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Lauri: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) Weekly Webinar featuring Middle East expert, Jonathan Spyer. I want to thank you all for joining us and supporting the work that EMET does for the State of Israel and World Jewry. Our work is more important than ever, so please consider sponsoring one of our webinars, making a contribution, or sharing this information with your networks. Today’s webinar will be recorded and available for viewing and sharing. If you have any questions for Jonathan, you can place them in the Q&A function at the bottom of the screen. Please limit your entries to questions only.

Jonathan Spyer is a director of research at the Middle East Forum and Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is the author of two books; Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars and The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict. I have followed Jonathan’s work for years, and I urge you all to do the same. Welcome, Jonathan. Thanks so much for being with us this afternoon.

I was in Israel with the Middle East Forum and met with many government officials there. The focus of our discussions was the Hamas war. However, I asked everyone I met about Iran. I mentioned that we need to destroy the head of the serpent. If Iran maintains the capacity to fund and train new proxies, it does not matter how many existing Iranian surrogates are destroyed. The focus on Iranian proxies may be treating the symptoms but ignoring the disease itself. Recently, you wrote, “Tehran’s goal is clear. It is not solely regional hegemony. Iran wishes to replace the post-Cold War US-led security architecture in the region with the nexus dominated by itself, alongside other anti-western forces, especially Russia and China.”

I would also argue that Iran’s increasingly brazen attitude is the direct result of Obama’s policy of realignment. The strategic goals of the US under team Obama-Biden, basically empower Iran. Iran has been allowed to build an army of proxies without pushback from the US. Does the US administration believe that if we leave the region, the terrorists will leave us alone on our soil? Are we leaving Israel to fight alone on the front lines with a callous disregard for her survival?

Jonathan Spyer: Thanks for those questions, Lauri. First of all, I will address the issue of concentrating on the proxies versus concentrating on Iran itself, or on the head of the snake or octopus or whatever Zoological metaphor we are going for today. My answer is that we have to concentrate on both. It is not either. People also ask if we should be focusing on the Iranian nuclear file or the Iranian use of proxies. In that case, as well, the answer is we need to focus on both. Dealing with both is essential.

Of course, we have to challenge Hamas. We failed to maintain the ability to deter Hamas and we paid for it on October 7th. We have to focus on deterring Hezbollah in Lebanon as well. However, we cannot focus solely on the proxies. At the end of the day, the proxies cannot be defeated without taking on the Islamic Republic of Iran. The war will end when the Islamic Republic of Iran regime falls and not before then. Until then, we are fighting essential battles. We have to fight them well and we have to win them. However, we understand that at the end of the day, the real war is against the Islamic Republic of Iran itself.

Now, let’s consider United States policy and strategy in the region, and let’s discuss who bears responsibility for the current situation. That is to say, at the end of the day, who is responsible for what has taken place in the region including in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank? I think we should be careful not to blame ourselves too much. Iran is a state with very considerable capacities and abilities. It has set itself a strategic goal of changing the regional balance of power and of and becoming dominant in the area. Iran is pursuing this goal as a very serious project. It is not pursuing it in reaction to something that we in the West have done. It is not that we have upset them or have been too tough or too soft with them. This is a project that emanates from deep within the culture and ideology guiding the Iranian regime. That being said, the question arises, “Well, okay. But what is an effective response to that?”

I am not a US citizen, so it is not my place to assign grades to different US administrations. I am in Israel and the United States is our most valued, powerful, and important ally. That remains true regardless of who is in the White House. Having said that, and purely from the point of view of my analysis of the region, I think it is possible to point out errors attributable to several administrations. Without question, the Obama administration had a deeply flawed perspective on Iran and the Middle East. I think it is beyond question that the Obama administration wished to appease and incentivize Iran. They believed their appeasement policy would turn the Islamic Republic of Iran into a normal actor in the region. I think their belief in this is indisputable.

There are those within our policy analyst community who go further than that and say, “No, actually, what Obama wanted was to make Iran into an ally. He wanted to ally with Iran against America’s traditional allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and so on.” For me, the jury is still out on that claim. I am not saying it is not true, but I am saying I do not think the people promoting it produce sufficient evidence to prove it. They have not proven it was an intentional policy rather than naïveté and an inability to correctly analyze the region.

Without any question, appeasement and the desire to make Iran a normal actor was the foundation of Obama’s Iran policy. These principles drove the JCPOA and all that emanated from it. Appeasement and incentives were also part of the broader policy of the Obama administration. As a reminder, Obama did not only seek to appease Iran. He was happy to see the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt and other Arab countries. He believed they too would become normal actors on the world stage. It was a vast and deep error. We all paid a price for it and we continue to do so.

