Two speeches delivered at this year’s UN General Assembly attracted widespread attention, and contain clues about the world’s two most potentially volatile, brewing confrontations. The speeches relate to developing crises with Iran and North Korea, and the US will probably have to prioritize one over the other.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his tradition of using the podium in the UN to set an agenda on Iran. His reasons for doing so are clear: Away from immediate attention of the international community, things are changing rapidly in the Middle East, in favor of Iran.
In Iraq, a country under significant Iranian influence, government forces retook Mosul, the self-declared capital of ISIS.
In Syria too, where Iran dominates operations on the ground, ISIS is rapidly losing ground. Assad prevailed with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The war is not over yet, but after years of ‘everyone against everyone,’ the hostilities are waning and we can identify concrete results.
Now, after helping Assad stay in power, Iran is seeking to reap the benefits by strengthening its power base in Syria. This includes creating a direct Iranian military presence in Syria.
Thus, Tehran has established a continuous Shia sphere of influence – stretching from Iran through to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
In addition to this, Iran’s nuclear efforts, improved missile technology, as well as its support of terrorism, all amount to a major challenge, not only to Israel and most moderate Sunni-Arab states, but well beyond.
And while Israel’s concerns about Iran are shared by the US, Washington has another front it has to watch as well; North Korea.
In his first speech at the UN, President Trump strayed from accepted international norms, into unprecedented territory. He spoke of the option of a wholesale destruction of North Korea, though making clear this was not the US’s preferred option. The mere fact this was said, however, indicates the urgency of the North Korean situation.
Trump also addressed the Iranian nuclear program, noting that since sanctions were lifted on Tehran, as part of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Iranians have been engaged in subversion across the Middle East, while supporting Hezbollah and Assad in ways that undermine what remains of the region’s stability. He spoke of Iran’s support for terrorism and the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program as well.
Trump’s comments on Iran are part of a build-up to a fateful decision he will soon have to make. By October 15, his administration is required to tell the Congress whether Iran respects the international nuclear deal it signed.
The sunset clauses in the agreement, which will expire in 10 to 15 years, will eventually enable Iran to approach striking distance of becoming a nuclear player.
Should the US quit the agreement, this would be a dramatic development that could send the Middle East and the world into a tailspin.
Yet Trump is unlikely to escalate the Iranian arena now to the point of having to take potential military steps, at a time when the US is so very busy with North Korea.
It stands to reason that the president’s advisors have suggested that he avoid having to deal with two major international crises with potential militarily deterioration at the same time.
This assessment is bolstered by the fact that other forms of pressure can be tried against Iran, to get it to roll back its missile program which is in clear breach of UN resolutions. Western nations, and possibly Russia and China, could be recruited for this goal.
There are some initial signs that the international community is beginning to find a new determination to limit Iran’s missile program.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has said that action needs to be taken after Iran claimed it fired a missile with 2,000 kilometer range capacity and with divergent warheads.
The longer Iran’s missile ranges become, the more European concern grows about being under threat. This concern is accompanied by an understanding in Europe, that it too is facing threats from Iran, not just Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Only coordinated, firm diplomatic activities by the international community can put a check on Iran’s missile program, which unfortunately remains outside of the nuclear deal.
A determined willingness to take harsh economic steps can influence the Iranian regime, which is sensitive to the Iranian nation’s needs.
This is not the case in the monolithic, closed state of North Korea.
Trump’s speech touched on both countries, because they cooperate, and each rogue state examines the conduct of the international community towards the other, to draw lessons about the future.
Iran has understood from the North Korean case study that ‘the dog barks but the caravan keeps on moving,’ – or in other words, that the international community was not serious about stopping Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
This realization has encouraged Iran’s aggressive conduct, and led it to conclude that it could advance its missile and nuclear programs. Iran stopped its nuclear program temporarily, at a certain stage, but did not reverse it.
While North Korea wants to ensure the survival of its regime, and to create effective nuclear deterrence against the US, Iran is seeking regional hegemony, and wants to become an international military power with a field of influence to serve its Islamist Shi’ite ideology.
Iran wants to use its new power to facilitate attacks on the Sunni world, and, of course, on Israel.
Trump will have to choose what he tackles first. Because of the burning North Korean issue, he is unlikely to choose Iran first.
Instead, he could take a two-step approach to Iran, issuing a statement to Congress that would lead it to placing more sanctions on the Islamic Republic, but stopping short of ripping up the nuclear agreement, which would be a complex, difficult maneuver.
From Israel’s perspective, the most pressing issue is Iran’s significantly expanded influence in the Middle East, and its new, continuous land corridor linking Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Iran plans to cash in its chips in Syria, and set up a military infrastructure there that can be used as launching pads in the future against Israel. It plans on expanding its de facto border with Israel in Syria.
The big question now is how the Trump Administration plans to convert its UN statements into action.
Edited By Yaakov Lappin
Co-Edited By Benjamin Anthony
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.