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Lauri: Welcome, everyone, to this week’s EMET Webinar featuring Iran expert, Behnam Ben Taleblu. I am thrilled that Benham can join us to discuss Saturday night’s unprecedented attack on Israel. We are very fortunate to have relationships with the world’s esteemed experts on national security matters. Through these relationships, we can make their insights available to you via our weekly webinars and we appreciate everyone’s support of EMET’s important work. At this very critical time in Israel’s existence, please consider sponsoring a webinar or simply making a donation to EMET. We are performing urgent and critical work promoting pro-Israel and pro-America policies on the Hill. Today’s webinar will be recorded and available for viewing, and I urge you all to share this with others. If you have any questions for Behnam, you can place them in the QA function at the bottom of the screen, and I will try to get to as many as possible later in the program.

Benham Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he focuses on Iranian security and political issues. He previously served as a research fellow and senior Iran analyst at FDD. Benham leverages his background as a native Persian to inform his insights on Iran. He tracks a wide variety of Iran-related topics including nuclear non-proliferation, ballistic missiles, sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the foreign and security policy of the Islamic Republic, and internal Iranian politics. Benham is often called upon to brief journalists, congressional staff, and other Washington audiences. He has testified before the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament. He has contributed to, or co-authored, articles for a multitude of publications and has appeared on a variety of broadcast programs. Welcome, Behnam, and thank you so much for joining us this afternoon. I know how busy you are and we appreciate it greatly.

Behnam Ben Taleblu: It is always a pleasure to be with you, Lauri. Thank you so much, and to EMET for all you do. I appreciate Sarah and the whole team.

Lauri: Thanks. We love working with you, Benham. Saturday evening’s attack was unprecedented. It was the first time the Islamic Republic attacked Israel directly. Why do you think Iran chose to attack Israel directly rather than through its proxies, as has been the case until now? Why did Iran undertake such a brazen attack, with over 350 missiles and drones? What do you think they were hoping to accomplish? They must have known that if Israelis died, the reprisal would make Gaza look like a target practice. Do you think Iran was just sending a message to the world that this is a new day? Was Iran announcing that it is at war with Israel and that it will no longer hide behind its proxies, or will it claim victory and then revert to hiding behind surrogates?

Behnam: Well, there are a couple of important trend lines to unpack here. These trend lines explain how we arrived at the brazen, unprecedented, and game-changing act we witnessed on Saturday. I know you were glued to the screen just like I was. It was literally like something from a movie. In the past, Iranians have promised to avenge a host of things they blamed on the Israelis, including assassinations of their nuclear scientists and cyber-attacks on their systems. The level of Iran’s prior responses has never approached what we witnessed on Saturday night. The entire 45-year enmity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel has never boiled over into something like we saw this weekend. So, I just want to stress that what we saw on television on Saturday into Sunday is history in the making. To use a food analogy, Iran’s attack was akin to someone downing a bottle of Tabasco sauce when they do not even like black pepper on their risotto. Using a skiing analogy, this attack was akin to a non-skier donning skis and immediately skiing the double black diamond. The events of Saturday night were history-making for the Jewish state as well. Until now, the Islamic Republic has acted covertly and via proxy against Israel. Also, the majority of Israel’s wars have been fought against non-state actors and terrorist groups.

There have been about a dozen Iranian ballistic missile operations. With each, Iran has been slowly moving from the shadows out into the public space. We know the terror threat that the regime poses, and Iran’s more robust conventional military capability is being layered on top of this. We see this with the material support they have given the Houthis in Yemen and the Russians in Ukraine. Iranian drones today can be found on four different continents and this is different from what we have seen previously. Iran goes to arms expos and competes with the likes of Russia, America, the UK, and other countries with a more robust defense, industrial bases.

Although Iran has expanded its military capabilities, it has never struck a defended target until now. In the recent past, Iran has engaged in many ballistic missile operations but this is the first time they have attacked a target with defenses. In 2020, after the Americans killed Qasem Soleimani, the Iranians attacked a US base in Iraq. That base was undefended and the Americans had to run and take cover in the way they would have during World War I.