If we are going to discuss political history, however, we must not forget the impact the decisions of other administrations had on the region. For example, the US-led invasion of Iraq facilitated Iranian domination in the region. If Iraq had remained in the hands of a Sunni dictator, the Iranians would have a strong wall standing between them and the rest of the region. So, in retrospect, I think it is fair to say the second Bush administration handed Iraq to Iran when they invaded Iraq. So, there is plenty of blame to go around and it is not all in the hands of one administration. That is some background on how we arrived at the situation we are in now.

Of course, the Trump administration left the JCPOA, and there are different views as to whether that decision was wise or not. I backed Trump’s maximum pressure strategy and I am sorry it was abandoned. Not only was it abandoned, but Biden put it into reverse and brought us back to the policy of the Obama administration. Once again, US policy is all about incentivizing Iran. It is all about helping the Iranians get their hands back on the billions of dollars currently frozen in South Korea or Iraq under the assumption this will turn them into normal actors. In my view, this is a catastrophic policy and is bound to fail. It is frustrating to see the reversal of the maximum pressure campaign, the outcome of which was never fully realized. I do think we will go back to maximum pressure of one kind or another at the end of the day. The alternative is to allow Iran to continue rolling across the region and laying waste to all before it. My view is that we will eventually have to go back to maximum pressure. I think it will not be sufficient to deploy maximum pressure on the diplomatic front but we will need to employ other means as well.

Lauri: Yeah. I hope you are right about that because I too thought the maximum pressure campaign was working. Biden has issued sanctions waivers for Iran even after 10/7, which surprises me. So, let’s spend a few minutes talking about Iran’s role or influence in the Hamas invasion on 10/7. Do we have evidence Iran played a direct role in planning, funding, and training the terrorists, or in greenlighting the attack? Does Iran look at Hamas as expendable, unlike Hezbollah? Do you think that Iran and Hamas were taken aback by the extent of Israel’s retaliation and its determination to rid Gaza of Hamas? Can you elaborate on what you think were some of Iran’s calculations in all this?

Jonathan: There is plenty of information proving Iranian support for Hamas and describing the Iranian relationship with Hamas over the years. This evidence is publicly available. Regarding your first question about whether Iran armed and trained Hamas and facilitated the October 7th attack, I do not think there’s any question about that. Since the mid-1990s, Iran has been a major backer of Hamas to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year. They have also provided training for Hamas operatives. As an example, the reason Hamas can build their rockets inside Gaza is because of their relationship with Iran. It was the Iranians who taught Hamas how to build those rockets. The same applies to their tactical military training. Iran has also provided extensive weapons to Hamas. In this sense, Iran facilitated October 7th without any question.

We know there was a hiccup in the Iranian-Hamas relationship during the period of the Arab Spring. Hamas is a Sunni movement with an ideology similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the Arab Spring, Hamas, and many others, thought a new Muslim brotherhood-led bloc was ascendant in the region. They anticipated the bloc would include the brothers in Egypt, Tunisia, and in a certain sense, Turkey. Qatar was expected to provide copious funding. So, Hamas jumped ship and, in 2011, they removed their headquarters from Damascus. Contrary to their expectations, the Muslim Brotherhood-led bloc did not come into being.

In July of 2013, the military coup in Egypt ended the notion of a strong Muslim Brotherhood-led bloc in the region. As a result, Hamas had to try to get back into Iran’s good graces, and that took a little while because the Iranians no longer trusted them. They were disappointed, and they were angry and Hamas had to make an effort. Certainly, by 2018 or 2019, Hamas had essentially achieved their objective. The relationship was repaired and the two became close once again. So, yes, in terms of training and in terms of funding the Iranians bear responsibility for the October 7th attack without a doubt.

In terms of Iran’s role in the precise planning and timing of the attack, it is a more complex and difficult question. In 2023, many of us had the sense that something weird was going on and many people, including myself, wrote about it. We did not foresee or predict the precise timing or place of the attacks but we observed a series of meetings taking place in Beirut and elsewhere. The meeting attendees included senior figures from Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian-Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. We had a sense that something was building. We wondered why they were meeting and what they were planning. Given these meetings, I think it is very likely Iran knew that something was being planned and had an idea of when it would be executed.

