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Anton Chekhov famously instructed fellow playwrights that if you hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, you must have it fired in the second. In the wake of the Hamas massacre in Israel, the Biden Administration has sent two warships and 2,000 marines to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, expressly to deter Iran from broadening the conflict. But are we really prepared to use them in the second act?

There is no question that Iran at very least supported the slaughter of over a thousand Israeli civilians and the taking of what now looks like close to 200 hostages, including as many as 20 Americans.

Hamas’s spokesman Ghazi Hamad confirmed to BBC reporters that Iran aided in plans for the attack, after the Wall Street Journal and New York Times cited accounts by senior Iranian officials that Iran gave the terrorists the go-ahead in a meeting in Beirut one week earlier.

Last week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied Iranian involvement, but this was transparently a lie, and a tactic often used by other criminal regimes including Russia. They make it clear that they have fostered some atrocity and then they deny it, in the hopes they can achieve their PR goals while also slipping off the hook due to a lack of evidence. Then they become even more emboldened and aggressive. Unlike Russia, Iran achieves its goals mostly through proxies, giving it even more plausible deniability.

In recent years, the Iranians have watched this strategy work well with the United States. Up until now, the Biden administration has treated them more like a possible partner who might be wooed by economic incentives than as an outright ally of terrorists. Even after the massacre, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken claimed there was “no evidence” of Iranian involvement.

While Blinken has been making the rounds to all our regional allies, so has Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. In the past week, Abdollahian has met with senior officials from Qatar, Lebanon, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas to discuss the escalation in Gaza. He has directly threatened Israel with opening a new front on the Northern border. On Saturday, he said Iran was coordinating with Hezbollah and Hamas and that, “together our hands are on the trigger.”

It’s not just talk. From the day after the Hamas attacks, Hezbollah has intermittently been firing rockets at Israel.

Iran’s behavior, now and previously, demonstrates what a gross miscalculation our past policy has been. Iran has consistently prioritized exporting terror and extremist ideology over its own citizens. Nearly one-third of Iranians live below the poverty line. The regime murders, rapes and tortures peaceful protestors. It subjects its minority populations that make up half of its population to extreme oppression and humiliation. Just two weeks ago, Iranian forces opened fire on ethnic Baluch protestors, injuring children. They punish the teaching of the Azerbaijani language and have locked up ethnic Azerbaijani intelligentsia and cultural figures in a war on their culture.

The Islamic Regime does not understand incentives. It only understands consequences. To Biden’s credit, on Thursday, he ordered Qatar to freeze $6 billion headed to Iran as part of a hostage deal the administration negotiated a few weeks ago. But this must be only the start of a more insistent policy. What’s needed is: a campaign of maximum financial and military pressure on Tehran, so that Iran understands it will be held responsible for the actions of its obvious proxies.

The Iranians have supported those proxies because they are not equipped for direct conflict. This was proven in 2020, when the United States assassinated Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, who had actively planned and coordinated terrorist attacks that killed U.S. citizens. Following the strike, the Iranians vowed revenge but did nothing. In fact, after the assassination there was a significant decrease of direct attacks from Iran and its proxies.

If Iran wants to destabilize U.S. allies, we should destabilize them back. We can start by supporting the Iranian protesters who risked their lives by coming out en masse after the murder of Massa Amini for not wearing a hijab properly by supplying them with Starlink internet. We can support the empowerment of Iran’s minorities like the Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs and Baluch by bringing up their struggles at international forums and further sanctioning the regime. We must also return to the assassination campaign of IRGC commanders involved in backing Hamas and Hezbollah so that they know that the price of sponsoring terrorism is their head.

Although Israel is Iran’s main target, the regime has other US allies in its sights. Iran has attacked directly, struck through its proxies and/or sought to destabilize Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. It has already turned Lebanon into a failed state under the military control of terrorists. It has partnered with Houthi militias in Yemen whose motto includes “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” In Iraq, it has partnered with Shia militias that are responsible for some of the most gruesome war crimes including ethnic cleansing. The Iranian regime does not seek the development of its “allies;” it wants to keep them as undeveloped and savage as possible so they can be used as weapons against the West.

We’ve seen with Russia that if you let criminal regimes off the hook due to “plausible deniability” they will continue until there is no other option except confrontation. Israel and the Biden administration must be proactive or the Iranians will not stop. As President Biden said, what we saw last Saturday was an act of “unadulterated evil.” The only way to fight evil is through an iron resolve.

Telling the Iranians that we don’t want a war will embolden them further. Even threatening Iranian proxies will not do the job. Tehran has shown its willingness to sacrifice countless Gazan and Lebanese lives to destroy Israel. Preventing this war from spreading can only be accomplished if the United States holds Iran responsible and shows it is ready and capable for the fight.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is EMET’s Legislative Fellow. Prior to EMET, Joseph worked in Business Intelligence and Due Diligence for Kroll and Vcheck Global. He has additionally worked as a journalist, analyst, and consultant covering security and migration issues in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Central Africa. From 2017 to 2019, he served as a Lone Soldier in the Israeli Border Police. A graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science and Soviet Studies, Joseph is fluent in Russian and Hebrew.

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