Fortunately, Israel scaled up its defense systems after their experience with Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles in 1991. During Saddam’s 1991 attack, all Israel had in terms of defense systems was the PAC-2. At that time, there were debates over whether missile defenses would be effective. Uzi Rubin played an instrumental role in laying the political and technical groundwork for investments in Israel’s defense industrial base. He played a key role in developing partnerships with the US for investments in ballistic missile defenses. This was at a time when many policymakers and scientists did believe in funding these capabilities. There is a straight line from that to Israel’s current layered air and missile defense architecture.

On Saturday night, Iran fired over 100 ballistic missiles, about 30 cruise missiles, and over 100 suicide drones at Israel. This attack was confronted by Israel’s robust defense architecture. Fortunately, Israel also had the support of US and regional partners. As such, most of the suicide drones were intercepted in the airspace between Iran and Israel.

The regime thought they could take a layered approach. They would first send drones and then missiles. They anticipated this approach would make civilian and military targets vulnerable to being hit with successively higher and faster flying weapons. The civilized world showed they would not let the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror wield tools of terror against the Jewish state. They would not let a state with a nuclear weapons program and with the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, directly attack the Jewish state.

The Iranians claimed their attack was a response to Israel’s attack on an annex to the “consulate” in Damascus. Reportedly, the entire building was not even a diplomatic facility and they simply slapped a diplomatic plaque on the front. I do not know of consulates, or even consular annexes, with no consular staff. Also, the Iranians killed in the strike were all Quds Force officers. I do not know what kind of diplomacy is conducted by Quds Force officers, but their purpose was certainly not well-intentioned. If they were there in a military capacity, they did not have the same diplomatic immunity as would an accredited diplomat serving at a formal embassy through a foreign ministry. All of that aside, Iran claimed its attack on Israel was in response to Israel’s attack in Damascus.

In the week and a half leading up to the strike, the regime benefited immensely from the panic in the media in the US, and even in Israel. People flocked to get gasoline. There were long lines at grocery stores, gas stations, and ATMs. This is exactly the type of fear the world’s foremost state-sponsored terrorism likes to engender and exploit. I was surprised they moved from engendering fear into action. After the strike, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said that any Israeli response, be it against Iran or Iranian interests, would be responded to from inside Iran. By coming out of the shadows, they painted a target on their own backs.

So, this is a game-changing moment for shadow wars in the region. It is also a game-changing moment in the security policy of the Jewish state. For twenty years, Israel has been ringing the alarm bell about terrorism, Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s missile program, and their drone program. Now, for the first time, Israel has a political opportunity to discuss dealing with Iran conventionally. This is a new phase in the Middle East wars. In my view, it is disconnected from Gaza and from October 7th, because this response targeting game in Syria had been going on for a while.

With this strike, I think the Iranians are trying to reset the entire equation of their campaign against Israel. They overreacted in the hope that any Israeli attempt to meet the over-reaction would be impeded, intercepted, and handcuffed, even by Israel’s patron, the United States of America. Iran predicated this entire military operation on a political understanding that they needed to change the rules of the game. They anticipated they would slap Israel and the world would prohibit a reaction from her. This is the gamble the regime took as it came out of the shadows.

Lauri: Thanks. We are going to discuss the US-Israel and the US-Iran relationships. Before that, please can you discuss the changes occurring in the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Are succession plans and new blood leading to more brazen and reckless behavior on the part of Iran? How much does our intelligence and that of the Israelis know about internal changes occurring in Iran’s governing powers? I have the sense that the answer to that is very little, and it seems quite dangerous for us to understand so little about our enemies.

Behnam: I can only speculate. Intelligence agencies have human sources and signal intelligence. However, the vast majority of information analysts are sifting through is open-source material. Despite Iran being a closed society, these analysts are using open-source material to try and find the “needle in the haystack”. Conflicts amongst Iran’s hardline political elite are quite public. The gradations and debates in the Iranian parliament are quite public. When the supreme leader sets a new direction, we observe public shifts in tone and policy which makes it detectable and monitorable.

