The Iran hawks’ dangerous hubris
If there is something that distinguishes the Iran hawks, it is their seemingly insatiable lust for a war with Iran. The latest iteration of the theme is found in Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Marc Reuel Gerecht’s essay “Israeli moment.” True to form, Gerecht warms up the stale cliches about Iran having a messianic and expansionist regime with which a compromise is impossible. The new line is that the United States is no longer reliable in confronting Iran as it “disengages” from the region. Israel, then, is uniquely positioned to assume Washington’s mantle of regional hegemon; and Israel’s new-found Sunni Arab allies are on board for an anti-Iranian alliance.
This is a set of assumptions that is increasingly flaunted by the Israeli leadership itself. A string of diplomatic successes, such as “normalization” deals with a number of the Arab regimes via the Abraham Accords, and remarkable intelligence feats against the Islamic Republic, have buoyed Jerusalem’s confidence, to the point that former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett felt it appropriate to boast that Israel no longer hits Iranian proxies, but rather now goes for the “head of the octopus,” i.e. Iran itself.
Leaving aside Bennett’s desire to project tough national security credentials domestically, these are dangerously hubristic assumptions that, if unchecked, could easily spiral out of control and inevitably suck the United States into yet another costly Middle Eastern quagmire.
To justify his belligerence, Gerecht has to portray Iran as uniquely evil and irrational. According to him, even if the nuclear deal is restored, stopping the regime’s atomic ambitions is a “dreamscape.” Coming from a FDD associate, this is more than disingenuous: FDD fought tooth and nail against the original JCPOA and was instrumental in President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. participation from an agreement that had placed strict limits on Tehran’s purported “atomic ambitions,” limits which the “clerical regime” abided by for a full 18 months after Trump’s impetuous withdrawal.
Then Gerecht pulls out the familiar trope of a “regime that hates America and the West at a molecular level.” This blithely ignores the actual track record of the Islamic Republic, which, alongside its ideological anti-Americanism, also included efforts to decrease tensions with the United States — from former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s offer of a major contract with U.S. oil giant Conoco, to his successor Mohammad Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations” to Hassan Rouhani’s JCPOA, including cooperation in a post-Taliban Afghanistan and a de-facto alliance against ISIS in Iraq. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted that if the JCPOA were faithfully implemented, dialogue on other issues, including regional security, was possible.
If the current hardline government in Tehran rejects such dialogue (for which it is criticized even by many regime insiders), it is due mostly not to the “hatred of America,” but rather the experience of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and his “maximum pressure” campaign — a policy the FDD ardently lobbied for.
Once Iran is framed in apocalyptic terms, the punchline emerges: Israel is the only power willing and able to derail Iran’s regional ambitions, and it should use that power.
Recently, Israel has indeed scored a number of impressive successes in its shadow war with Iran — assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and military figures, apparent penetration, possibly through MEK operatives, of the very core of Iran’s security apparatus, and the foiling of alleged Iranian plots to target Israeli interests abroad. Last month’s dismissal of the long-serving head of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence arm, Hossein Taeb, clearly suggests that the Iranian leadership feels itself on the defensive.
Change of personnel at the top of security agencies is only part of the challenges Israel created for Iran — to regain their effectiveness, a more profound reform will be needed. What can be even more corrosive and demoralizing in the long run is the sense of mistrust and vulnerability that Israeli actions may have sowed in Iran’s security agencies. Reform needed to regain their footing will require time before it bears fruit, and Israel can use it to keep punching Iran.
Yet upping the ante from the ongoing shadow war to an open anti-Iranian Israel-led military alliance, as Gerecht suggests, would mark a significant escalation. Even a weakened Tehran still has potent capabilities to retaliate — either directly or through proxies. Because Iran is either unable or unwilling to reciprocate by striking inside Israel, it is building a “deterrence belt” against Israel’s presence in neighboring countries. A drone strike against an alleged Mossad presence in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, was claimed to have killed some Israeli operatives. Confirmed or not, attacks on Israeli interests in third countries are likely to continue. Other potential targets include Azerbaijan, which Iran has long suspected of being a key launchpad for Israeli intelligence activities.
Which brings us to the newly-minted Israeli “allies” among the signatories of the Abraham Accords — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia — not yet a part of the accords but inching closer to Israel. These countries may share Israel’s dislike of Iran, but by no means does that imply they are willing to join a formal, Israel-led alliance against Iran.
Iranian strikes on oil fields and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the UAE convinced Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to seek their own channels of de-escalation with Tehran. For now, Iran is disinclined to increase pressure on these countries as it has engaged in its own, thus far constructive, dialogues with them. However, should they forge more formal military ties with Israel, such as air defense agreements, or, in the case of the UAE and Bahrain, host any Israeli military or intelligence infrastructure on their soil, they risk once again becoming a target for Iran’s formidable missile and drone capabilities.
Another, as yet unused source of leverage Iran can use against Israel is the missile arsenal its Lebanese ally Hezbollah has amassed across Israel’s northern border in Lebanon. Moreover, as Russia deploys more of its forces in its war on Ukraine, it may rely more on Iran to prop up its Syrian client, President Bashar al-Assad, to the detriment of its deconfliction arrangement with Israel that effectively permitted Israel to strike at Iranian and pro-Iranian forces operating on Syrian territory virtually at will. The fact that the Kremlin’s own relations with Israel have soured following the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and Israel’s increasingly difficult balancing act on Ukraine due to Western pressure to take Ukraine’s side makes such a scenario more plausible.
Any escalation of the “shadows war” between Israel and Iran into open conflict would inevitably bring in the United States given the likely domestic pressure from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to come to Israel’s aid under such circumstances. In fact, Gerecht’s former FDD associate and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, John Hannah, now with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, made that point explicit earlier this week by urging the administration to throw all of its weight behind the nascent Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran.
Yet any American role in such an alliance would inevitably make the United States a target. It’s difficult to see how digging itself even deeper into the Middle Eastern morass serves the U.S. interest at a time when it so clearly needs to focus on far greater threats to its own security than Iran — from a revanchist Russia to a peer geopolitical rival China. When President Joe Biden visits Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month, he should make it clear to his hosts that Washington has no interest in being part of any war against Iran and discourage them from embarking on any reckless action that would bring that dreaded prospect closer to fruition.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group or the European Parliament.