In mid-July 2021, Mosaic‘s editor Jonathan Silver sat down with two distinguished analysts of the Middle East to ask if, from Iran’s perspective, the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas set back or advanced Tehran’s regional interests. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation, which explores the Iranian regime’s strategic concept of the region, Israel, Hamas, Hizballah, Yemen, Iraq, and much else.
Ray, I thought we could begin just by trying to understand in general terms how Iran views the region, and how Iran views Israel. From Tehran, what do Israel and the region look like?
To the extent that we can bring this down to the details, because the region is divided into many spheres, I think that Iran at this point feels very comfortable in its immediate and its more essential strategic arena: the [Persian] Gulf. That includes Saudi Arabia and Iraq. They have penetrated Iraq at all layers, and the Saudis will want to step back and step down, it appears, from their confrontation with Iran.
When you get into the Levant, which is the second sphere—that includes Syria, Israel, Palestine—historically, Iran tends to benefit when Arabs and Israelis go to war. This certainly has been the case with the Islamic Republic, and it was true in the pre-Islamic Republic period too. The 1967 and 1973 wars were beneficial to Iran. I think the renewed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in this particular case was an important contribution to the strategic perspective because first and foremost it exposed some fissures in the U.S.-Israel alliance and certain divisions within the Democratic party itself. Whenever that sort of tension exists between Israel and its principal Western ally, that is advantageous to Iran.
Now, there have been some setbacks from their perspective, mainly the increasing Israeli influence with various groups in the Middle East. That certainly is not advantageous; but overall, fighting, unrest, and division between the Israeli and American governments, and between Israelis and larger bodies of international public opinion constitute a sort of soft-power victory for Iran.
To what extent do you think that the May conflict was initiated as part of a conscious strategy by Iran to sow regional disorder, and to what extent do you think that it was brought about by the confluence of local factors?
I have seen no evidence to suggest that Iran instigated this particular conflict. It came at an opportune time for the Islamic Republic, but I’m not quite sure it was instigated by it. These conflicts, from my perspective, usually have local parties and local grievances. Certainly when they begin, Iran is happy to prolong those conflicts and to benefit from them, but I’m not quite sure if Iran instigated it.
But this one did come at the right time. It came at a time when Iran was negotiating with the international community and the United States about Biden’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), [i.e., a renewed version of the 2015 nuclear deal]. It came at a time when the United States was pulling away from the Middle East, as it has for the past decade. So, the conflict came at the right time in terms of registering to the American government and to American public opinion how fractious and vulnerable the Middle East is, and how important it is to come to terms with one of the largest current powers in the region, namely, Iran.
Could you expand on how the regime in Tehran sees regional proxy engagements, such as the May conflict, together with its current negotiations with the American administration on the nuclear deal?
Well, I think a turbulent region is not in America’s interest, and of course the Iranians perceive that. A turbulent region is particularly not in America’s interest at a time when it has other preoccupations, both domestic and international. So, the argument would be that such conflicts would cause the United States to become more energetic in pursuing the agreement, and providing some sort of framework for its negotiations and its relationship with Iran.
Essentially, conflicts like the one that concluded in May between Hamas and Israel serve as a force multiplier. Iran would see that they would have the effect of pushing the Biden administration, which is already moving in this direction, to move even further down the road. On one hand, all the things that Iranians are doing, not just in the region but internally, should give everybody pause and concern about rushing forward with an agreement, one for which the costs are more obvious than the benefits.
But, on the other hand, there’s an inverse relationship at work here: the more difficult the region becomes, the more energetic the United States is in seeking to revive a diplomatic agenda that stabilizes the region and protects it from a nuclear threat.
One of the political implications of this last conflict is that it has put the Palestinian issue back on the map of international politics. Does it hurt or help Iran that America and Western Europe and international organizations like the United Nations are all again preoccupied with the question of the Palestinians?
Well, it depends on the level of preoccupation. It helps strengthen the argument that, no matter what peace agreements Israel has with Arab states, so long as the Palestinian problem remains unresolved Israel has a strategic vulnerability. I’m not quite sure I’m persuaded by that argument, by the way. I believe, and I’ve always believed, that the Palestinian cause is an irritant to the region, but it does not define the policies of the region.