Overall, some big trend lines are predicting the behavior of the regime that came to power 45 years ago through a broad coalition. For the past 20 years, the regime has worked to narrow its original coalition. It has alienated, killed, exiled, arrested, tortured, or jailed its detractors. It has taken every opportunity to contract the political space and shift the system further and further to the Islamist hard right. As a result, there is a smaller pool of elites than ever before in Tehran, but they are united in terms of enmity and worldview. Because this smaller pool of elites is more cohesive than it was previously, it is more difficult to penetrate and defeat them. All of this is the work of Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. Khamenei is setting the stage for Phase Two, after his passing.

A friend from Iran described Phrase One to me. Phase One refers to the time in the 1980s, after the revolution, when the regime purged the universities and public institutions of qualified technocrat professionals. At that time, they used the phrase, righteousness not competence. Similarly, the people being promoted today are not people with resumes of competence. They are people who have proven their loyalty over time. They adhere to a backward, perverse interpretation of the state religion of the Islamic Republic and this seldom correlates with competence.

These are the people who are going to be the next generation of leaders in Iran. They will be the people with a finger on the trigger. They make up the councils, like the Supreme National Security Council. They make decisions and they are being promoted to the new ultra-hardline parliament. The successor to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is likely to be selected from these leaders. There is a hard shift to the right in Iran. The new leaders are even more comfortable with the use of force and the grotesque forms of domestic repression than what we have observed so far.

Internal repression and external aggression are two sides of the same coin. They are both shows of strength and they both operate because of the same viewpoints and under the same assumptions. They assume America is on the way out, they can intimidate the Arabs and the likes of Russia and China are good partners on the world stage. They believe the Iranian people must be either cowed or rendered apathetic and they must not be allowed to play a role in determining their own political destiny. These baseline views and assumptions make Iran a very tough adversary.

Lauri: Let’s turn to the US. I want to talk about the US policy of appeasement towards Iran. This policy began the moment Obama entered the Oval Office. It was put on hold under Trump and was then reinstated under Biden. I think Obama planned to pull the US out of the Middle East and re-align the region with Iran as a regional hegemon. That, coupled with the JCPOA, was awful and dangerous. Biden’s three plus years in office have been utterly horrific. He has messaged the world that the US is in retreat, that it is not a reliable ally and that it treats its enemies with kid gloves while turning its back on its allies. October 7th and April 13th would not have happened if Team Obama Biden had not put daylight into the US-Israel relationship and if the US had been projecting strength.

Biden did the right thing by protecting Israel on Saturday night, but I believe his actions were motivated by his fear of the repercussions of a full-blown war in the region during an election year. Overall, Biden’s Israel policy since October 7th has been bipolar and has led to Israel feeling abandoned. It is important to note that under both Obama and Biden, the US funded both sides. Both Israel and Iran are recipients of US funding. A month after October 7th, Biden issued a $10 billion sanctions waiver for Iran. Can you share how you view US policy in the region and whether you believe the US has learned anything from Iran’s recent attack on Israel? Is Saturday going to lead to any changes in the way that the US approaches Iran?

Behnam: In the early months following October 7th, the Biden administration implemented substantive changes and there were hopeful signs regarding their relationship with Israel. These could have signified the beginnings of a reset in some regional relationships. However, the changes atrophied and are long gone. Ironically, in the week before the Iranian strike, I saw some revival of those positive changes. Perhaps you are right to call the administration’s approach bipolar. They changed for the better immediately post-October 7th and then began to walk back these changes a few months later. It took Iranian threats to improve the relationship. In the immediate cessation of those threats, it has gone back to where it was. Post April 13th, Israel is seeking deterrence while the Biden administration is reverting to their policy of de-escalation on steroids.