We have not proven the Iranians knew the exact time or the dimensions of the October 7th attacks. I think there is some evidence suggesting the Iranians were not necessarily happy with the dimensions, nature, or timing of the attack. We know this because they did not fully mobilize all their proxies against Israel as Yahya Sinwar, had hoped. That did not happen. What we saw was a tentative and partial mobilization of Iran’s proxies. I think Iran continues mobilizing to a small extent because it understands it has to do something on behalf of its junior client, Hamas. However, it does not want to risk its’ really important assets to try to save Hamas. This indicates there may not have been coordination between Iran and Hamas about the exact timing and nature of the October 7th attack.

Regarding the question about whether the Iranian side was surprised by the extent of Israel’s response to October 7th, the answer is yes. There is considerable evidence to support this assertion in pro-Iran media. The pro-Iran alliance tends to underestimate Israel, its enemy. Iranian-aligned media and their statements, often reflect the sentiments and tone of Hassan Nasrallah’s famous 2000 speech in Bint Jbeil. At that time, he said Israel is weaker than a spider’s web and that is the kind of language they continue to use to describe Israel. By the way, when criticizing others, we should remember we may also have a tendency to become complacent and we too should refrain from underestimating our enemies.

So, yes, they do tend to underestimate Israel. Specifically, what they underestimate is Israel’s will to fight and will to win. They know that Israel is technically very strong and, in fact, much stronger than they are. Nobody can deny that. They understand Israel has superior planes, tanks, and other high-tech weapons but they underestimate Israel’s ability to fight, hold on, and push forward.

So, I think they were surprised. They were surprised initially by the ground operation into Gaza. They were subsequently surprised by the extent, depth, and tenacity of that operation. They did not anticipate the very serious goals that Israel set itself and its determination to achieve them. They were not prepared for Israel’s goal of destroying the Hamas political authority in Gaza in its totality. They thought that Israel was a much weaker and more hesitant society with much less self-belief than, as it turns out, it has. So, yeah, in that sense, I think they were surprised.

You asked whether Hamas is expendable from Iran’s perspective. That is a central question, especially in the aftermath of yesterday’s assassination of General Mohammad Reza Zahedi. Israel assassinated this Senior Revolutionary Guard figure in Syria. He was killed in response to Iran’s partial escalation in support of Hamas. Zahedi’s assassination now forces Iran to address the important question of whether Hamas is expendable to them or not. Iran can decide Israel’s killing of General Zahedi is a necessary cost of war and therefore they will not enter into a round of fighting to protect Hamas. They can determine they would rather avoid an escalation to protect their other, more valued assets. On the other hand, they may take a different approach. Although they did not rush in 100% behind Hamas on October 7th, they may determine they need a more comprehensive response now that Israel killed a very senior IRGC general. Since October, they have been trying to avoid an escalation in the war but General Zahedi’s killing may change that.

I sense that the Iranians will have to respond to the killing of General Zahedi in a more significant way than what we have seen from them until now. Zahedi was a pretty senior and significant figure, and by far the most senior Revolutionary Guard figure to be killed so far. The Iranians also have to deal with questions of sovereignty since he was killed in an Iranian diplomatic facility. So, I think they probably will have to hit back.

Although the Iranians may not consider Hamas as expendable, I do think it occupies a much more junior place in the Iranian proxy constellation than do other proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah. In some ways, Hamas’s connection with Iran is similar to that of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and maybe even the Houthis. Rather than being proxies of Iran, they have more of a patron-client relationship with Iran. That is to say, Hamas and the Houthis were and are independent movements that grew from authentic local roots. They emerged from a real local context. Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthis were an outgrowth of the Zaydi Shia in Yemen. On the other hand, groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq were created and established by the Revolutionary Guards Corps. Their logos, flags, rhetoric, and ideology are the same as that of the Revolutionary Guard. So, organizations like Hezbollah or Kataib Hezbollah have more transactional and close relations with Iran than Hamas.

We have to remain aware of the impact of that distinction because it impacts the way the Iranians will react in different situations. Let me put it very plainly. The Lebanese Hezbollah missile and rocket capacity is of absolute cardinal importance to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many analysts say the arsenal is there for the moment Israel chooses to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities. That is what the missile array in Lebanon is there for. From the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is preparation for a strategic purpose of the very highest order.

So, while I do not want to say Hamas is completely expendable to Iran, it is certainly several degrees below Hezbollah in terms of level of importance for Iran. Iran has to consider if it wants to risk its missile array being destroyed before it can be used for its designed purpose. They have spent 40 years building up this arsenal for a purpose and it was not to protect Hamas, an ally of a secondary order. That, I think, is the dilemma that is facing the Iranians right now.

