A comprehensive picture of Iranian belligerence and its tectonic threat to Mideast and global stability.
Perusing global media coverage of the skirmishes on our northern and southern borders this month, I am struck by the fact that few outlets focus on Iranian aggression. Instead, the story has played out as a clash between Israel and Syria or between Israel and Hamas.
This is a serious error in analysis that belies a deeper and more dangerous trend, which is the tendency of Western observers to ignore the root of so much evil in the region: The Islamic Republic of Iran.
In fact, it continually surprises me that public figures I meet who are visiting from North America and Europe truly are not aware of the scope of Iranian muckraking and troublemaking in the region. Generally, they know that there are bad actors at play out there, from Al Qaeda and ISIS to Hezbollah, but they don’t have a comprehensive picture of Iranian belligerence and ambition or the transformative, tectonic threat of Iran to Mideast and even global stability.
If anything, they often think that the JCPOA (President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran) is still in place, shunting concerns about Iran to the backburner, and that the Ayatollahs now are placidly focusing on rebuilding their society and economy.
But of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Iran is on an aggressive march across the Middle East, presenting significant security challenges to Israel, to moderate Sunni Arab countries, and to Western interests. Iran does not hide its overarching revolutionary ambitions: to export its brand of radical Islamism globally, to dominate the region, and to destroy Israel.
So, for the purposes of briefing those who have not been paying sufficient attention, here is a summary of the treacherous Iranian record.
- Iran is carving out a corridor of control – a Shiite land bridge – stretching from the Arabian (“Persian”) Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, including major parts of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force, various Shiite militias, and the Hezbollah organization. This corridor gives Iran a broad strategic base for aggression across the region.
- Iran is establishing air and naval bases on the Mediterranean and Red seas, and especially in Syria, to project regional power. It has also stepped-up its harassment of international shipping and Western naval operations in the Persian Gulf. Iranian UAV attacks have claimed innocent lives, such as British and Romanian civilians killed in the attack on the “Mercer Street” oil tanker off the coast of Oman. Iranian UAVs and missiles endanger civilian flights across the region, too.
- Iran is inserting militia forces into many regional conflicts, including support for the Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war. It seeks control of the Horn of Africa and the entrance to the Red Sea – a critical strategic chokepoint on international shipping.
- Iran is fomenting subversion in Mideast counties that are Western allies, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. (It remains to be seen whether the recent, tentative rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, brokered by China, will temper this.) It is particularly focused on destabilizing the Hashemite regime in Jordan to gain access to Israel’s longest border (its border with Jordan) and from there to penetrate Israel’s heartland.
- Iran is threatening Israel with war and eventual destruction. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, regularly refers to Israel as a cancerous tumor in the Middle East that must be removed and speaks of the complete liberation of Palestine (meaning the destruction of Israel) through holy jihad.
- Israel and Iran essentially have been in a war of stealth since the early 1980s (when Hezbollah was formed), but now Iranian generals and military forces have decamped on Israel’s border with Syria and moved to direct and open military confrontation with Israel. Israel’s defense establishment believes that Ayatollah Khamenei has issued direct orders to increase efforts to strike Israeli targets, both inside Israel and in the West Bank, and to increase support for Palestinian terrorist organizations that do so.
- Indeed, Iran is arming guerrilla armies on Israel’s northern border (Hezbollah and most recently, also Hamas in Lebanon), southern border (Hamas and Islamic Jihad), and terrorist undergrounds in the West Bank. It has equipped Hezbollah with an arsenal of over 150,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel and supplied Hamas with the arms and rockets that fueled three significant military confrontations with Israel over the past decade.
- Iran has launched several surveillance and attack drones from Syria into Israel, and commanded anti-aircraft batteries that fire on Israeli jets (and even felled a $50 million F-16I, the first Israeli jet felled by enemy fire in 30 years).
- Iran is sponsoring terrorism against Western, Israeli, and Jewish targets around the world, including unambiguous funding, logistical support, planning and personnel for terrorist attacks that span the globe, from Buenos Aires to Burgas. Iran maintains an active terrorist network of proxies, agents, and sleeper cells worldwide.
- Iran is building a long-term nuclear military option, with enrichment and armament facilities buried deep underground. According to the IAEA, Iran has enriched uranium to near-bomb-ready levels (84%, which is very close to the 90% level necessary for a nuclear weapon) and is accumulating such weapons-grade uranium for production of an estimated five nuclear weapons within three months. According to intelligence assessments, this could be in place within two years.
- Like his predecessors, US President Biden has pledged that he will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. But his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, hinted to Congress last month of a dramatic shift in administration policy. He said that the US only “remains committed Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon.” This suggests that the Biden administration is now prepared to tolerate developed nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands, provided the weapon is not “fielded,” in other words, deployed.
- Iran is developing a formidable long-range missile arsenal of great technological variability, including solid and liquid propellant ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and ICBMs. The entire Iranian ballistic missile program is in violation of United Nations Security Council prohibitions.
- Three years ago, Tehran fired ballistic missiles with considerable accuracy at bases housing US troops in Iraq. More than 100 American service members suffered traumatic brain injuries (and the consequences could have been even worse had the US not received an advance pinpoint warning from its closest regional ally, Israel). Last January, Tehran’s proxies in Yemen apparently used similar missiles in an attempted strike against a base in the UAE housing American military forces. And at least twice last year, once in March and once in September, Iran launched ballistic missiles at targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the latter strike killing 13 people, including one US citizen. Most recently, on March 23 and April 11, Iranian proxies struck at US forces in Syria.
- These attacks demonstrate the increasing willingness of Tehran and its terrorist proxies to use these weapons to punish and deter action against their regional terror networks. They are part of Iran’s effort to evict America from the Middle East and coerce US partners into accommodating the Islamic Republic.
- The latest Iranian ICBM, called the “Khorramshahr,” seems to be based on the North Korean BM25 missile with a range of 3,500 km. (See “Arsenal: Assessing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” by Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, January 2023.)
- Iran is providing Russia with armed attack drones for President Putin’s war against Ukraine. Experts presume that in return Iran will be getting sophisticated Russian military technologies such as aerial defense systems and fighter jets for its wars against Israel and pro-Western Arab regimes in the Mideast.
- Overall, Iran is strengthening its ties to Russia and China, toning down its conflict with Saudi Arabia, and warming its relations with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia as part of a unified front against what it calls the “Great Satan,” America, and the “Small Satan,” Israel.
As all this happens, the US is beset by political polarization, economic mismanagement, and an apparent loss of will. US political and social coherence is at question, and a result so is its deterrent power. (At the moment, some would say the same about Israel.)
As Prof. Walter Russell Mead has written, “America shrugs (at challengers like China and Iran), so world leaders make other plans (like partnering with China and Iran).”
Sorely missing is a strategy to combat the malign influence and hegemonic ambitions of the mullahs.