The administration’s de-escalation policy is on steroids with 2024 being an election year. The politics of the Gaza war and the views of the democratic party’s constituents are also impacting Biden’s thinking about the Middle East. Iran is a closed society and even so, we can detect their shifting domestic balances. America is a very open society and it is therefore much easier for Iran to detect our shifting trend lines and balances. That is precisely why the regime calculated that the risk it took in attacking Israel would be worth the reward. For twenty years, Israel has been seeking a permission slip to go against the regime and nuclear facilities of the Islamic Republic. However, given the current political environment, Iran, the weaker power, determined it should attack Israel first. In this case, Iran broke from its norm of responding in kind.

Given Iran’s prior behavior, one would have anticipated that an attack on a “consulate” would have been followed by an attack on an actual consulate. Even the Israelis believed that. The Israelis scaled down operations at embassies and consulates and raised threat levels at Jewish cultural centers around the world. They did this because of the trendline affirmed by Iran’s past responses. However, this time the regime felt comfortable escalating the conflict. It has a newfound capability with its long-range strike weapons and it perceives the US is on the retreat. Iran also gambled that Israel cannot afford an escalation with them amid the six-front war it is already facing. These calculations led an otherwise cautious but dangerous supreme leader to greenlight this operation. Ironically, they are now banking on Biden bailing them out. Just as we assessed the trendline to try and determine what Iran would do, so they are assessing trendlines to predict the US’s reaction.

Lauri: It was reported that Turkey informed Biden of Iran’s pending attack on Israel. I have also heard reports that Iran informed the Swiss of the attack and the message got back to the Biden administration. I heard Blinken responded that the attack had to be contained within certain limits. Yigal Carmen reported recently that Iran coordinated its attack with the US so that no one would be hurt and war with Israel would be avoided. Many are calling this a choreographed war. Do you know if that report is accurate? Biden told Israel to take the win. How much is the US controlling what Israel and Iran are doing in this situation?

Behnam: This attack proved the value and importance of robust air and missile defenses. Effective defense capabilities are critical not only for the future of Israel but for stability in the Middle East as a whole. The response to Iran’s attacks gave an inkling of what a more integrated Middle East could look like with countries aligning to offset threats that they believe they all share. We saw the beginnings of that with the response to these Iranian launches, but I will politely take a step back.

I am not disconnecting the dots between the Turkey story, the Swiss story, the Iranian allegations, and the alleged Blinken comments. However, I do think we need to put them into perspective. Those alleging this is the single thesis explaining the attack, need to explain how over 100 ballistic missile launches qualify as a symbolic attack. Some of those missiles had five to ten times the warhead weight of a drone warhead. According to General McKinsey, the highly respected former CENTCOM commander, Iran has only around 150 medium-range ballistic missiles. If this is true, it was exceptionally imprudent for the Iranians to have fired around 120 of them. That behavior also does not correlate with how they typically act. So, the explanation that this is just a choreographed dance, does not square the circle in this case. I know there is a desire to see things this way, and it is entirely plausible that the Iranians did give the US the heads up. However, that does not mean they still did not want to strike. It may mean they were banking on the US playing the role of restrainer of Israel on the back end of a strike. That is entirely possible.

Here is how I see it. Iran wanted to restore its deterrence and also ensure Israel’s biggest partner did not get involved in the war. That explains the diplomatic outreach. Iran may have used soft messaging to obtain implicit approval for their response to what they termed Israel’s provocation. The US may have fallen for that because the Israelis went after Brigadier General Zahedi in the “consulate”. Let’s unpack who this individual was. Between 48 to 72 hours after Zahedi was killed, even Iranian press outlets admitted he was involved in the planning of October 7th. The regime’s media is slowly edging towards actually admitting their role on October 7th. We are seeing this with Khamenei-linked media. This is an evolution because they now feel comfortable and safe in admitting their role in October 7th.

Israel finding Zahedi and going after that “annex” was a target of opportunity and a way to hold Iran back. It was a way to get the regime to stop funding and backing multidirectional rocket, missile, drone, and mortar attacks from Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. I do not see that as a provocation for war, but Iran tried to sell it as such and they succeeded. Biden’s line of take the win is understandable because of his de-escalation philosophy.

