in the 1980s, with international encouragement. At the time, there was a widespread belief that the 1979 revolution had thrown Iran into turmoil and that many Iranians would be glad to take the opportunity to overthrow their new theocratic leaders. Despite these predictions, the regime has remained in power.
”An attack that is supposed to be the coup de grâce against the Iranian government could actually strengthen their position and help them stay in power,” said Sick. “We can have a considerable degree of confidence that that is what would happen. People may not like the supreme leader and his government, but when their friends are being bombed, they can react in a very different way.”
A conflict between Iran and Israel could have other geopolitical costs. The United States is currently expending all the diplomatic energy it can to maintain a coalition to isolate and confront Russia over its war in Ukraine, including by severing Russian access to global oil and gas markets. After a full year of war, this effort is already showing severe strain. If the U.S. finds itself dragged by its client states into a new war in the Middle East, it is unlikely to win many hearts and minds around the world, let alone at home.
“The idea of a new war in the Middle East is not really popular anywhere,” said Sick. “If Israel carries out a raid and the United States gets involved, a lot of Americans are going to be questioning why we are getting ourselves involved in another major war that we can already tell isn’t going to be a good idea.”
“I don’t see this as another Ukraine where everyone rallies to the side of the West,” he added. “It would be seen as another war of choice in the Middle East.”
Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept who focuses on national security and foreign policy
Pentagon developed contingency plan for war with Iran
The Intercept / March 1, 2023
In January, the U.S. and Israel conducted the largest joint military exercise in history.
The U.S. military allocated spending for secret contingency operations pertaining to an Iran war plan, according to a classified Pentagon budget manual listing emergency and special programs reviewed by The Intercept.
The contingency plan, code-named “Support Sentry,” was funded in 2018 and 2019, according to the manual, which was produced for the 2019 fiscal year. It classifies Support Sentry as an Iran “CONPLAN,” or concept plan, a broad contingency plan for war which the Pentagon develops in anticipation of a potential crisis.
The existence of Support Sentry has not been previously reported. It is not clear from the document how much the Pentagon spent on the plan in those years. When asked about the program and whether it is still in place, Maj. John Moore, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, said, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on numbered plans. Iran remains the leading source of instability in the region and is a threat to the United States and our partners. We are constantly monitoring threat streams in coordination with our regional partners and will not hesitate to defend U.S. national interests in the region.”
Support Sentry is one example of the U.S. military’s growing comfort with — and support for — Israel’s aggressive stance toward Iran. As U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides’ bluntly put it last week, “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran] and we’ve got their back.”
As major U.S. attempts at diplomacy with Iran collapsed under Trump, the Pentagon quietly moved Israel into its Central Command area of responsibility, officially grouping it with the mainly Arab countries of the Middle East. The reshuffling, which occurred in the final days of the Trump administration and has remained under President Joe Biden, is the military corollary to the financial and diplomatic alliances laid out by the Abraham Accords, a normalization agreement negotiated by Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, Jared Kushner, between Arab Gulf states and Israel. The accords were touted as a peace deal, but in fact served to align these countries against a common enemy: Iran.
The U.S. and Israel have also collaborated on a growing number of military exercises in recent months that Israeli leaders say are designed to test potential attack plans with Iran.
Contingency plans such as Support Sentry provide “the general outline—the overarching ‘concept’—of a plan to take some major action against an enemy,” Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation and retired U.S. military planner who served as a strategist for the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command, told The Intercept in an email.
For instance, in June 1994, the Pentagon requested a CONPLAN for military operations in Haiti; by July, U.S. forces invaded and deposed Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The manual also notes that Support Sentry is a “COW,” or cost of war item.
Though conventional wisdom might be that the military has contingency plans for everything, CONPLANs are, in fact, quite limited since preparing them is time consuming, Wood explained. “Since staff, time, and resources are always limited, no military command at any level would develop CONPLANs … for every conceivable contingency.”
The existence of Support Sentry, then, suggests that the U.S. military takes the possibility seriously enough to prepare a strategic framework for it. CONPLANs also lead to consequences short of war, like military exercises.
“CONPLANs serve as the intellectual framework or context when developing military exercises because it makes sense for units that are honing their skills to have that work be relevant to likely tasks,” Wood said.