Now, if the United States were to go back to the posture of the 1990s, when the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was its foremost strategic objective in the region, then Iran’s mischievousness would come at a cost because it would be thwarting an essential and important American objective. That is not the case today. From the perspective of the United States in the Middle East today, I think the most important thing is somehow to stabilize the nuclear issue. If the United States is seeking to be less involved in Middle Eastern politics, the unresolved nuclear issue is the anchor that keeps dragging it down into the region. It can live with a turbulent Iraq. It can live with a collapsed order in Syria, and even consolidation of power by Bashar al-Assad. It can live with a low-intensity Israel-Palestinian conflict without prioritizing it—this is an administration that hasn’t even appointed an envoy. But I think now the most important issue from the United States’ perspective is the nuclear issue. I’m not sure if the Palestinian conflict and the reconvergence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict really displaces that. The nuclear issue kind of sucks all the air out of the room and causes everybody to engage in various activities, not all of them sensible by any means.
Assaf, the conflict with Hamas not only had political consequences, but, of course, we should not lose sight of the fact that it was also a kinetic military conflict. If you were to assess what happened in May from Iran’s point of view, what could they have learned from Israel’s defensive capabilities? What capabilities did Hamas reveal?
First, let’s start at the strategic level, from Iran’s initial logic of building forward proxies, like Hamas and Hizballah, on the borders of its rivals. Iran finances, arms, trains, and guides—helping them build their business—and then it empowers them to make decisions about when to use this force. So, it’s not a direct line of control. As is said in Asian philosophy, the regime “allows the situation to come about.” Iran creates the potential, and then people say, “Oh, it happened by itself,” or “Israel did it,” which from Iran’s perspective is even better.
Forward military proxies also allow Iran to try to exhaust its rivals, to divert them and to draw their efforts and their attention to the proxies rather than to Iran itself, and also to learn from the operational friction. We see this model applied in Gaza, which we’ll speak about, and in Lebanon—the real flagship of this concept—in Syria, in Iraq, and even in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is suffering attacks two or three times a week because Iran provided the Houthis with the right capabilities to do it themselves. It looks spontaneous, but it’s actually driven [by Iran].
On the employment of military force, what did the Houthis come up with? It’s the same model, but a different scale. The employment of military force is for terror purposes. You need to disrupt, to shake the populace, to push the enemy government, and so on. It’s being done with fire—with rocket fire, with drone fire, with different kinds of land, sea, and air attacks. It sounds very advanced, and it is. But it’s hard to imagine how an impoverished place like the Gaza Strip actually obtains all those weapon systems. It’s built on secrecy, through concealment, embedding the military assets within populated areas, underneath Gaza, going physically underground, and of course, using human shields.
So, what have we seen? If they were to sit and do an “after-action debriefing” as we used to call it, they could say a few things. Hamas’s secrecy was pierced because Israel’s response was a massive precision strike that was intelligence-driven, which means that Israel knows where Hamas is and strikes where it is, on target.
On the underground, Iran saw that Israeli munitions penetrated the subterranean tunnel system that Hamas called the City of Jihad and the IDF named the Metro, but it’s nothing like a metro. It’s a subterranean fighting city. On all its attack venues, Hamas actually failed. Its naval attacks, including submarine drones, its aerial attacks of flying drones—failed. On tunnel attacks, Hamas lost a couple of teams that were supposed to assault Israel under our fences, but they were detected and bombed. And on rocket fire, Hamas shot something like 4,500 rockets, out of which about 15 to 20 percent fell in the Strip itself. As for the rest of it, some 1,500 were intercepted, which is about 90 percent of those heading into populated areas in Israel.
All in all, Israel suffered several dozen impacts, probably 150 or something like that, and the bottom line is that there were twelve civilian fatalities [within Israel], Israelis and non-Israelis. On the whole, the rocket fire was more disruptive than impactful. People heard the sirens and needed to run to the shelters; there was a disruption of the Israeli daily life; our national airport was shut down for the duration of the conflict. The main effect was disruption.