Iran is banking on the US refusing to provide a back-stop for Israel in the event of a response to their attack. This may result in more rather than less conflict. The Islamic Republic constantly tries to flesh out the differences between Israel and the United States and to bring those differences into the daylight. The greater the differences, the more emboldened the regime becomes. Had the US and Israel been operating in lockstep since October 7th, the regime would likely have had to rethink launching this sort of operation. The Iranian attack followed the UN ceasefire language drama, the Rafah drama, and the World Food Kitchen drama. The regime sensed the fissures between Israel and the US and exploited them. That is the way the Islamic Republic operates. Yes, they are crazy ideologues, but they are also opportunists, and they will press their advantage whenever possible.

I do understand the administration’s policy of de-escalation and de-confliction. I suspect polls would confirm that Americans want less to do with the Middle East. That is an understandable sentiment. What is not understandable is the administration permitting an adversary to launch a gigantic barrage against Israel. This is the same adversary that has been fighting in the shadows for 45 years. If the US restrains Israel’s response, they risk normalizing these attacks. In this case, the US risks bringing more war to the region.

The US did not respond to the downing of its drone in 2019. There is a straight line between that and the attacks against the Saudi oil facilities in 2019, the attacks against the US bases in 2020, the attack on Kurdish targets in Iraq in 2022, and the killing of an American for the first time with an Iranian ballistic missile. In all of those cases, the US did nothing. So, of course, the regime calculates we will likely not take action to respond to their attacks even when they are egregious.

Lauri: Yeah. The administration’s foreign policy is frightening, particularly in the Middle East. As you pointed out, bad actors are quick to take advantage of daylight between the US and Israel. Daylight, by the way, is Obama’s term. I am sure you are asked all the time how Israel can take the win and not respond? Tehran terrorized Israel’s nine million residents who lived in fear in the lead-up to the attack and had to spend the night in bomb shelters.

Behnam: You just reminded me of something. Ronan Bergman quoted an unnamed source involved in Israeli national security deliberations about the potential impact of the Iranian strikes. This was before all of the successful interceptions but while they knew the launch was coming. Ronan Bergman’s source said that had their discussions been broadcast live, there would have been four million Israelis at Ben Gurion trying to leave. I am paraphrasing his line, but you can find it on Twitter. I think it was published in the New York Times as well.

Although the attack was circumvented successfully, it was certainly not a win for Israel. Technological superiority, conventional military superiority, good military-to-military coordination, good intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, good diplomatic planning, and of course, the Iranian tip-off, helped to impede a disaster. That is good of course but I will let you in on a little secret regarding offense and defense as it impacts the Middle East missile balance. Offense is comparatively much cheaper than defense. Israel expended between half a billion and a billion and a half dollars in defending herself. We do not know the amount of additional funds expended by the US and other allies and partners. Despite what appears to be a great defensive success, we should remember that Iran’s strategy is death by a thousand cuts. They are trying to create social, economic, political, and any other kind of pressure on Israel. They knew Israel would lose whether it evaded the Iranian attack or not. They were fully aware of the cost mismatch between the more expensive interceptors and the comparatively cheaper offensive missiles. The US government calls this being behind the cost curve and the cost curve is not in Israel’s favor.

This is not a win for Israel. This is a success for deterrence by denial. We have an effective and coordinated architecture of interceptions, planes, jets, missile defenses, and air defenses working together. That is amazing but it is costly to maintain. The adversary will not be deterred in the long term until we provide deterrence by punishment. The adversary needs to know when they fire that they will lose more than their $40,000 drones and million-dollar missiles. Until they know they will risk losing more than that, they will not stop their attacks. There are videos of me at FTD events in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In these videos, I am ringing the alarm bell about Iran’s missile use against ISIS, the Kurds, the US, and even Israeli targets. People were concerned, but it was not considered a very high national security priority. It was, however, a connect-the-dots moment because we were normalizing the regime’s ballistic missile activities and public launches by standing down. Now we are risking the normalization of attacks against Israel, on a level that we have never seen before.

Lauri: To clarify, do you believe that the Islamic Republic looks at this attack as a win? On Sunday morning, everybody was calling it a pathetic and embarrassing show. It may have been a tactical failure because no Jews were killed but it could be called a strategic success. This sounds like what you are saying. Is that how you think the Islamic Republic is looking at it?

