Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 21 May 2024


Weakness Invites War With Iran


Seth Cropsey


Iranian soldiers march past President Ebrahim Raisi during a military parade in Tehran, April 17. Photo: atta kenare/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi may further unsettle the region, but it doesn’t change a fundamental reality: The U.S. has fallen into Iran’s trap. Tehran needed only seven months of war to accomplish a primary strategic objective—dividing the U.S. and Israel. The Biden administration has accelerated a potential rupture with the Jewish state that overwhelmingly benefits America’s enemies in the Eurasian axis. The result will be more war.

After months of negotiations and largely empty diplomatic discussion, Israel moved into Rafah last week. In response, the Biden administration said it had paused various military support shipments to Israel. Although these U.S. actions are unlikely to curtail the Israeli military’s operational performance, the Biden administration has taken broader, more dangerous diplomatic steps. It also extended a waiver that allows the U.S. to sell weapons to countries boycotting Israel, including Lebanon—whose government is increasingly subordinated to Hezbollah and Iran—and Qatar, Iran’s crucial financial conduit in the Gulf. The U.S. may well abstain from future United Nations Security Council resolutions on Palestinian statehood, allowing them to pass.


Iran understands that it can’t defeat Israel militarily. Israel and Iran are separated by 600 miles and multiple countries. Despite the sophistication of Iran’s missile program, its still-improving nuclear capacity, and its solidified military-technical relationship with Russia, Iran can’t deploy large-scale armored units along the Israeli border and invade. Nor can Iran’s proxies, numerous as they may be, credibly threaten to take and hold Israeli territory given the Israel Defense Forces’ conventional superiority and well-designed plans to defend the Golan Heights.

Rather than conquer Israel, Iran’s objective is to destroy the state’s political character—that is, to convert Israel from a state that is democratic and Jewish into a non-Jewish, likely nondemocratic state primarily populated with Iran’s Islamist partners. This requires Iran to sap the strength of Israeli society.

It won’t work if America and Israel have a robust relationship. The U.S. provides Israel with extraordinary diplomatic and military cover, which facilitates modern Israel’s economic dynamism and allows it to function as a multiparty capitalist democracy. By undermining, and ultimately eliminating, the U.S.-Israel relationship, Iran could force Israel into a new political and strategic paradigm emphasizing defense of local settlements and continuous societal armament. This would cause enormous social stress. International isolation would trigger a cycle of emigration and impoverishment, until Israeli society crumbles.

The Biden administration has been playing directly into Iran’s hands. U.S. leaders with a strategic backbone and coherent political instincts would grasp the unmistakable links among Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. They would understand that Iran has orchestrated the current confrontation, hoping to drive the U.S. from the Middle East. They would recognize that Iran wants to slow down the war in Gaza so that it can turn world opinion against Israel and the U.S. They would accept that the protests on American college campuses are part of this coordinated media strategy. And they would grasp, most critically, that Iran’s objectives are fundamentally aligned with those of Russia and China. All three countries seek to destroy the U.S.-backed Eurasian security system.


The Biden administration’s nonstrategy for dealing with the emerging axis of Iran, China and Russia is to avoid conflict at all costs and restrain American allies. By progressively undermining the U.S.-Israel relationship, the administration sends a profoundly destabilizing message to Ukraine. After months of political stasis, Kyiv has finally received a fresh tranche of U.S. aid, with more to arrive in the coming weeks. Combined with the Czech Republic’s artillery-shell initiative and other European aid, Ukraine now has a chance to neutralize Russian offensive capacity. Yet the Biden administration has increasingly signaled its unwillingness to facilitate real Ukrainian gains. The result is policy listlessness that hangs Kyiv out to dry and provides Europe and Ukraine no guidance.

China, meanwhile, continues to menace Taiwan and has extended its pressure to the Philippines. Taiwan’s new president, the pro-independence Lai Ching-te, was inaugurated this week. A major crisis is improbable for a variety of reasons, including China’s domestic situation, economic difficulties, and the coming typhoon season. Yet the Biden administration’s message to Israel—and increasingly to Ukraine—is clear. China will be emboldened, convinced that it can move on Taiwan absent an American response, particularly if it triggers enough domestic psychosis through media manipulation and presents its operation as a response to manufactured domestic Taiwanese disruption.

All this could have been avoided with a modicum of strategic coherence. Had the White House provided Israel the political cover to execute its Rafah operation two months ago, Hamas might not have been able to reconstitute in northern Gaza. Hamas might now be damaged enough to incapacitate itself, enabling legitimate discussions around postwar reconstruction.

Instead, the White House has chosen to dishonor its allies and force them to accept a strategic disaster. War is coming, sooner or later.

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

Wonder Land: Joe Biden and Donald Trump know the details of the nation’s security threat. Does either have a plan to meet it? Images: AP/Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly


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Appeared in the May 22, 2024, print edition as 'Weakness Invites War With Iran'.

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