Lauri: Let’s talk a little bit more about the Hezbollah threat. I hoped that Israel would have launched a preemptive strike on Hezbollah after October 7th. The Biden administration prevented that. You are living through this and you know the situation in the North is awful. There are 60,000 displaced Israelis and daily missile attacks and it seems that the situation continues to escalate. In effect, Israeli territory is now creating a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon. This diminishes the size of Israel.

I know you believe Iran must be dealt with, but you also wrote a column entitled, “Israel Must Preempt Hezbollah”. You wrote, “Once diplomatic efforts fail, as they surely will, then Israel will face the choice of acquiescing to the steady erosion of the possibility of normal life for the citizens of its northern communities or acting decisively to reverse this trend.” You concluded that a large-scale Israeli military campaign to destroy or severely degrade Lebanese Hezbollah must be launched. Do you see this campaign as a necessary step on the way to defeating Iran? Do you believe the Israeli government and the public will support such a step? We all know a war with Hezbollah will be quite different than the Gaza war. What type of role will Iran play in an Israeli-Hezbollah war? As you pointed out, Iran has worked very hard to build up this Shia Crescent across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Jonathan: Yeah. The first question you asked was whether I think a campaign to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon is necessary. The answer is, yes, I do. I think it is of cardinal strategic importance to Israel’s future. Israel must act and must act soon. Israel must deal a crippling blow to Lebanese Hezbollah. When I say crippling blow, I do not mean just pushing Hezbollah five kilometers back from the border. I do not even mean pushing their forces all the way north of the Litani. That is not sufficient either. While it is something Israel must do, it must also deal with the missile and rocket array that can be launched from North of the Litani. It is not sufficient to push Hezbollah North of the Litani if they maintain M600 missiles that can reach down to Central Israel.

So, Hezbollah is a cardinal threat to Israel and I think we have an opportunity to deal with it at this time. As you pointed out, we have a situation where over 60,000 Israelis have had to leave their homes. Israel’s north, including the entire radius of the border to a depth of five kilometers, is deserted. This situation is unprecedented in the history of the State of Israel. It is also basically unprecedented in the modern history of Jewish residents and settlement in the Land of Israel. In 1920, the Yishuv temporarily evacuated communities including Tel Hai, Kfar Giladi, and Metula and that period is regarded as a moment of supreme difficulty for the Zionist movement.

Tel Hai, and the defense of Tel Hai, remains a very important motif in Israeli history. Tel Hai is an iconic symbol of our determination to defend our communities in the north. Well, right now, we have abandoned the North entirely. As you correctly point out, Hezbollah has effectively established a security zone on the Israeli side of the border. If we are going to use that comparison, we should also note that Israel has also established a security zone on Hezbollah’s side of the border, in the sense that around 100,000 Lebanese in the south have also left their homes. Nevertheless, this is not an acceptable situation. At least for now, there is no diplomatic way of resolving it. For as long as the fighting in Gaza goes on, Hezbollah will continue to attack Israel and people will not be able to go to their homes.

I sense that when the Gaza war does end, a return to the status quo will not be feasible for Israelis, even if Hezbollah agrees to it. Before October 8th, Israelis were living literally meters away from where Hezbollah fighters were conducting activities on the other side of the border fence. This was before October 8th and before Hezbollah began its barrage in the North. In the pre-October 7th world, that situation was feasible. I do not think it is even imaginable in the post-October 7th, 2023 world, the world we will be living in even when the guns in Gaza stop firing. We are going to have to decide whether we are prepared to effectively cede the northern border area of our country as a result of terror and blackmail on the part of Lebanese Hezbollah, supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I sincerely hope the answer will be no, we are not prepared to effectively cede our northern border to Hezbollah. Amos Hochstein and his diplomacy will never get Hezbollah to agree to alleviate the missile threat. They are not even going to get Hezbollah to agree to redeploy five kilometers north. Redeployment further north is the minimum requirement to remove them from our kids’ bedrooms, so to speak. They will not even agree to a demand that keeps them away from the houses and kindergartens of Kibbutz Metula, let alone anything more. As I have already said, I think we need to ask for a great deal more than a five-kilometer redeployment to guarantee some level of security. This means we are basically faced with the issue of dealing with Lebanese Hezbollah militarily, or we effectively cede the northern border as a result of threats and terror.