But the next ripple of the military exchange is exacting a political and reputational cost from Israel, with Hamas saying, “Oh, you’re targeting civilian populations and you’re killing children and you’re attacking civilian homes,” and so forth. You find all the human-rights activism on the side of Hamas. In this fight, it’s less relevant how professionally sound and accurate Israel is in its strikes. Let’s assume something like 200 and several dozen people died in Gaza. Hamas mostly described those as civilian fatalities, but we know that about half were actually terrorists. As for the rest of them, about nine children were killed by Palestinian rocket fire, but they’re still counted as Israeli-caused fatalities, and Israel finds itself needing to explain a lot of things to its best friends.
Let’s now extrapolate. Iran says, “Okay, what can we learn about a possible war in Lebanon from what we saw in Gaza?” They see that Israel has a wide striking capability and very deep intelligence. That means that Iran can’t be so sure of its secrecy. The underground is not an impenetrable hideout from the Israeli Air Force.
We all understand that Hizballah is more than a dozen times stronger than Hamas, and that Israel’s daily response to incoming fire from Lebanon would be more than ten-times of what it used in Gaza. Just to give you a general sense, in 2006, in the Second Lebanon War, Israel endured on the incoming side something like 4,000 rockets over a month of fighting. This time in Gaza, Israel suffered about that number in ten days of fighting. In the next Lebanon war, should it happen, this amount of rocket fire will be [directed at Israel] within a day or two.
We need to imagine the intensity [of such a conflict], and Hizballah understands that it needs to defeat the Iron Dome and our ballistic-missile defenses. It needs to try to saturate them. Hamas is already talking about firing massive salvos in order to exhaust the interception capacities of the systems, and they’re also thinking about their land assault, which from Lebanon is much easier to execute since Gaza is a very flat, small place, and there’s a linear border. The border with Gaza is much easier to protect, and still Israel invested several billions in having the subterranean fence along with the aboveground one.
In Lebanon, the terrain is rugged with valleys and hills and vegetation to hide in, and Israel’s border there is much harder to protect then with Gaza. In late 2018 Israel exposed six cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon, which Hizballah prepared as a surprise weapon for wartime, allowing it deep and secret penetration behind Israel’s defenses. Yet, even after Hizballah lost these tunnels its forces can still enter Israel overland. They’re holding several thousand Radwan elite units ready to try to punch through the Israeli defenses and hit Israeli villages and military sites.
I think Iran looked at this Gaza conflict as if it was the demo or the trailer for the full feature film of the next Lebanon war. There’s a lot to learn for both sides, and I’m sure that Iran and Hizballah have spent a lot of time watching on the sidelines. But beyond sidelines, after the conflict, we heard from [the Lebanese newspaper] al-Akhbar that there was an operation room in Beirut providing intelligence support to Hamas during the fighting. So, we already see the emergence of what the Iranians like to call the axis of resistance in an operational mode.
You can see the connectivity. We saw a drone flying through Jordan, perhaps from Iraq, into Israel during the fighting [with Hamas]. We saw rockets flying from Syria and Lebanon, [fired] by a Palestinian faction, at the time of the operation. Afterwards, the Houthis also threatened to send [drones] into Israel. If we put the kinetics aside, you heard most of the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force (the expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis all speaking about, “Next, any aggression of Israel in Jerusalem will be met with regional war.” That brings us back to the strategic messaging and posturing.
Let me ask you to expand on the armaments that have been developed for deployment against Israel in the next conflict from southern Lebanon. When we speak about overwhelming Israel’s ballistic-missile shield, or the Iron Dome, we’re talking about the volume of weaponry. But maybe you could also explain the sophistication and upgraded precision of that weaponry so that we have a full sense of that threat.
Just for comparison, in 2006 Hizballah had something like 12,000 rockets in its arsenal, which is about the scale of what Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have today. The ranges were mostly short, ten or fifteen kilometers. The longer-range rockets, those that fell in Haifa, had a 40-kilometer range. It had some initial capabilities for 100 and 200 kilometers, and I think the top capability Hizballah had then was several single numbers of the Zelzal-1. So, several hundred kilometers with several hundred kilograms of warheads.
