Netanyahu made normalization with Saudi Arabia his number one foreign-policy priority, seeing a new Middle East (and a revived political future at home) within grasp. The White House saw Iran, particularly its nuclear ambitions, as a serious vexation but one that might still be diminished without confrontation. This hopefulness was best expressed by Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser for President Biden, who said in September that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
But Iran’s clerical regime has long had a far better grasp of the region’s realities and power politics. In a deeply fractured Middle East, it knows the value of proxy wars waged by militias of various ideological hues. In the 1980s, it created Hezbollah in the Shiite slums of Lebanon. The mullahs’ deadly protégé has menaced Israel for decades and has done Iran’s bidding in Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s ties with Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, were initially more distant. Hamas has its own agenda, its own sources of strength (it won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006) and ample funding from the Gulf sheikhdoms (and indirectly from the European Union). After 9/11, as Sunni Arab rulers grew more concerned about Islamic militancy, tired of the Palestinian cause and nudged closer to Israel, Hamas found a willing partner in Iran. Its leader Ismail Haniyeh is a regular visitor to Tehran and this summer even boasted about how the Islamic Republic funds its missile program. Hamas is now a member of Tehran’s so-called “axis of resistance.”
American’s politicians and policy makers, eager to leave behind their Middle East inheritance, have been searching for allies of their own to bear the burden of a dysfunctional region. The Biden team hoped that local actors would patrol the region on its behalf while it concentrated on Asia. Israel and Saudi Arabia are unlikely partners in this endeavor—the former won’t project power into the Persian Gulf and the latter, though richly armed, is militarily incompetent—but building on the Abraham Accords, Biden sensed opportunities.
In recent weeks, as White House aides shuttled back and forth to the Middle East, timely leaks hinted that a deal was tantalizingly close. The U.S. had to offer security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, a la South Korea, and allow the kingdom to become a threshold nuclear state, with its own capacity to enrich uranium. The Israelis would need to accept Saudi Arabia’s eventual nuclearization, launch a new peace process with the Palestinians and at least nod toward the mirage of a two-state solution.
For this deal to get done, Iran and Hamas, however, would need to play dead. Some in the administration thought that China’s intervention in Persian Gulf politics earlier this year, which led to the restoration of relations between Riyadh and Tehran, might actually play to Washington’s benefit since it signaled, in their eyes, a certain pragmatism in the kingdom and the theocracy.
The Biden administration’s key mistake was to believe that the forbearance of Tehran and Hamas could be purchased. In the diplomatic lexicon, this is called “de-escalation.” The U.S. released $6 billion to the clerical regime ostensibly for the release of imprisoned dual citizens. In reality, the White House hoped that this would slow the Islamic Republic’s nuclear march and stop it from mauling American servicemen in Syria. If Iran played along, more money in sanctions relief would be forthcoming. Israelis thought that Hamas wouldn’t resort to terrorism and jeopardize the loosening of Israel’s embargo, which allowed up to 18,000 Gazans to work in Israel and generated a daily income of $2 million.
Iran and Hamas took the money and went to war.
There is a debate in Washington and Europe about whether the clerical regime ordered the attack or consented to Hamas’s initiative. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has been gloating since the invasion: “God willing, this cancer [Israel] will be eradicated at the hands of the Palestinian people and the resistance forces in the entire region.” The “Al-Asqa Flood,” as Hamas calls the attack, certainly showed a degree of competence, capacity, ingenuity and boldness not seen before in the group’s terrorist attacks on Israel. This is the level of aggression that the Islamic Republic has always encouraged in its allied militias.
But the fact is that both Iran and Hamas wanted to abort a regional alignment that threatened to integrate Israel more into the Middle East. American and Israeli diplomacy operated on the hubristic assumption that Iran didn’t have veto rights on this process And regardless of Israeli-Saudi-U.S. diplomatic initiatives, the clerical regime and Hamas take pleasure in watching Israelis die.
Ali Khamenei sees the U.S. on the run in the Middle East, which has helped to cement Iran’s alliance with Russia and China. From Tehran’s perspective, this was an excellent time to strike. So, too, for Hamas, which probably enjoys more popularity among young Palestinian men—the people who really matter—than does its West Bank rival and enemy, Fatah, which runs (and fleeces) the Palestinian Authority. Iran and Hamas needed a war, and they both understood that by inflaming the Arab street they could undo whatever Sunni Arab princes agreed to in their palaces.
When Israeli troops finally enter Gaza to dismantle Hamas’s terror apparatus and its missile factories, casualties will mount, and scenes of deprivation will beam across Arab satellite channels and social-media accounts. The Palestinian cause is still very much alive among the Arab lower and middle classes, and significant demonstrations—just the fear of them—have usually had an effect on the wobbly spines of Sunni Arab rulers. Zionist-friendly Arab potentates could make tactical retreats. The Europeans will surely call for mediation. The U.N. will convene sessions to criticize Israel. In the carnage, Hamas may lose its grip on power. It’s hard to imagine, however, that Fatah or any other Palestinian group will rise up, with or without Israeli subventions, to replace them.