That is why I began by saying the situation in the North is a matter of critical strategic importance. It is even potentially of historical importance. To concede in a situation like this could be viewed as a mortal blow to the whole project of building Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. In my estimation, it is that important and we are at a watershed moment. That is why I think Israel must deal proactively with the Hezbollah threat. Now, will there be sufficient support for this and will there be political will? The answer is, I cannot know. I do think Yoav Galant, the Israeli defense minister, and the people around him, support it. Of course, Galant does not rule by himself. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s history concerning the use of the big army is a little bit different.

Netanyahu has always been very cautious about ordering large-scale military actions. He does not have a history of preemptive military action involving the big armies, so to speak. Netanyahu is comfortable using the Air Force and the Special Forces. However, they will not be sufficient to resolve the issues in the North and we will need to engage several additional divisions to succeed. So, I question whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will back a full-scale preemptive attack. It is also difficult to predict whether Israeli society would support such an attack. It will be difficult to say to Israelis, “Okay, actually, it is time for another round now and a potentially bigger one.” Yeah. I will not deny that. That would be a very, very hard sell to many, many people in this country.

It is possible that we will not have to make the decision ourselves because Hezbollah and the Iranians will decide for us. This may happen because they deliver a kind of fait accompli to us, and we have no choice but to respond. At that point, we will respond to the provocation very vigorously. That may well be how this plays out. As an analyst, an observer, and a citizen and resident of Israel, I regard it as a matter of strategic imperative that Israel acts to deal with the Hezbollah threat in the North.

For a decade and a half before October 7th, we lived under the notion that it was acceptable for Islamist parties to build up their forces on our borders. This tacit collective agreement was never really properly discussed politically or on a strategic level. We determined there was a level of risk that we could live with because we would be smart and strong enough to know when our enemies were planning something and to deter them. That model and acceptance of those levels of risk ended forever on October 7th, 2023. I certainly think it should have ended forever then. Now that our working model has been discredited, we have to build another one. We cannot just build it in the South, we have to build it in the North as well. What applies to Hamas must surely apply to Lebanese Hezbollah, especially because it is a vastly stronger and more consequential organization than Hamas.

Lauri: Let’s turn to the West Bank. There are threats on Israel’s eastern border as well, and that brings in Jordan. Protests supporting Hamas are escalating in Jordan. I have read that Iraqi militias have threatened to arm Jordanians for attacks against Israel. Then there was a rumor that Hezbollah brigades were threatening to train 12,000 Jordanians or bring 12,000 fighters into Jordan. Does Khamenei have his sights on Jordan next? Should Israel, America, and the Gulf States be seriously concerned about threats from Jordan?

Jonathan: I think there are two sides concerning the issues of concern coming out of Jordan. As you noted, on the one hand, there is the issue of domestic unrest taking place inside Jordan with Jordanian citizens demonstrating on behalf of Hamas. We are already seeing furious demonstrations in Jordan. Over the past 48 hours, Hamas leadership has encouraged the protests and made some pretty incendiary statements regarding what they would like to happen inside Jordan. Let’s remember, Jordan is a majority-Palestinian country. If free elections were held in Jordan today, they would almost certainly elect a Muslim Brotherhood government.

I think the Jordanian public is strongly in support of Hamas and of what is taking place west of the Jordan River. When it comes to sentiment, we know full well the apparent sentiment of the Queen of Jordan and probably the king too. However, they know they need to stick closely to the West, the United States, and Israel for their self-interest. Up until now, they have understood they need to defend their regime and they have managed to do so. Of course, nobody can predict revolutions. Nobody can predict the impacts of a set of protests. At the present level, I do not think we are seeing anything from within Jordan coming remotely close to threatening the existence of the Hashemite Monarchy. I think that is something to keep one’s eye on but I do not think we have arrived at a moment of sort of supreme crisis yet.

I think there is something else we do need to be very concerned about. You mentioned the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah Organization may be training or bringing 12,000 fighters into Jordan. I do not think that is going to happen any time soon for the same reason I provided in answer to the first question. Jordanian security structures are still pretty strong when it comes to overt visible threats like that. That does not mean to say there is not a real concern. I am very concerned about the smuggling of weapons via Jordan from Syria into the West Bank and I have written about this on a couple of occasions. There have already been several cases of this and they have been widely reported.

The first case we came across was back in April of last year. It was reported that certain types of weaponry had been discovered in the Jordan Valley close to the border. We now know these weapons were improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and we are now aware a lot more of that stuff has come in. At that time, my immediate conclusion was that it had come in via Syria because there was no other possible avenue. I looked into it and I now have proof. It is coming from Syria into Jordan and then into the West Bank.