What Hizballah has today in quantity is about 130,000-150,000, more than a dozen times what it had. Of course, it has all the short-range rockets. But if last time it had a dozen or two 50- and 70-kilometer Fajr rockets, now those are in the thousands. The longest-range missile is probably the Scud-D, which can reach 700 kilometers, and that’s with about a ton of explosives on the warhead. Hizballah also has very heavy rockets that it calls extra-heavy warheads of half a ton or a ton, flying short range. We’ve already seen those employed in Syria. Its arsenal includes drones in the hundreds, and those can fly into Israel and explode or drop bombs. Hence the concept of saturation. Add that to precise coast-to-sea missiles that can hit ships, and it indeed hit our missile boat in 2006 with an Iranian derivative of the Chinese C-802. Hizballah can target Israel’s oil rigs, and since Yakhont Russian coast-to-ship missiles can also hit coastal targets, it can also hit harbors and strategic power plants and such in Israel.
When we add the quantity to the size of the warheads, we understand that Hizballah’s capabilities are both staggering in size and potentially overwhelming in quantity. And then another dimension that we hear about more in recent years is the question of precision, because when you shoot off ballistic rockets as we saw in Gaza, they’re free-flying, free-falling, and the probability of their hitting targets from a distance is rather low.
You need to shoot several dozen rockets just to score one impact point in a significant place. As I mentioned, Israel only needed to intercept less than half of the incoming rockets from Gaza, because most of them weren’t headed into populated areas. There were expected misses. Precision means that you need to shoot fewer missiles for each impact, or you can score more impacts with the same number of launches. You can play both sides of this.
Now, the compact size of Israel and the scarcity of its critical targets means that Hizballah is working to turn its statistically non-accurate rockets into guided precision missiles; it means that Israel’s highest priority and most critical targets—civilian and military—become much more vulnerable. If you want to try to saturate a defense system protecting some critical site and you shoot several precise missiles, your chances of scoring a hit are dramatically higher. This is the equivalent of having an order of magnitude more munitions. You could have ten more rockets or one precise rocket to get the same impact numbers. That’s the next threat horizon that Israel is concerned about.
So for Israel’s defense planning, it’s not a question of Hizballah having ten more rockets or one more precise rocket. They have a dozen more precise rockets.
Yes. Think about the revolution in military affairs that Western countries went through [since the end of the cold war]. I can, I think, explain it well by comparing World War II carpet bombing, or even Vietnam and Korea, when you needed a B-52 full of bombs to take out a German bridge, to Kosovo, in 1999. There, you needed just two laser-guided bombs to strike a bridge. That gives you a sense of the difference between dumb rockets and precise ones.
Now, what Hizballah, with Iran’s help, is trying to achieve is to get itself to a position where it can increase dramatically the number of impact points on the most sensitive and critical infrastructure in Israel, and on its national hubs. Therefore, Hizballah’s focus point has been, for several years now, upgrading its dumb rockets into precise missiles. As it accumulates not just weapons but potential impact points in Israel, it can come to a staggering point where it can cripple or severely damage Israel’s national infrastructure, its fighting systems, or its fighting organizations if you wish. If Hizballah can take out critical parts of the IDF missile defense, air defense, intelligence, striking capability, Israel’s air force, it would find itself in a very advantageous situation from its point of view. That is, to the point of being tempted to initiate a first strike.
The Hizballah capabilities that you outlined, Assaf, are substantial and sophisticated, but one of the things that we have come to perceive, perhaps wrongly, is the extent to which Hizballah’s war-making ability has been weakened by its involvement in the Syrian civil war. How do you assess the fact that it was involved in the Syrian civil war? It suffered losses, including in its armament capabilities and manufacturing capabilities. Has it managed to revive all those capabilities with a very substantial investment from the Iranians, or did the Syrian civil war not have as dramatic an impact on this weaponry, and on Hizballah’s ability to produce weapons, as perhaps we have come to anticipate?
