A high-stakes game of geopolitical brinkmanship is happening behind the scenes, with the Israeli and Iranian leaders now jockeying for pole position in the race for America's good graces.
Following Washington's spectacular climbdown from war in Syria, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a setback by the unexpected change of political winds.
Confident that some kind of a US military attack on Damascus was a done deal, Netanyahu had previously ostracized Syria as something of a playground for Iran and Hezbollah, Israel's two arch-enemies.
"Assad's regime isn't acting alone," Netanyahu told reporters in late August as an attack looked inevitable. "Iran, and Iran's proxy, Hezbollah, are there on the ground playing an active role assisting Syria. In fact, Assad's regime has become a full Iranian client and Syria has become Iran's testing ground."
What Netanyahu failed to point out, however, is that the Syrian rebel opposition is also not working alone, as Al-Qaeda elements -- the ragtag team of terrorists that allegedly orchestrated the sophisticated attacks of 9/11 -- are joining efforts to remove Assad from power. Whether or not that disturbing footnote played a part in what was to happen next is quite possible.
On the very eve of America's expected jolly little would-be dash in Damascus, the fog of politics trumped the fog of war as Obama -- rattled by British Prime Minister David Cameron's failure to win support for military action in the House of Commons -- stunned the world by seeking congressional approval before committing his military forces to any action against the Syrian regime.
This unexpected decision completely knocked the wind out of the pro-war camp's sails.
Washington, bereft of its once-solid British ally, was suddenly grinding gears and spilling oil in an effort to strike the right war rhythm. At this point, not even the influential pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which had deployed "hundreds of activists to win support in Congress for military action in Syria," according to Haaretz, could entice the superpower into another super mess.
The military theater of the absurd hit its highpoint when US Secretary of State John Kerry, itchy trigger finger and all, promised an "unbelievably small, limited" cruise missile bombardment of Syria to punish the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21.
If war in Iran is the endgame, as many observers suspect it is, then Israel's objectives in the region have been seriously upset by Obama's flip-flopping on the question of military action in Syria. That is because in the event that Israel -- unilaterally or otherwise -- decides to launch any sort of pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, it will certainly not want its flanks exposed to Syrian and Hezbollah forces.
"We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran," Israel's ambassador to the United States Michael Oren admitted in an interview on Sept. 19.
Toppling the Assad government would have weakened the "strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc," he said.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (Reuters/Keith Bedford)
So now Netanyahu finds himself still confronted by die-hard Assad in Damascus, while Iran, whom Israel suspects of attempting to build a nuclear weapon, did something even more cruel: It said goodbye to the supreme agitator, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and hello to the moderate reformist, Hasan Rouhani, who has already launched a charm offensive with Israel's No. 1 ally.
Just days after the anticipated attack on Syria fizzled out, President Barack Obama held true to his campaign pledge of "sitting down and talking with America's enemies" by having a telephone conversation with Rouhani.
Obama said the leaders had instructed their diplomats to work "expeditiously" toward an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, adding that this was a "unique opportunity" to make progress with the Islamic Republic over an issue that has isolated it from the West.
"While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution," Obama said, in comments that certainly did not sit well with the Israeli leader.
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