By 2018, President Donald Trump had vocally withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran deal. In January 2019, he tweeted a picture of a poster displayed at a cabinet meeting and directed at Iran that read “sanctions are coming” — a reference to the “Game of Thrones” TV series.
Under Biden, U.S. policy toward the region remains much the same.
On January 16, 2021, just four days before Biden’s inauguration, Trump ordered the military to reassign Israel to CENTCOM, its Middle East combatant command. Historically, the U.S. military has rather counterintuitively kept Israel under its European Command, or EUCOM, in order to avoid tensions with Gulf Arab allies like Saudi Arabia. This was one of a volley of last-minute decisions by Trump designed to force the Biden administration to abandon diplomacy and adopt the framework of his “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. “For decades, DOD placed Israel in the European Command (EUCOM) AOR due to significant tensions between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East,” a Congressional Research Service report about the move observed, noting that “improved Israeli ties with some Arab states may allow more open coordination to counter Iran.”
Trump’s order followed a December 2020 bill introduced by several Republican senators, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to study the transfer of Israel to CENTCOM.
“Tasking CENTCOM to serve as the primary U.S. defense coordinator with Israel instead of EUCOM would acknowledge the new political reality of the Middle East under the Abraham Accords,” Cotton said in a press release. “Our bill requires a study of the potential transition, which could increase U.S.-Israel military cooperation with regional partners and help better secure the Middle East against threats like Iran.”
Under Biden, U.S.-Israel military cooperation rapidly expanded to encompass unprecedented joint naval exercises. By March 2021, the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet conducted its first-ever fuel replenishment of an Israeli naval ship. In April 2021, the U.S. fired warning shots at Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf — the first time this had happened in nearly four years. Then, in August 2021, the U.S. 5th Fleet and Israeli naval forces conducted an expansive four-day naval exercise.
Also in August, for the first time ever, the U.S., Iraq, and Kuwait participated in a joint naval patrol of the Persian Gulf.
“Any one of these steps may feel small, but in the aggregate, it’s a serious escalation,” Trita Parsi, the former president of the National Iranian American Council and now president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told The Intercept in a phone interview.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also remarked that “those exercises would have been unimaginable, unthinkable, just a few years ago.”
In January, the U.S. and Israel conducted their largest joint military exercise in history, called Juniper Oak. Six-thousand four hundred American and 1,500 Israeli troops participated in the training exercise, involving more than 140 aircraft, an aircraft carrier, and live fire exercises with over 180,000 pounds of live munitions.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder insisted that “it’s not intended to be focused on any one single adversary or threat; it’s all about working together,” but Israeli officials made clear that the exercise was constructed to simulate a war with Iran.
Notably, Juniper Oak involved exercises in which American aircraft provided mid-air refueling services to Israeli fighter aircraft — a key capability Israel lacks and without which its aircraft cannot reach Iranian targets — and drills involving American B-52 bombers dropping bunker-buster bombs on targets designed to resemble Iranian nuclear sites. Iran responded to these plans with its own military exercise, which Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid said the country considers a “half war” and even a “war before war.”
“The U.S. very much wants to signal to Iran that even if Washington doesn’t have an appetite for war, we’re willing to support Israel, which does,” Parsi said.
While Americans oppose a nuclear Iran, voters strongly prefer a diplomatic solution over war, as illustrated in recent polling.
“Many in Washington may not feel alarmed by this because of their own conviction that Biden is loath to start a war over this issue,” said Parsi. “That may very well be true, but a very dangerous scenario is being created whose buffer against escalation is a president that may not be president in two years’ time.”
The reluctance by top defense officials to discuss the significance of Israel’s move to CENTCOM gives an idea of how politically fraught the matter is. “I’m not excited about getting into the subject you mentioned,” a retired four-star general who worked with Israel while at EUCOM, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told The Intercept. “It is now water under the bridge.”
The Israeli government is more candid than the U.S. about Iran being the focus of these exercises. “In recent months, we have achieved several important goals — the world has joined the fight against Iran,” said then-Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in a Hebrew-language press release from June. “For this reason, over the past year, I have been promoting a broad plan with my colleagues from the Pentagon and the presidential administration to strengthen cooperation between Israel and the countries of the region under the auspices of the United States and CENTCOM.”