Well, we are now ten years into Syria’s civil war and fifteen from the 2006 war with Israel. Hizballah in the beginning didn’t want to go to war in Syria. It was very reluctant, thinking “why should we go there?” and so on. Then, like in a mission-creep scenario, it sent advisers, then it sent specialists, then it sent small teams, then it sent large units. Hizballah then found itself fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian forces, with the Russian forces. It found itself in al-Qusayr, assaulting on a scale bigger than a battalion, using tanks, UAVs, closing intelligence and strike circuits as we call it. Hizballah’s surviving fighters became very battle-hardened and savvy.
Hizballah lost a lot of people there, several thousands. But those who came back are battle-proven. They went through their baptism by fire, so it has an experienced force. In 2006, I think its great forte was fire and defensive garrisons in villages and outdoor compounds, which the IDF calls “nature reserves.” But in Syria, it developed an assault capability, an attack capability, offensive maneuvering—and we now see that the Radwan units, deployed along Israel’s blue-line defenses, are actually ready to step in and try either a raid or a local assault, to seize ground and to fight on Israeli territory. Now, Nasrallah has promised to “occupy the Galilee.” Operationally, that’s a secret, but due to his promise it’s already been in the Hizballah narrative for years.
So, what we see is a combined effect from the Syrian war. Hizballah suffered losses; its fighters gained experience. I would say that the capabilities used against Israel, or prepared for Israel, hardly suffered in Syria. Despite the need for firepower, we never saw rockets taken from South Lebanon or North Lebanon. Hizballah has kept the goods that it’s prepared for Israel intact.
As I understand it, you’re suggesting the experience Hizballah had as a result of the war increased its capabilities and experience. I want to ask you about political intentions. In terms of Hizballah’s political position in Lebanon, Nasrallah miscalculated by being so involved in the Syrian Civil War. For Hizballah essentially to have another war with Israel, wouldn’t that further attenuate its political position in Lebanon? And do you think, in light of the cost that it imposed on Lebanon as a result of its engagement with Syria, Hizballah is inclined to impose additional political costs on itself by provoking a conflict with Israel?
When it concluded the Syria experience, I think it was in the black. It’s good. It’s a good experience. Hizballah helped support Assad. Where it used to be Syria’s proxy, now Syria is almost a client state. The Assad regime is dependent on Hizballah and Iran and Russia, and Hizballah is part of the winning team, which is fantastic for it. Hizballah also went and passed on that knowledge in Iraq. In Yemen, it became a regional, Arabic-speaking power broker for the fighting resistance.
Now, as to war with Israel, modern wars are mostly expenses. All the good old days, if there ever were any, of loot and glory—they’re gone. Nobody seizes land anymore. Saddam Hussein sought Kuwait’s fortunes. But nobody gets fortunes in wars now. It’s just a net loss of blood and treasure on the expense side. I don’t think that either Israel or Hizballah will choose, in a distinct way, to go to war.
But as a keen observer of conflicts in our neighborhood, Israel more often stumbles into conflicts than actually deciding to go to war. How does that look? In October 2000, after our withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizballah kidnapped three of our soldiers. It began a long bargaining over prisoners. In 2006, it did the same after many failed attempts. It thought it calculated well, believing it knew how to predict Israel’s reaction, but it found itself in war.
By the way, Israel never thought it went to war. We just tried to save our captured or kidnapped soldiers. Then one of our tanks suffered an attack by an explosive charge on its belly and so we lost four more soldiers. Then Israel decided to respond. Then, as we say, there goes the chair, here comes the table. It’s an escalation dynamic, and before we knew it, we enjoyed each other’s company for more than 30 days fighting. Then Nasrallah said, “Oh, if only I had known, I wouldn’t have gone there.”
So, fast forward to last year or the end of 2019: we saw Syria as the new frontier from which Hizballah would try to attack us. In late August 2019, Israel struck a drone-attack team led by Iran, and afterwards we learned that there were some Lebanese among the fatalities. On the same night, there was a reported drone attack in Beirut on some element of the precision project. Nasrallah said, “I can’t accept it. If we let them kill our boys in Syria or strike in Lebanese territory, they’ll go all over us.” So, on September 1st, Hizballah shot several anti-tank guided missiles from Lebanon into Israel toward an IDF vehicle, and it missed. But there were five people in that vehicle and the missile was very, very close. If Israel had fatalities, it would have retaliated. But it didn’t stop there. Last July, we killed another guy in a strike in Syria against Iranian weapons. Then Hizballah tried to execute a sniping attack on July 27th last year, and we saw its fighters and scared them away. And then Hizballah tried to shoot us again. We had another case in 2015 when we attacked a joint Hizballah-Iranian patrol in the Golan Heights, and it killed two of our soldiers shooting from Lebanon into Israel.
