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The Middle East in View of a Decreased US Presence

The United States’ most capable regional partner in countering Iranian aggression continues to be the State of Israel. Recognizing that a confrontation with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah is likely inevitable, Israeli strategists are diligently waging a “campaign between the wars” to degrade these adversaries’ capabilities.

Since the American people seem determined to decrease America’s military presence in the Middle East, the United States should bolster its support for Israel’s campaign, and the two countries should coordinate their efforts to pressure Iran. This is the surest way of safeguarding America’s national security interests against Iranian aggression while simultaneously allowing Israel to defend itself by itself.

Israel has launched hundreds of attacks against Iran and its proxies over the past few years in Lebanon, Syria, and even Iraq. Israel has firm redlines against any Iranian efforts to increase its operational capabilities to strike from Lebanon or Syria. By also interdicting Iranian weapons transfers across the Iran-Syria-Lebanon land bridge, Israel is both delaying a future war and creating optimal conditions should war erupt.

Successful operations, like Israel’s demolition of Hezbollah’s underground attack tunnels into northern Israel, have demonstrated the effectiveness of proactive preemption against the Iranians and their proxies.

America’s efforts to deter Iranian aggression, by contrast, have been far less productive. Despite U.S. economic pressure over the past few years, Iran has attacked and seized several oil tankers, downed a U.S. drone, launched cruise missiles at Saudi oil facilities, and expanded its nuclear program. In response to these provocations, the United States piled on more sanctions and deployed additional military assets to the Middle East but avoided launching a deterrent military operation.

Fundamentally, sanctions without a credible military threat make Iran more likely to ramp up its regional and nuclear aggression.

The strike on the Iranian general and terrorist Qassem Soleimani was a significant and welcome exception. The strike was a strong statement of American resolve, and time will tell whether the U.S. will continue to use military force when warranted or continue its heavy reliance on economic sanctions. The only public response to Iran’s retaliatory missile attack, however, was additional sanctions.

So long as the redline remains limited to killing Americans, Iran will calibrate its aggression to fall short of this line. It has already shown this capability through attacks against oil infrastructure, the proliferation of weaponry to its proxies throughout the Middle East, filling the vacuum left by the American troop withdrawal from Syria last year. Since Iran is likely to continue its asymmetric aggression, America should work with Israel to provide concentric, rather than at best parallel, lines of pressure on Iran.

The United States should, for example, help Israel procure more precision munitions and additional advanced aircraft, like the F-35. In 2016, the Obama Administration agreed with Israel to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to provide $38 billion in military aid over ten years. The MOU demonstrates America’s congressionally mandated commitment to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” a longstanding American policy to help Israel ensure its regional security.

The 2016 MOU was, however, structured with 2016 strategic realities in mind, evenly distributing funds across all ten years. As strategic realities have changed since 2016, the United States should be frontloading this aid instead of appropriating and distributing it according to its current schedule. This is not a matter of increasing the aid but merely increasing the pace of its transmission; the United States does not need to add a cent to the overall cost. Frontloading the MOU will allow Israel earlier access to funds necessary to procure American-made weapons systems capable of countering Iran’s expanding military footprint.

As Iranian aggression is continuously adapting, the United States and Israel should also continue jointly innovating and develop new unmanned air, ground, subsurface, and undersea vehicles. These technologies are ideal for countering Iran’s hybrid tactics because they allow either the United States or Israel to launch asymmetric attacks and reconnaissance missions.  Israel’s deterrence and ability to mitigate Iranian aggression could also be strengthened by a narrow mutual defense pact between the two countries.

The United States should also continue providing Israel with diplomatic support, particularly at the United Nations. This support is vital as Israel’s adversaries are waging an information campaign to delegitimize Israeli defensive operations.

Other potential U.S. support for Israel’s frontline role in countering Iranian aggression might include – coordinated cyber-attacks, especially against Iran’s nuclear program. Also, the United States should work with Israel to help uphold United Nations arms embargos by interdicting Iran’s offshore weapons shipments. The United States has previously interdicted weapons bound for Yemen, and increased intelligence sharing with Israel could help improve these operations.

The Trump Administration’s strike on Soleimani demonstrated the consequences of threatening the lives of Americans but may do little to deter other forms of Iranian aggression. However, America has a mutual interest in Israel’s ability to wage a successful “campaign between the wars.”

As the United States decreases its military presence in the Middle East, Israel will become even more critical to preventing the spread of Iranian influence throughout the region. Helping Israel to wage their campaign will thus help America secure its national security and may even significantly push off the next war.

Lieutenant General William J. Bender, USAF (ret.) is former U.S. Air Force Chief Information Officer and a participant of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) 2019 Generals and Admirals program. Ari Cicurel is Senior Policy Analyst at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.

Originally published on The Jerusalem Post