Behnam: Two things here. One, I think Iran achieved a political victory. It is a win for them because they show Israel’s patron will not support them and will restrain them. They also know Israel cannot afford to keep intercepting Iranian missiles. On the other hand, the attack was a big loss for the Iranians militarily. Strategically, I think the Iranians have painted a target on their backs for the long run. Ironically though, the Biden administration might be the only group working to erase that target. The attacks showed the Iranians are not ten feet tall militarily. However, they know how to use military means and instrumental violence to affect political outcomes. They proved this on October 7th and its immediate aftermath. America and Israel, on the other hand, have immensely superior military means but struggle to translate their military power into lasting political successes. The US demonstrated this in Afghanistan and Iraq and Israel did the same in Gaza and Lebanon and occasionally in Syria. That is the mismatch in these wars and the difficult trade-off we have to deal with.

The second thing to note is that perspective matters. There is a great deal of regime propaganda and the Iranians are trying to spin their attack as a win. On Sunday, the Israeli ambassador held up his iPad in front of the UN Security Council. He showed projectiles over holy religious sites anticipating this would not be a good look for the Iranians. However, the Islamic Republic’s semi-official press actually spun that image in their favor. They used the photo of the Israelis showing the video of the missiles raining down over al-Aqsa, to telegraph to the Iranians, the Arabs, the Palestinians, and others, that they were part of the resistance. That is why I say the attack was a political success.

What I am suggesting is a lay understanding with zero empirical evidence. That said, I spoke to someone in his Hookah shop shortly after the attack. He is from the Middle East but is not Israeli or Iranian. He mentioned, off the cuff, that Iran does not joke around. This is precisely the perception the regime is good at creating. The guy did not say 99% of the missiles were intercepted, rather, he said that Iran does not joke around. We think we are exposing their barbarity but they are using these images to project their commitment to the resistance.

They do not care about religious sites or the fate of Muslims. They are not in the construction business; they are in the destruction business. Their proxies do not care about Muslim holy sites either. We saw this when the Houthis fired ballistic missiles over Mecca and no one cared at all.

Lauri: Yeah. Important points. I want to turn to Israel. What do you think Israel’s next steps will be? Do you think Israel will retaliate despite Biden’s warnings not to? How vulnerable do you think Iran is, given that it has many offensive weapons but no air force and no weapon defense systems? Please touch on their ballistic missiles and the extent of their arsenal. Also, what are Israel’s possible targets? I am guessing that Biden told Israel not to attack Iran’s oil refineries because it is an election year and gas prices would skyrocket. What are your thoughts on the Israeli retaliation? Is cyber warfare likely to be part of it?

Behnam: I have many thoughts and views about this. First and foremost, is that doctrine change we talked about. The Iranians are now vowing to respond to attacks from wherever they originate. From the Israeli perspective, if the past is prologue, they have a lot of options here. I want to remind everyone that the way in which Israel responds will be a game-changing moment in the Middle East. We do not know yet what the scale of the response will be nor whether we will see a one-off response or a campaign that may graduate over time. We also do not know if the response will be overt, covert, or a combination of both.

Israel might consider an external target first. They may attack targets in Syria as they have done previously. Alternatively, they may attack capabilities or a militia in Iraq to test if the Iranians will retaliate from their territory once again. If the Iranians attack from their territory again, they create a predicate for a much larger response. I think CNN reported late yesterday that the Israelis were talking about retaliating with a narrow or tailored strike. NBC said an Israeli response was imminent. The last thing the Israelis want to do is target Iranian civilians, so they need to be very careful about a proportional response.