This tactical friction is a typical staircase. You begin and you think it’s safe—“I’m just playing my brinkmanship, and it’s safe”—but then you find that it’s not really good risk management; it’s actually gambling. The damage, I think, that Hizballah and Lebanon will suffer in such a war will be way beyond the political ramifications. Israel will also get a bloody nose, but the expected catastrophe [in Lebanon] is hard to imagine.
Ray, with Assaf’s assessment in mind, the strategic consideration from Iran’s point of view would seem to be consistent with your earlier statement that regional chaos serves Iranian strategic interests. But now, thinking not only the “Little Satan” in Israel but also the “Great Satan” in the United States, could I ask you to say what those interests are in the region? This is all in the name of achieving what?
The Islamic Republic is a uniquely revolutionary regime in the sense that it has not abandoned this revolutionary and ideological zeal 42 years after the conception of the state. That is quite a remarkable record because we see the trajectory of most revolutionary states moving in a different direction this far along.
Why is Iran insisting upon power projection and animosity towards Israel? These are two different things. The power projection in the Gulf makes some degree of strategic sense. Iraq has always been a security concern for Iran, going back to the days of the monarchy, so its penetration of Iraq can be explained with some strategic arguments. Its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the way it’s handled it may be a little unusual, but that can be understood.
Iran’s meddling in the Levant and Syria and Lebanon and Israel is, I think, without precedent. You often hear that there is continuity between Persian monarchies and Islamic Republic officials. That’s not true. Persian monarchies historically—with the shah being the last one—had little interest in the Levant. The shah wasn’t mucking around Syria. He kind of toyed around with Lebanese politics a little bit, but they were too complicated for him, and Iran had a reasonably good relationship with Israel.
So, the only way you can explain Iranian involvement in that particular theater and the enormous cost of it, the financial cost in particular, is ideological. What does it mean to say Iran now has a Mediterranean outpost? How does that serve the tactical benefits of Iran as a nation-state? It does not. It serves the tactical benefit of the Islamic Republic as a revolutionary idea.
The causes of the Islamic Republic’s animosity towards Israel can I think be explained not so much by power dynamics, but to be frank, by anti-Semitism. The Iranian clerical class had been stained by deep anti-Semitism even before the advent of the Islamic Republic. So the hostility to a Jewish state has a lot to do with the fact that it’s a Jewish state and not just that it’s a powerful state in the Middle East that could rival unbalanced Iranian power.
Iran is also a revolutionary regime that is motivated by pan-Islamic impulses. It believes the welfare of all Muslims are its interest and its call, and it has involved itself accordingly. I don’t see too many practical benefits to Iran by this particular involvement. What did Iran get, practically speaking, from winning the civil war in Syria? It certainly contributed to the slaughter of thousands of people. If you’re trying to divide the Middle East into different sectors, the Islamic Republic’s policy and the Persian monarchy’s are continuous in the Gulf to some extent. But there are deep discontinuities in terms of Israel and the Levant and so forth, and those discontinuities, in my opinion, must be explained by revolutionary self-image, and—I hate to say this—by anti-Semitism. Iran’s leaders don’t like Jews.
Let me ask you to expand upon this question of the perceived proximity and intimacy between Israel and the United States in the Iranian strategic concept. To what extent does supplying a proxy force that can harm Israel play into the way that it views its strategic relation to the United States?
In Iran’s imagination, Israel and America are conjoined, and the way its leaders talk about it is in crass and vulgar terms. On one hand, Israel is deemed a client of the industrial North exploiting the Middle East on behalf of the developing communities. So, that’s the North-South kind of argument. On the other hand, there is a peculiar argument that suggests another reason why the two countries are so close to each other. It’s not because they’re democracies—it’s because of the control that American Jewry allegedly exercises in American politics. That’s the anti-Semitism that I’m talking about. It’s crass and vulgar and ahistorical, but people take it seriously.
