U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s brief visit to Israel on May 15 raises many questions. Pompeo met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and current Defense Minister and future Prime Minister Benny Gantz, to discuss “U.S. and Israeli efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional security issues related to Iran’s malign influence,” according to a State Department press statement.
Both the timing and structure of the visit give me a reason to believe that he did not come to Israel to discuss Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank or U.S.-Israeli cooperation on COVID-19. Rather, it was more about the “Iranian malign influence,” which seems like an urgent issue.
A few logistical aspects of the visit raise some crucial defense questions. Why did Pompeo go to Israel right away and not wait a couple of days until the new government was sworn in?
He came to Israel for a few short hours before heading right back home. His reason for not spending the night there was that he didn’t want to sleep in a hotel due to the coronavirus. For someone traveling on a plane and meeting people abroad, it hardly seems that the pandemic is one of Pompeo’s fears. Especially these days, it is fairly easy to secure a hotel room in advance, to be thoroughly disinfected, especially for someone of his level. Above all, why is the secretary of state traveling during a pandemic? Wouldn’t it have been safer and easier to talk with Netanyahu and Gantz on the phone over a secure line?
What could be so important that warrants Pompeo’s last-minute trip to Israel? I believe that he is preparing for an upcoming conflict with Iran. Here’s why.
Those who have been following Middle East news lately have probably noticed a number of unusual security developments in the region—in particular, the increasing aggressions of Iran towards the United States. It was first reported on April 15 that armed Iranian boats were pestering U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf; a week later, Iran launched its first satellite to space. Although the satellite is equipped with low-resolution cameras, similar to those of Google Earth, putting it into orbit is particularly concerning to the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Iran has proven capabilities of developing an ICBM that can reach Europe and possibly America.
The United States, on the other hand, has consolidated troops in Iraq. That can usually be either a defensive move to limit the exposure of American soldiers or an offensive move to consolidate forces and coordinate maneuvers before launching an attack. Not to mention that the United States has already moved C-RAMs, artillery and mortar systems into Iraq and had plans to move in Patriot batteries, too.
On May 12, Iran announced that one of its ships in the Strait of Hormuz was hit by friendly fire, resulting in 19 dead soldiers. However, it was confirmed later by a high-ranking source in the Iranian Armed Forces Staff Command that the Konarak frigate was not hit by friendly fire, but rather was caused by a marine mine that exploded during a secret mission to quickly lay mines in Gulf waters to protect against a future conflict with America. The Iranian moves and the U.S. military actions in the region lead observers to believe that both the United States and Iran are preparing the grounds for an upcoming escalation.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable that Pompeo’s visit was meant to coordinate moves with Israel, warn its ally, and collect relevant intelligence prior to any U.S. action against Iran. Trump has recently vetoed the Iran War Powers resolution, a bill that would force congressional approval to use military force against Iran. The U.S. embassy in Bagdad was just targeted with rockets, most likely by pro-Iranian militia, all while tensions between the America and Iran grow around Iranian oil tankers making their way to Venezuela.
Iran has given Trump numerous reasons to react and the president’s path to military action against the Iranian Republic has never been smoother.
One last thought: Regarding Netanyahu’s trip to Lisbon in December 2019, he flew for a few hours for the sole purpose of meeting with Pompeo. One month after that meeting, Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by the United States. According to several reports, Israel had a hand in that.
Pompeo’s trip to Israel, much like Netanyahu’s trip, seems to be more crucial than they would like us (and Iran) to believe. Could there be a war? Only time will tell.
Benjamin Weil is director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the international adviser to Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.