Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 28 February 2024


The U.S. and Israel Play Into Iran’s Hands


Seth Cropsey

Feb. 27, 2024 5:31 pm ET

Drivers pass a billboard in Palestine Square that depicts Iranian missiles and a threatening message to Israel in Tehran, Feb. 19. Photo: abedin taherkenareh/Shutterstock

As Israel pushes deeper into Gaza and prepares for war with Hezbollah in the north, Iran’s campaign against the Jewish state and the U.S. is approaching an inflection point. Jerusalem and Washington need a new strategy that recognizes Tehran as their true enemy, whose proxies function like an empire. Instead of telegraphed American airstrikes or the Israeli Octopus Doctrine of punishing Iranian proxies, both nations must work to collapse Iranian power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Israel’s greatest failure since Oct. 7 is political. Much of the world considers the massacre another round of Israeli-Palestinian violence, not an Iran-orchestrated attack. Since 2021 Hamas has been a full-fledged member of what Tehran calls its “axis of resistance,” a proxy network that spans the Levant, Lebanon and Yemen. Each proxy has a distinct character, but all are united in their hatred of Israel and the U.S. From 2021 on, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have reportedly planned and coordinated operations jointly from a nerve center in Beirut with direct Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps supervision.

America has insisted on a fictitious distinction between Tehran and its proxies. But the threat this pseudo-empire poses to the U.S.—as well as countries across Europe and Asia—is real.

Iran’s goal is regional dominance, by which it plans to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Mideast. An Iran with proxies across the Levant, and in time the Arabian Peninsula, would be a bona fide great power capable of competing with Europe, Russia, China and India for Eurasian influence. It would be able to challenge America directly in military, diplomatic and economic terms. Eurasia has never been able to secure itself absent a stable Middle Eastern order. Even ignoring its oil flows, the Mideast is the nexus point between Europe and Asia and therefore the linchpin of the Eurasian economic power on which the U.S. depends and a key transit route for U.S. military forces.

Yet rather than consider the Israeli struggle as a key to greater geopolitical stability, Washington treats it as merely another Gaza war. Attacks by Iran-backed militants in the Red Sea and on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria are considered aftershocks of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This plays into Tehran’s hands.

Iran’s difficulty is that it can neither win a conventional war against the U.S. nor physically conquer Israel so long as America remains in the region. Tehran therefore seeks other means to force the U.S. out of the Mideast, leaving Israel and Jordan exposed in a manner consistent with the Soviet concept of “reflective control.” Rather than straightforwardly coercing an opponent with military force, the idea is to trick an adversary into doing something against its interest.

Tehran wants to convince the U.S. that simply to abandon the Middle East on the grounds that it’s too much trouble to maintain its position and defend its allies. In particular, Tehran needs the U.S. to abandon the al-Tanf complex, a series of Levantine bases that provide a buffer between Iraq, Syria and Jordan. The complex dominates the most natural Iranian logistics route from Baghdad to Damascus, while shielding Jordan from direct Iranian pressure through Iraq. U.S. access to other Iraqi bases cuts secondary Baghdad-Damascus logistics routes. Under the pretext of rage over the war in Gaza, Iranian proxies are executing missile and drone attacks against these bases.

With the U.S. gone, Iran could unify Iraq, Syria and Lebanon into a single strategic space. Tehran could then incorporate the West Bank into its strategy more directly, pouring more arms and Iranian-trained fighters into it through smuggling routes in Jordan, while also undermining the Jordanian state. With its logistics freed up and Amman under pressure, Tehran could contemplate even more-direct attacks on Israel, including, with a requisite pretext, a proxy-force ground assault from Lebanon and Syria and mass bombardment of Israeli critical infrastructure. The goal is to make the Jewish state unlivable for all but those most dedicated to the Zionist cause. If only a few hundred thousand Israelis remain, Iran and its network can overwhelm them with relative ease.

Neither Jerusalem nor Washington is acting to prevent this outcome. Neither country treats Iran’s proxy network as the veritable empire it is. Tehran hides behind implausible deniability by claiming that it has no direct control over these proxies. Because Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are legally independent states with standard sovereign rights and privileges, any reprisals impose a higher political cost on Israel and the U.S. That deters serious military actions to degrade Iran’s capabilities.

Israel conducts tit-for-tat strikes against Iranian proxies, but that doesn’t put a meaningful cost on Tehran’s actions. The Jewish state doesn’t have the military capability to strike Iran directly and cause crippling damage. An Israeli partnership with Gulf Arabs could threaten Iran’s domestic stability, and thereby the core of this empire, but that’s out of the question. Since 2019, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have studiously avoided escalation. Neither clearly has any interest in serving on the front lines of regional conflict.

To counter Tehran’s strategy, Jerusalem and Washington should invert Iranian logic by forcing the regime to feel the costs of an empire. Those costs must exceed the ineffective airstrikes the U.S. has executed in recent months. In the short term, this should include a more aggressive targeted killing campaign against Iranian and proxy operatives in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Eventually, Israel and America should apply enough pressure to force Iran to step into the open and take actual control over these territories, with the requisite costs of daily administration.

Iran has cash, but a more expansive sanctions regime, a change in oil prices or other macroeconomic disruptions would undermine the resources it has to fund its proxy conquest campaign. Adding direct rule to this set of tasks would overwhelm Iranian capacity, transforming Tehran’s proxy network into a costly, restive empire, populated primarily by Sunnis with few sympathies for Tehran’s Shiite mullahs. This strategy would cut each head off the Iranian imperial monster, until it is left only with the core.

The issue is the degree to which Iranian manipulation of the U.S. has already succeeded. Washington has failed to respond seriously to an Iranian attack since Oct. 7, holding to the lie that Tehran isn’t in control of an axis it quite obviously is. The result is American paralysis, which will only intensify as Iranian pressure increases.

Mr. Cropsey is president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”

Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 28, 2024, print edition as 'The U.S. and Israel Play Into Iran’s Hands'.

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