In June, the Israel Defense Forces announced the conclusion of a three-day strategic-operational meeting between CENTCOM and senior IDF officials.
“During the discussions, it was agreed that we are at a critical point in time that requires the acceleration of operational plans and cooperation against Iran and its terrorist proxies in the region,” IDF chief of general staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi said.
As for actual armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran, that has crescendoed as well. “U.S. armed forces have reportedly struck Iran-related targets in Iraq (June 2021) and Syria (February 2021, June 2021, January 2022, and August 2022) in response to attacks by Iran-backed entities on U.S. forces,” a report by the Congressional Research Service states. “U.S. naval forces have interdicted or supported the interdiction of weapons shipments originating from Iran, including in December 2021 and February 2022.”
The White House, on the other hand, has declined to go into specifics. “Having Israel a part of CENTCOM has just really been, I think, a force multiplier for us, and allowing us to better integrate, organize, share information across the board here in the region has really been — I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” a senior administration official said in a background briefing. “But I won’t speak to any particular CENTCOM assessments or anything like that.”
The White House also hinted at the military option in its most recent National Security Strategy, the high-level planning document detailing nuclear threats and how to respond to them, which administrations release periodically: “We will pursue diplomacy to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, while remaining postured and prepared to use other means should diplomacy fail.”
While the current administration still pays lip service to the Iran deal — which Biden promised to reinstate — it appears to be all but over. During a press briefing last month, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked if Juniper Oak meant that diplomacy with Iran was off the table. “No, it means that our security commitment to Israel is ironclad,” Price responded.
The president appeared to reveal the U.S.’s actual position in November, when asked by an attendee about the Iran deal while on the sidelines of a midterm election rally in Oceanside, California. “It is dead, but we are not gonna announce it,” Biden replied. “Long story.”
The attendee then told Biden that the Iranian regime doesn’t represent the people. “I know they don’t represent you,” Biden replied, “but they will have a nuclear weapon that they’ll represent.”
There is no evidence that the Iranian government is pursuing a nuclear weapon. “Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon and we currently believe it is not pursuing one,” states the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon’s authoritative report on nuclear policy based on the best intelligence available to the U.S. government.
Should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, it would certainly be seen as a provocation in the region, touching off a dangerous arms race. Saudi Arabia engaged in quiet negotiations with the Trump administration to develop what it insisted would be a peaceful civilian nuclear program, before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman let it slip that the country would “follow suit as soon as possible” with an atomic bomb should Iran acquire one. By 2020, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nation to build a nuclear power plant, a key step toward building a weapon should it wish to do so.
From its brutal repression of protesters to the decision to provide Russia with drones for use in its illegal invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s policies likely played a role in the Biden administration’s political calculus around abandoning the deal. Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, cited both as reasons that the Iran deal had been dropped. (Israel, too, has a friendly relationship with Moscow and has vexed Washington by rejecting its request to aid Ukraine with anti-tank missiles.)
Malley, who had previously overseen diplomacy with Iran, last week led a delegation to Riyadh to discuss with Arab Gulf allies counterterrorism, maritime security, and, of course, Iran.
“Without the Iran deal, we’re back to deterrence; we want to show the Iranians that we have a credible military threat and that we’re willing to use it, thinking that this will deter the Iranians from the program,” Parsi said. “It can have that effect, but it can also have the effect of telling the Iranians that the U.S. wants conflict and make them think they need their own deterrence. The truth is that this type of deterrence absent diplomacy can be extremely unstable. It may actually cause the scenario that this strategy is designed to prevent.”
Three days after Juniper Oak concluded, on January 29 — just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived for an official visit in Israel — an Israeli drone bombed a military facility in Iran. U.S. officials scrambled to distance the U.S. from the attack, with the New York Times immediately publishing an article citing U.S. intelligence officials blaming the attack on Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad.
But with Israel now under CENTCOM, it’s increasingly likely that Iran won’t distinguish between the two parties, as the Jerusalem Post warned might happen when Trump first ordered the move.
“The plausible deniability for Israel’s alleged strikes … in the past has worked in CENTCOM’s favor,” the report observed.
Ken Klippenstein is a D.C.-based investigative reporter who focuses on national security