Enhance US-Israel Cooperation Against Iranian Belligerence
Iran is still grappling with one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East and a collapse in oil prices upon which the regime depends on for revenue. Yet Tehran and its proxies aren’t diverted from their true focus — launching repeated rocket attacks recently that killed American and allied service members in Iraq.
Tehran’s persistence confirms that its broader, decadeslong campaign against the United States will not wane. America must empower key allies, such as Israel, and maintain a military footprint in the Middle East to defend critical interests, including keeping maximum pressure on both the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State.
Recent nonpartisan polling shows a bipartisan majority of Americans view the Middle East as the most important region to U.S. security. A resounding 74% of the public believes in maintaining or increasing the U.S. military presence there, while a majority also recognize the U.S. benefits from its local alliances.
This reflects a clear-eyed perspective on a region riddled with radical actors whose ambitions transcend borders. After the Islamic State raised black flags throughout Iraq and Syria, its terror campaign eventually reached the U.S. Iran, likewise, empowers its proxies to threaten U.S. interests and allies around the region and fuels sectarian conflicts that further inflame Sunni extremism.
Iran and its proxies also continue threatening the flow of Middle East oil, having attacked oil tankers near the vital Strait of Hormuz and Saudi oil facilities last year.
To be sure, significant advances have been made, most notably the fall of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who engineered the expansion of Tehran’s influence in the Middle East.
It is against this backdrop that Washington must continue defending U.S. interests in the region, rather than retrenching.
The Islamic State remains a clear threat, with the Pentagon assessing that “ISIS would likely resurge in Iraq” without a U.S. troop presence. Likewise, the mullahs’ hegemonic and nuclear ambitions did not die alongside Soleimani. As Gen. McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said following recent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, the threat from Tehran “remains very high,” with Iran still “actively seeking ways to achieve destabilization.”
Thankfully, the U.S. has capable allies who just need the right tools and more of them. Israel is actively opposing Iranian expansion and aggression in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza. Yet these efforts are depleting Israel’s precision munition stockpiles right when it needs to continue rolling back Iranian gains and prepare for a much bigger conflict.
These challenges can be addressed within the framework of the current memorandum of understanding on U.S. defense assistance to Israel, concluded in 2016 under President Barack Obama. While the $38 billion agreement locks in Israel’s procurement of weapons at a steady annual level through 2027, the U.S. could shift forward, or “frontload,” the designated funds, allowing for the accelerated delivery of critical weapons, adding a boost to the U.S. economy without introducing new costs or altering the memorandum’s terms.
Jerusalem and Washington could pursue various financing arrangements, as outlined in a November report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. Israel could take a commercial loan against the memorandum and pay interest as it chooses. As it has done before, the U.S. could help Israel borrow at a lower rate by guaranteeing the loan, which would only require Congress to allocate funds for the highly unlikely possibility that Israel defaults.
The U.S. should also consider upgrading and replenishing its pre-positioned weapons stockpiles in Israel. This would not initially involve U.S. procurement expenses and would significantly improve the readiness and deterrent capability of both allies.
Concomitantly, the U.S. must maintain a credible military presence in the Middle East to counter the Islamic State and keep up pressure on the Iranian regime amid its self-inflicted crises. These domestic tensions have recently heightened in the wake of widespread anti-government protests and the coronavirus. Rather than offer life support through negotiations, the U.S. should double down on its pressure campaign targeting the regime.
This does not entail additional U.S. forces in the region, but rather more calibrated threats of force to build on the momentum of the Soleimani strike. This should be leveraged alongside a broader political warfare strategy mobilizing a range of capabilities, from diplomatic to cyber, against the increasingly vulnerable Iranian regime. The U.S. must further maintain its light, but strategically vital, military footprint in northeast Syria, and ensure its Kurdish allies there are prepared to continue counterterrorism operations and retain autonomy from the Syrian regime and its Iranian patron.
While America is correctly fixated on combatting the coronavirus crisis, we need to continue to protect our national security interests in the vital Middle East — including by boosting the capabilities of our regional allies to help secure our interests.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. Jack Bergman, a retired Lt. General in the Marine Corps, represents Michigan’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House. He was a participant on JINSA’s 2010 Generals and Admirals Program to Israel.
Originally published in The Washington Examiner