In The Transition Between Administrations and Cabinets, the military means permanence and continuity
By Amir Oren
On the night before Christmas, President Donald Trump posted a picture of himself with his wife Melania at the White House, wishing Americans all the best, which they – along with the rest of mankind – surely deserve after such a harrowing Covid-19 year.
But a few hours earlier, Trump addressed another audience, with a different tone. “Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday (December 20) by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they came from: IRAN,” Trump tweeted and capped. “Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq. Some friendly health advice to Iran: if one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
Or, as Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco police, also known as Clint Eastwood, famously pointed a gun and challenged a criminal, “C’mon, punk, make my day.” C’mon, Iran, make my Christmas Day, or New Year’s, actually any day until Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.
This kind of talk could be perceived as either provocative or deterrent in nature. The choice is left to the Islamic Republic. It is put on notice that a lethal attack on Americans in Iraq, probably though not necessarily around the turn of the year as to commemorate the first anniversary of Qassem Soleimani death by Trump’s order, would have swift and powerful consequences.
In the next four weeks or so, Trump is still the Commander in Chief. The Biden team has not been fully nominated, let alone approved and in place and formulating policy, and only following the two Senate run-off elections in Georgia January 5 will Biden’s power vis-a-vis Congress and the Republican Party be known. In this hour between Trump’s sunset and Biden’s sunrise, there is a lot if uncertainty, beyond the Constitutional fact that there is only one President at a time and the decisions are his to make.
Cabinet officers and other Presidential and White House appointees are packing up, but one leadership group will remain regardless of the political transition – senior military officers. They have the difficult task of pursuing current policy until their new civilian bosses ars in office and issue fresh directives, yet be careful lest the execution of last-minute orders, for all their legality, boxes in the arriving team.
It is therefore noteworthy that even while Trump was dispensing his health advice to Tehran, the Commanding General of CENTCOM, Frank McKenzie, struck a much more moderate tone. The man who would pull the trigger, should Trump order it, said he does not know whether Iran was behind the rocket attack and added, “We do not seek a war”.
It is a delicate game, especially given the tensions between Trump and his series of Secretaries of Defense, which is why it was important for the Israel Defense Forces to host U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, a week ago, and talk with him about regional security issues including Iran.
Milley came visiting, and met with both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and (briefly) Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as Israel itself was involved in a heightened domestic crisis. Indeed, no sooner than he left did the government collapse. It is quite likely that following the March 23 elections at least one of the two politicians will not be in office – all the more reason to strengthen mil-to-mil ties, as the constant element in the shifting sands in both capitals.
Milley’s counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, put Iran on notice that should it act against Israel, the IDF is poised to strike back. In addition to the mighty Israel Air Force, a signal regarding the Navy was sent by a submarine visibly traversing the Suez Canal – it is too shallow for underwater passage – from the Mediterranean towards the Red Sea and perhaps waters even closer to Iran.
Kochavi, though, is also steering his General Staff towards the emerging contours of the Biden Administration’s Iran policy. Its centerpiece will be the return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, updated to 2021, and hopefully expanded to include a discussion of limits on Iranian activity through forces and proxies in Israel’s immediate vicinity and on the Iranian ballistic missile arsenal – a JCPOA 2.0. A top military team headed by Maj.-Gen. Tal Kelman, an Air Force officer in charge of strategy and Iran, is already working on the input Israel would wish Biden to consider when he re-negotiates with Iran.
When the IDF compares 2020 to 2019, it tallies the pro’s and con’s on the Iranian page of the ledger in a way which may point either to an imminent attack on Israeli targets or not, depending on who will prevail in Tehran as it looks short-term to the transfer in power in Washington and somewhat longer-term to the June elections in Iran.
Last year, Iran was seemingly riding high. It got away with shooting down an American UAV, hitting a Saudi oil terminal and threatening Gulf shipping. When Israel unrelentingly struck Iranian targets in Syria, it tried – rhough not with great success – striking back.
That was so 2019. This past year it lost Soleimani and with him an essential strategic and operational mind. It saw the UAE and Bahrain normalize relations with Jerusalem. It suffered the substance and humiliation of having its chief nuclear scientist being killed, presumably by Israel. And it was helpless to block the IDF from methodically pushing it away within – though not out of – Syria.
This stock-taking, along with a reluctance to give Trump a pretext for a parting shot, would seem to favor an Iranian restraint for the time being, but conversely it could work for an Iranian decision to go on the attack, in order to tell Biden that hey, we are here, you can’t deal with China and other issues first and put us on the back shelf.
Either way, officials such as Milley, Kochavi and their fellow Generals and Admirals will be central to national policies as their civilian superiors stabilize their electoral bases and governmental teams. Whether closer to peace or to war, wherher a “health advice” is followed or ignored, there will be ample opportunities ahead for people on all sides to make their days.