It is a peculiar thing. On one hand, Israel is America’s client. On the other hand, there is a secret cabal of Jews that controls American policy. Those two things are logically inconsistent, but there’s nothing logical about the Islamic Republic’s animus towards Israel, because it stems from ancient hatred as opposed to strategic analysis. Some people have tried to suggest that the differences between these two countries is a standard strategic rivalry between two large states in the Middle East. I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as driven by vulgar anti-Semitism and a certain irrational, revolutionary impulse that has proved extraordinarily costly to Iran and to the Iranian people, and obviously to Israel and the United States. Iran is the sponsor, I think it’s also suggested, of an entire range of militias and proxies and so forth. In one sense, Iranian Islamic Republic imperialism is reminiscent of British imperialism in -the sense that it creates militias that fight on its behalf. I don’t see this as a balance-of-power argument as some people suggest. I see it as projecting some very ugly and ancient hatreds.
Right now, Iran must consider it significant that the orientation the United States had toward it during the Trump years has now given way to a very different orientation during the Biden years. Where does Iran see itself in time? Is there a point by which Iran needs to take some dramatic undertaking in the Middle East to advance its nuclear arsenal? Is its interest right now to let things develop and let the United States continue to approach it? Where does it see itself within history?
I will say the following, and here we may be seeing some measure of transition. The Iranian nuclear program is moving forward. It is moving forward whether the nuclear deal, the JCPOA, is revived or not. The question is the pace of that movement. Increasingly, I’m beginning to think that perhaps the current leadership in Iran has decided not to return to full compliance with the JCPOA, but to remain in partial compliance and to continue to develop its nuclear capabilities within the broad confines of the JCPOA, and essentially not to return to the agreement. That’s one school of thought.
The second school of thought is that Iran can return to the agreement and still develop its [nuclear] capabilities, although perhaps at a slower pace. I would say on this particular point, the Iranian government is uniquely arrogant and uniquely contemptuous of its constituents, and uniquely triumphant in believing that it has survived [Donald Trump’s] maximum-pressure strategy. The position of the Biden administration is that the strategy of maximum pressure was a failure. That’s the position of the Islamic Republic too.
It has survived mismanagement of COVID-19 and it has survived installing a president through a contrived process, which evaporated whatever electoral legitimacy the system still had. So it feels triumphant, but if you look closely, it is also very vulnerable because the gap between state and society has never been wider. The regime is facing a disaffected population with no way of expressing its grievances through acceptable political channels. It is wasting its resources on issues of limited concern, such as its nuclear misadventures, and it has no solution to Iran’s economic dilemmas.
So, ironically enough, the Iranian regime is most triumphant at the time when, in my opinion, it is most vulnerable. I cannot think of any regime—maybe it’s a poverty of my historical imagination—that collapsed that also understood it was about to collapse. That’s true about the shah in 1979, and it’s true about other revolutionary regimes.
So, I do think the regime is both weak and triumphant. It’s both aggressive and vulnerable. That essentially means it will move forward with its aggressive policies, with its indifference to international opinion. But at the same time, it really is experiencing the kinds of vulnerabilities that Iran did in the mid-1970s. The story may not end the same way, but the rhythm of history is comparable. At this point, Jonathan, the Islamic Republic may break, but it will not bend. And one of the reasons why it may break is because it will not bend toward either it domestic or its international detractors.
What about the commercial and financial aspect of all this? Perhaps the key pillar of the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure approach was to try to starve the regime financially. Having withstood that, and as Assaf was explaining to us, having succeeded in successfully arming proxy forces—Shiite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas and Hizballah on Israel’s borders—what is the state of the Iranian economy right now, and how does that play into the regime’s considerations?
The Iranian economy has shrunk substantially. It shrank as you mentioned through application of economic sanctions. It has shrunk through mismanagement. It has shrunk as a result of corruption. But I will say the following, and Assaf can correct me on this because he will have more information than I do. If, during this time of economic contraction that led to widespread protests, labor strikes, and protests in Iran, all that the Islamic Republic maintained were the subsidies to its militia groups, then it is a regime incapable of making a cost-benefit analysis.