We now know there are extensive smuggling routes from Syria with the participation of Bedouin tribes in that area. They have been smuggling goods across borders in that area since time immemorial. They are assisted by Syrian customs officials, Syrian military personnel and personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps itself. Lebanese Hezbollah personnel. who are very active in Southwest Syria, collaborate in this as well.

The Iranians maintain a contiguous supply line from the Iraq-Iran border, through Iraq, through the Al-Bukamal border crossing into Syria, and then on to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, or the border with Israel. In this case, they maintain the supply line into Jordan and then into the West Bank. So, this is something very, very significant indeed.

It means Jordanian sovereignty is essentially being compromised and Jordan is essentially accepting a situation in which weaponry is passing through their territory into the West Bank. This is very significant indeed because the Iranians and their allies want to foster an insurgency in the West Bank. Their ambition for the West Bank is an armed Arab Muslim insurgency including not only Palestinians but Arab Muslims from other parts of the region as well.

That is what they are building towards. So, it benefits us greatly to be aware of the situation and to engage with the Jordanians, the Americans, and others, to make sure that that weapons pipeline is shut down as soon as possible. The second Intifada we witnessed in the West Bank nearly a quarter of a century ago is sometimes mistakenly referred to as an insurgency. While it was a bloody affair in its own right, it did not involve the kind of weaponry that we are seeing come into the West Bank at this time. It did not involve the widespread use of IEDs, for example. We have seen that type of weaponry used in South Lebanon, but not yet in the West Bank. So, Iran’s goal is to facilitate a much more intense military struggle in the West Bank, and they are working to provide the arms necessary for it to succeed. We need to make sure that arms flow stops, and Jordan is a key node, so to speak, along that route. That has to be changed.

Lauri: It is very frightening. Before I turn to the questions from the audience, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the Iran, Russia, and China axis. Russia and Iran are exchanging weapons and their relationship seems to have grown since the Ukraine war. China has helped Iran thwart US sanctions over the years, and Iran became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2023. Can you touch on what you think this means for Israel’s ability to continue its maneuvers in Syria? It appears Russia is allowing these to continue despite the IRGC presence there. Where do you see Russia and China positioned if attacks on Iran were to begin or this war between Israel and Iran were to escalate?

Jonathan: I do think the relationship between Russia and Iran has changed as a result of the Ukraine war. The war has changed the balance of power between the two of them. Before the war in Ukraine, there was very much the sense that Iran was the junior partner. Iran needed the relationship more than Russia did and they developed a kind of client-patron relationship. Now their relationship is more equal. This is because aspects of Iranian technology have proven to be enormously useful to the Russians. The Russians rely on the Shahed 136 drone system and we have been told the Iranians have now even set up a factory on Russian soil to produce these systems.

The Iranians made themselves profoundly useful to the Russians at a time when they needed help. I think that is something that sets their relationship on a very firm footing for the future. There has been a lot of talk about what the Russians can provide the Iranians and the Russians can provide air systems to the Iranians. I am not too worried about those systems because they do not come close to being able to challenge the American air systems, which Israel or America would launch in the event of a confrontation. So, the threat of Iranian fighter pilots is not so serious. The impact is different when it comes to air defense systems, however. If the Russians put the S300 in Iran, they will then deeply complicate efforts to hit an Iranian nuclear facility, should it become necessary. In summary, I do think Russia and Iran have formed a profoundly important strategic relationship.

I think the relationship between Russia and Iran changes the way we should be thinking about issues impacting Israel. I think there is an emergent global, anti-Western axis with Russia and Iran as key players. I think we are entering a historic period and those of us under 80 years old have never lived through anything like this before. I believe the Western world is under a very profound strategic threat at this time. Of course, there was the Cold War with the Soviet Union and so on but I sense that the magnitude of the threat is different this time. At this time, major powers are actively seeking to challenge the West and make gains at the West’s expense. They perceive the West to be extremely weak.

We all know the Cold War was a profoundly serious and worrying time. However, in retrospect, we know it was the time of America’s greatest strength. Arguably, America was never stronger than in the period after 1945 and up until 1989, when it won the Cold War. I think our enemies are aware that the Western world is not as powerful, strong, and united as it seemed to be in the late 1940s, for example. I think we too are aware that we are not as united and strong as we could be and so there is a real challenge underway.

