Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 23 April 2024


Step Up Pressure on Iran’s Proxies


(7 min)

From left, images of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran. Photo: abedin taherkenareh/Shutterstock

Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel marked the death of a longstanding regional paradigm: deterrence. The Biden administration—and Israel—must shift from a policy framework that deters Iranian escalation to one that imposes costs on Iran’s actions and puts pressure on its proxy network.

Although Iran’s bombardment did little damage, with Israeli, American, British and various Arab air defenses intercepting all but a handful of weapons, it was strategically consequential. Iran has fought a shadow war against Israel, the U.S. and the Gulf states for decades, sponsoring proxy groups, directly organizing operations to kill Americans and Israelis, and attacking Arab states directly, if deniably, with missiles and drones.

Iran had never before directly attacked Israeli territory with weapons launched from its own soil. The April 13 bombardment therefore breached an escalatory firebreak in Tehran’s shadow war. Israel responded within days, launching a narrow strike the night of April 18 against the area around the central Iranian city of Isfahan, host to nuclear facilities and an air base. The Israelis, despite several close calls in the 2010s, had never before struck Iranian territory, instead pursuing cyberattacks and intelligence operations on Iranian soil.

Iran’s actions demonstrate the failure of American deterrence. On April 12, President Biden warned Tehran against a direct attack. His administration has displayed aversion to behavior it deems escalatory, imposing red lines in Europe over Ukraine, pursuing a cosmetic détente with China in Asia, and refusing to name Iran as behind any of the violence in the Middle East, while threatening to condition aid to Israel. This gave Tehran good reason to flout Mr. Biden’s admonition and to portray its bombardment as a response to Israel’s April 1 attack on an annex of Tehran’s Damascus embassy, which killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers.

Iran’s attack was a signal of future behavior as much as a response to Israeli actions. The main targets were the Nevatim Air Base—which houses the Israel Defense Forces’ three F-35I stealth strike fighter squadrons, likely with a nuclear delivery mission, and electronic intelligence and logistics units—and sites in the Golan central to the IDF’s defense against Hezbollah. Iran sought to make clear that any Lebanon war would entail waves of strikes akin to those Ukraine has endured for two years. Israel is a much smaller country than Ukraine, enabling air-defense concentration, but also increasing an adversary’s odds of hitting targets. Iran has multiplied the missile threat Israel faces by bringing its missiles and drones, and those of its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, to the fight.

Iran’s strategy is one of imposing costs. It has correctly identified that the core of Israel’s political-military capacity is its relationship with the U.S. Since Oct. 7, Iran has worked to strain this relationship. Its attacks on U.S. bases, proxy attacks on international shipping, and media promotion of supposed Israeli war crimes in Gaza have all imposed domestic stress on the Biden administration. Meanwhile, Iran’s April 13 bombardment demonstrates the likelihood of U.S. involvement in a Lebanon war, even if only to protect Israel from Iranian assaults.

For Israel, launching a major strike seeking to cripple Iran’s nuclear program would be imprudent. The U.S. has said it won’t support an Israeli strike against Iran. Without U.S. assistance, the IDF would have to risk a big portion of its fixed-wing combat fleet to suppress Iranian air defenses in Syria, Iraq and western Iran. Such an operation would be more challenging, and risk worse consequences, than Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981.

A strike on Iran’s nuclear program, even if successful, wouldn’t appreciably change the balance of forces. Iran would react with a larger bombardment, while Washington might chide Israel for an “escalatory” action and limit its defensive response. Destroying Iran’s missile arsenal is beyond Israel’s capabilities, as all Iranian proxies also have missiles and drones.

The core of Iran’s political-military capacity is its proxy network of regional militias, called the Axis of Resistance. This network allows Iran to freeze Israel, presenting threats from the south (Hamas in Gaza), the north (Hezbollah in Lebanon), and east (via Syria and Jordan into the West Bank). Any move Israel makes in one direction leaves it vulnerable elsewhere. The longer this war goes on, whether in Gaza or Lebanon, the more international pressure on Israel will mount, and the more likely a rupture between Israel and the U.S. becomes.

Defeating Iran, not deterring it, should be the objective for the U.S. and Israel. That requires imposing costs on the proxy network and breaking the Axis of Resistance. The axis functions because it can operate relatively cheaply. Iran can direct the financial support it provides to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to training and equipment, while leaving the costly tasks of civil administration and public-service provision to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

Israel should try to break this strategic construct by forcing Iran to take direct control of each proxy host state, or risk the collapse of the axis. It can do this most efficiently with airstrikes in Syria and a combination of airstrikes and intelligence operations in Lebanon. In Syria, the Assad regime is fragile and fractured, despite its victory in the civil war. Hitting specific nodes would destabilize the system. In Lebanon, domestic politics is reaching a boiling point following the murder of Christian politician Pascal Suleiman. Israel can accelerate this restive trend, pressuring Hezbollah and its de facto ally, the Lebanese armed forces, with airstrikes that erode operational capabilities and reduce the state’s ability to manage sectarian unrest.

Such actions deserve full U.S. support. Israel faces a threat in the north that Washington fully grasps. Over time, Iran will need to direct more resources to maintaining the axis, drastically curtailing its own operational capacity.

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.”


Journal Editorial Report: But is Biden holding back America's ally in his effort to calm the region before November? Images: AP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the April 22, 2024, print edition as 'Step Up Pressure on Iran’s Proxies'.

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