That is dangerous if you’re looking at Iran as a strategic rival. It is positive if you’re looking at the regime’s arrogance leading to its collapse. If the regime is not willing to reduce its subsidies to its international actors at a time of economic contraction, that’s bad for the region. But it’s good for people like me who hope that the Islamic Republic will collapse.
I agree, but I would add another caveat, and that’s that the economic data we’re following needs to be understood in light of a parallel, black economy that’s unaccounted for, in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and other Iranian powerholders actually run criminal networks and smuggling across the borders with Afghanistan, with Iraq, and everywhere else. There’s a parallel economy that is unaccounted for, and that explains much of its longevity in places we would otherwise expect collapse. That’s the invisible part of the glacier.
Assaf’s point is very powerful, and I would add one more thing to this. A sanctions regime is a living organism. It has to be cultivated every day for it to be strenuous and robust. I think what we have seen in the past couple of months is a lack of sanctions enforcement. I mean, look at what the Islamic Republic has most recently done. Today, it’s been revealed that it tried to kidnap an Iranian-born U.S. citizen on American soil. That’s how brazen the Islamic Republic is becoming. At a time of extraordinarily sensitive nuclear negotiations that are stalemated, you would think it would shelve this kind of inane operation, but it didn’t.
This is a regime that is in many ways untethered from logical arguments, and I do think we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. As we try to revive the nuclear agreement or as we engage in diplomatic mediation, tell me how it ends. This diplomatic engagement’s endpoint is an industrial-size Iranian nuclear program. That’s where it ends. It’s an agreement that is going to be revived at the time when it’s expiring. And upon its expiration, which is imminent, Iran has a right to have an enhanced nuclear infrastructure. Today, it has one nuclear installation in a mountain. After the agreement, it can have nuclear installations nestled in every mountain. Today, it has 5,000 or 6,000 centrifuges. After the expiration of the agreement, legally, it can have 50 million centrifuges. Today, it has one large enrichment plant in Natanz. After the expiration agreement, it can have a large industrial-size enrichment plant in every city.
You always hear people say that you shouldn’t let Iran get nuclear-weapon fuel. Iran is in possession of nuclear-weapon fuel today. Sixty-percent enriched uranium is suitable for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. The South African bomb was enriched only up to 80 percent. According to the IAEA guidelines, anything above 20 percent can be suitable for weapons purposes. It’s not ideal, but it’s suitable.
As all three of us sit together here today, Iran has advanced missiles as Assaf mentioned; it has weapons-grade enriched uranium; and it has built larger, sophisticated nuclear installations. I don’t know what constitutes a nuclear-threshold state. Different people can have different arguments about it, but this sure looks like a nuclear-threshold state to me.
That would suggest that when we think about Iran’s nuclear strategy, we should take note of how successful it’s been in the mere fact of its survival up to this point. It needed to buy itself a certain amount of time to arrive at this threshold, and making sure that the great powers and its regional adversaries were occupied with proxy forces helped them make it to this point.
I think the regional meddling is something that the regime does. It’s organic to its identity. It is not a ploy to cover its advanced nuclear weapons. I think that’s what it does. It seeks to intervene and to destabilize the region because it’s a revolutionary regime that is trying to remake the region in its own image. It may have an added advantage of distracting the Westerners from the nuclear stockpile, but that’s not their problem, that’s the Westerners’ problem.
The Iranian strategic calculus, in my opinion, is to advance its nuclear program and advance the regional policy. I think your point is valid regarding how successful it’s been in doing both of those things. You might want to think about the various red lines that America has drawn on the Iranian nuclear program. There was a time when we used to talk about zero enrichment. There was a time when we used to talk about a lot of different things. All those thresholds have been violated, and after the violations, they have been discarded.
Right now, we are negotiating, and even then failing to slow the pace of Iranian nuclear advancement. We are not negotiating the stoppage of the program, but the level and percentage of its growth. And at this particular point, we have failed to do even that.