The big winner in this mayhem will be the Islamic Republic. In a deeply fractured Middle East, the clerical regime has demonstrated impressive skill. In Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza, Iran-allied militias have successfully challenged the ruling authorities, destabilizing or replacing them. In Iraq, Iranian machinations played a major part in defeating American power—a stunning achievement that made Qassem Soleimani, the former head of the Quds Force, a household name throughout the Middle East.
The genius of the Islamic Republic’s proxy war strategy is that it never provokes a meaningful response. The sequence of events is always eerily the same: Iran’s allied militias launch a devastating attack, and the targeted nation is too busy putting out the flames to focus on the source of fire. When the U.S. had its hands full in Iraq, it didn’t wish to expand the conflict by attacking Iran even though it was Iranian munitions and planning that were lacerating U.S. forces.
Today, Israel is in a similar bind. As it undertakes the daunting task of cleansing Gaza of Hamas, it will refrain from assaulting Iran for the fear of overloading the circuits. The clerical regime has additional leverage through Hezbollah, with its huge arsenal of missiles. But even if Hezbollah were to attack from Lebanon, the logic of restraint would still likely prevail as an Israel at war north and south wouldn’t wish to engage the Islamic Republic directly. Offense everywhere is probably the best strategy for Jerusalem, but the resources to do so, let alone the volition, are likely beyond Israeli means.
The clerical regime hasn’t just demonstrated a better grasp of regional politics than Washington. In the past few years, Iran has given itself breathing space by forging close ties to Russia and China. Moscow has opened its armory to Tehran, providing it with sophisticated aircraft and air-defense systems. Vladimir Putin has no problem with another distracting, Middle Eastern conflict.
China’s situation is different. Although no longer the “responsible stakeholder” that Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft envisioned, Beijing wouldn’t want a war that could disrupt its energy supplies. But hardened authoritarian ideologues understand each other better than pragmatic Americans, with their eyes on balance sheets and cost-benefit analysis.
Khamenei took the measure of Xi Jinping and found a kindred spirit. After all, China had no problem with Russia’s war against Ukraine, despite the fact that Europe is China’s largest trading partner. The Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has but one imperative: The clerical regime will not attack Saudi oil facilities as it did in 2019. Tehran has so far kept its part of the bargain and left Saudi oil installations unmolested—while undermining Riyadh’s regional pretensions.
Like the Obama administration, the Biden team has consistently played down the Islamic Republic’s ideological commitments, never taking the theocracy’s fiery rhetoric at face value. That’s a mistake, and it fails to see the dangerous dynamic that now defines Iran’s role in the region: As the country’s Islamic revolutionary spirit has withered at home, the regime has found it necessary to seek legitimacy and pride abroad, both through its proxy wars and the continued development of missile technology and nuclear weapons.
The unavoidable fact is that Western success in the Middle East involves containing the Islamic Republic, with an eye toward undermining its power at home. New nuclear “understandings” won’t arrest Tehran’s nuclear ambitions; sanctions won’t defang its lethal protégés. When American presidents don’t wish to do the hard things, they inevitably rely on their diplomats to launch inconclusive “processes.” Resuscitating Israeli-Saudi negotiations will surely prove the most tempting illusion—an abstract end-run around the Islamic Republic that brings no U.S. hard power to bear.
Fortunately, Iranians are in a rebellious mood. Discontent in the country is a vast magma pool. We don’t know when the next major eruption will occur; neither does the regime. But the average Iranian, who has increasingly taken to the streets since the nationwide protests of 2017, does not understand why his nation’s meager resources are wasted on Arab civil wars and terror campaigns against Israel.
Containment is always in part about the patient application of military power. For Israel it may entail, after the war in Gaza reaches a bloody, unsatisfying end, another assault on Hezbollah. The Lebanese group’s vast missile stockpile may deter Israeli leaders, but if Jerusalem decides to try to pre-empt the next missile war, Washington should have its back for what will surely be a long campaign that leaves even more of Lebanon in ruins.
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The shadow of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hang uneasily over Washington. The events of this week ought to make it unmistakably clear that the U.S. cannot leave the Middle East and pivot to more promising pastures. The region has a way of dragging reluctant powers back into its morass.
Finding victory on the cheap is unlikely. But beyond America’s military might, which no one in Washington wants to deploy, the U.S. does have a trump card—the Iranian people, whose emancipation would free not just themselves but the region as a whole. Can Democrats and Republicans find a bipartisan Iran policy focused on that task? Can they say, however quietly, “regime change”?
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.