You mentioned the Chinese. China is the most consequential of the emergent anti-Western powers. The Chinese have shown they are keen to use their economic muscle to promote their objectives in the Middle East. Up until now, their most impactful act in the region was their oil purchases from Iran. The Iranians were able to ride out Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, not least because the Chinese simply continued buying oil from them during that time. They had a safety net of oil sales, so things were never going to get all that bad. That was a very important strategic move deployed through economic action and not through statements or military aid. I think we have seen China implement the same strategies elsewhere.

We know they build ports and infrastructure and assert these are all just for private companies. In China, however, private companies are all connected to the State. The Chinese have a notion of the fusion of civil and military activities and capacities and they are slowly building up strength in that regard. I would say that the Gaza War represents something of a watershed for the Chinese approach. China has been more vociferous in its condemnations of Israel and less willing to condemn Israel’s enemies during the current war, than at any time in the past. Contrary to its usual modus operandi, China has not been seeking to obfuscate and fudge. It has been shockingly clear in its sympathies and support for Hamas and Israel’s enemies.

We should be wary of exaggerating the cohesiveness of the anti-West axis because it has not yet fully crystallized. However, I think anybody observing the discernible direction of events, will see there is a coming together. There is an emerging global anti-Western axis and the Middle East component of that is going to be the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies. They are going to find their way to this emergent anti-Western power axis which is currently coalescing.

Lauri: Thanks, Jonathan. In your report, you said the situation calls for the United States and its allies to collaborate and end the Iranian regime’s 45-year reign. Our audience is asking how we can make that happen. They are asking how we are going to go about doing that. Is regime change a realistic option? At a Middle East Forum luncheon on Friday, I met with the Iranian opposition leader, Vahid Beheshti. Vahid spent a day on the Hill talking about the urgent need for Iranian regime change. He was very clear that once the US and her allies hit the Iranian regime, the people of Iran would rise and finish the job. Can the Iranian people, with the support of the West, effect a change in the regime in Iran? Is that a realistic possibility? If not, is a military alternative something that you see happening?

Jonathan: Last week I was in Northern Iraq and I met with several Iranian friends there. These are people I speak to regularly and some are resident in Iran. I was struck by the sense of the considerable fragility and unpopularity of the regime in Iran. This is something I hear about constantly. There is ample evidence from a huge number of outlets showing this regime is not popular and is much more fragile than it makes itself out to be. An Iranian friend said to me that she thought probably around 15% of the population was firmly behind the regime and would fight for it. So, I think there’s an enormous cynicism and skepticism towards the regime. It is a regime that has impoverished Iran. I would also note that its management of Iran’s resources, such as water and other natural resources, has been shockingly incompetent.

The other thing I hear again and again from Iranian friends is that the 15% of people who support the regime are not ideological zealots. Many of the people who are close to the regime now are there because of money. Their closeness to the regime buys them money and good lives but they are not necessarily people who are fanatically committed to the ideology of the regime. I think that is something we should always bear in mind. Let us remember that the regime has faced two rounds of very determined demonstrations against it in the last half-decade alone. The first round of demonstrations in 2019, were more economically motivated. Then, just a couple of years ago, they faced the Woman, Life, and Freedom demonstrations after the killing of Mahsa Jina Amini for the supposed improper wearing of her hijab.

Iran is a country of young people, many of whom are hostile not only to the ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran but even to Islam itself. I remind all of us that Iran is not an Arab country. It is a country that had a vast, illustrious, and rich history before Islam. Iran is full of cultural riches, which Iranians are justifiably extremely proud of. I do not think there is a pre-revolutionary situation in Iran right now. There is not. However, I do think there is a goal to work for and people to work with. If Israel, the United States, and its allies were to prioritize the overthrow of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, then there are plenty of people to work with. There are plenty of people willing to work towards that goal. There is lots and lots of work to do in that regard and it should be a strategic goal for us.

We began by talking about Iran’s proxies in the Arabic-speaking world. As those familiar with my work will know, I regard the IRGC’s capacity for building and working proxies to be second to none. They are without peer in the Middle East in that specific area and it has produced their successes again and again. We have seen evidence of this in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and among the Palestinians. Building proxies is kind of all they are good at. When it comes to the full set of skills required for defending and advancing a system, they do not have much else. That is what they have. Once you break through that, you break through into profound weakness in Iran’s case. So, I would suggest that we do need to push forward, we will encounter that weakness, and we will keep on pushing until the Islamic Republic of Iran falls.

Lauri: That is great insight, Jonathan. We have not yet discussed Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the impact of that on their conflict with Israel. You explained that Hezbollah’s purpose is basically to shield Iran while they acquire nuclear weapons. How will the calculus in the region change if Iran does obtain a nuclear weapon?

Jonathan: Once Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, they will need to place a warhead on a missile to create a workable nuclear device. According to publicly available sources, the Iranians would need between six months and a year to achieve capacity after making a decision to proceed in this regard. I hope very much that our intelligence services are good enough and that we will know if and when the Iranians have made that decision and have initiated that effort. If our intelligence services are good enough, then I would hope very much that Israel does whatever is necessary to degrade that possibility even if we only succeed in setting it back by a year or two. I hope and believe this is what will take place in that scenario.

I sense that the Iranians are now effectively a threshold nuclear state. Regarding the issue of testing an atomic device, I think it is only a matter of weeks. What will take longer for them would be to then effectively put it on a warhead. So, they are essentially a threshold nuclear power at this stage. As I said, if they choose to go for a breakout, I hope we will know and have time to act. I hope that we will then act. If they choose to remain a threshold nuclear power for now, it adds to the concerns and to the dangerousness of the moment we are living in, but it means that military action is not required immediately. My view has long been that anything short of a discernible decision by the Iranians to go for a breakout will not produce a military response from the West. It will not produce a response from America, of course, and not from Israel either.

If Iran decides to go for a breakout, I hope we will have time to do what is necessary. If we do not and we end up with a nuclear Iran, we will have reached a nightmare scenario. In that case, we can take everything we have said about the Iranian capacity for mischief, destruction, and power building, and multiply it to the power of ten. It is very possible, as I said, that they will not make that decision immediately and that they will be content to be a threshold power for a while. In that case, we will continue to observe the nuclear situation with vigilance, as we must, and we will also deal with the other areas of Iranian power building in the region.

Lauri: Someone posed an excellent follow-up question. They asked if Iran’s strategy is military, or is to destroy the economy and quality of life that will make people leave Israel over time. In other words, is Iran working to have Jews abandon the Zionist enterprise through fear of a nuclear weapon and more October 7th-like attacks?

Jonathan: Yeah. It is a good question. My answer is clear, and it is the latter. Iran is not aiming to present a conventional military threat against Israel. Their intention is not to build up a conventional army and launch armored divisions across from Syria, as an example. If they had wanted to do that, they would have invested in building up an army of that kind, but they have not. They have not invested in conventional armored divisions and conventional armed forces. They have not invested in a conventional air force that would be needed to carry out conventional attacks. Not at all. They have invested in precisely the opposite of that. They have invested in ballistic missiles, the nuclear program, and lightly armed proxy forces made for low-intensity combat. All of these indicate that they are going for the latter option. They have said very openly that they want to subject Israel to a kind of death by a thousand cuts in which something like October 7th, would be seen as an important watershed.

They want to make life impossible in Israel. They want to isolate Israel diplomatically, make Israelis feel insecure, and destroy the possibility of an economically successful life in Israel. They want to weaken the country demographically. They assume the strong and mobile populations will leave Israel and only those not able to leave will remain. I think they are operating under the assumption that the weakened, isolated, demographically depleted state of Israel, long since cut off from its American friends and from its European connections, will eventually be dealt a final death blow. Destruction is the final goal but they are conducting a long and slow war campaign using military, economic, political, and diplomatic pressure. They are using all conventional and sub-conventional means to weaken Israel and they hope this will eventually result in Israel’s demise.

Just to reiterate what I said previously, Iran is much weaker than Israel. We need to pay careful attention to their objectives but we should not be overly impressed by their rhetorical game. It is not Israeli society that is weak, it is the Islamic Republic society that is weak. It is not Israelis who are not loyal to their army, their state and their citizenship, it is Iranians who are not. Of course, Iranians are loyal to the Iranian national identity, but a very large percentage are not loyal to the Islamic Republic and its Islamist ideas. They are not Iranian ideas and not ideas that are shared by the bulk of the population. So, yeah, they are ideologues who like to tell themselves how weak and vulnerable we are. It is they who are weak and vulnerable and we should exploit those vulnerabilities.

Lauri: I think that is a great and positive way to end this webinar. Jonathan, thank you so much for your time. I am sorry I did not get to ask all of the questions from our audience. There were a lot of them. If anybody wants to reach out to me with additional questions, perhaps I can follow up with Jonathan. Thank you all for joining, Jonathan. Appreciate the time and look forward to talking to you soon.

Jonathan: Thanks, Lauri.



About the Author

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