On the other hand, tons of Iranians have been using social media to encourage Israel to hit Khamenei and his office. There are even some Iranian dissidents who encouraged Israel to target the mausoleum of the founding father of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini. Such an attack would be highly symbolic. The mausoleum is not situated in a residential area and might trigger protests against the regime. The dissidents hope the combination of foreign pressure and domestic pressure might have a pincer-like effect on the regime. These are all the things that are being said. If that CNN report does end up being true, it will help highlight the stark contrast between the Iranian and Israeli military. Iran unleashed tools of terror against the Israeli population and did not succeed. Conversely, they will be able to report that Israel was hyper-precise and succeeded in taking out one missile base or one command and control headquarters with very precise Jericho missiles and no civilian casualties. This is something the Israelis are going to have to be very precise about. There is no room for play here.

The Iranian people are the most pro-Israel people in the Middle East. Many in the Middle East raised the Palestinian flag on October 8th or 9th. Conversely, 10,000 Iranians in a soccer stadium chanted in unison against the raising of the Palestinian flag. There is an enormous contrast between the salience of the Palestinian issue for the Arab world versus the non-salience of the issue for the Iranians. Since 2009, in nearly every round of protests, they have been chanting about their lives for Iran and not Gaza or Lebanon. There is a strategic and ideational affinity between Iranians and Israelis and they share a strategic and ideational enmity toward the regime. As such, I would caution Israel not to squander that asset when they re-establish deterrence. It is their biggest long-term asset. If you think the Abraham Accords were effective, imagine what the Cyrus Accords could do, just imagine.

Lauri: Please discuss how the Gulf and Arab nations view Israel. I think they still view Israel as the strong horse in the region. Do you believe that that perception will continue if Israel is prevented from responding to Iran and finishing what it started in Gaza? We just learned that Netanyahu announced the IDF will not be going into Rafah.

It was very heartening to learn that Saudi Arabia joined Jordan, the US, the UK, and France in destroying Iranian missiles and drones on Saturday, and I understand that Saudi normalization is very close. Hopefully, they have realized that a Palestinian state is not helpful to their national security interests. A Saudi official recently acknowledged the Hamas 10/7 massacre was intended to derail normalization and he called Iran’s behavior irresponsible.

I think Elliot Abrams said that the future of the Middle East depends on American leadership both internally and externally. If our political leaders understand that peace can only be achieved through strength, the Middle East will be dominated by the US and its allies. If not, we will have a region dominated by Iran, Russia, and China. Those are three very dangerous nuclear powers. How do you think the Arab nations in the region perceive the situation?

Behnam: On the Elliott quote, I had the pleasure of seeing him last week, and he is remarkably erudite and perceptive. He said almost the same thing you quoted about internal and external US leadership and I could not agree more. We are not talking about a referendum about a specific missile strike versus a particular sanction. We are discussing who we are as a nation. This is really about what we believe in, what in life is worth getting out of bed for, what we should do to prevent killing, fighting, and dying, and what in life is worth defending. These are existential and philosophical questions. How we answer them will define the direction of American leadership and policy and that is what Elliot said.

We have had three very different presidents whose missteps got us to where we are. As you know, I am supportive of President Trump’s Iran policy but there were missteps there as well. Obama, Trump, and Biden are three different men with three very different philosophies but they essentially say the same thing about the region. Their view is that the region is a junk bond. That view is very unhelpful to the Arabs who live between the Israelis and the Iranians, particularly the Arabs of the Persian Gulf. The Arab nations on the southern tier are some of the most well-connected places in the world, both financially and politically. In the northern tier, are some of the places most devastated by war and by the Iranian proxy network. This is why there is a constellation of entities supporting the Islamic Republic there. The regime’s revisionist, revolutionary message is appealing because the people are downtrodden and dispossessed with no prospects. The same message is not appealing to people in the Gulf countries because they have emancipation and opportunity and are cognizant that the Iranian ideology is not worth fighting, killing, and dying for. Their worldview flows from their leadership.

Some of the missteps made by the last three US presidents have affected Gulf leadership and fostered what is known in international politics as hedging. Gulf leaders understand America is the best country to partner with, particularly in the economic and political arenas. However, they also see China as ascendant. Saudi Arabia, for example, sells oil to China and China is its major economic partner. Energy-for-security was the historic paradigm for the US-Saudi relationship. If the energy element has changed and if the Saudis sense that the US does not have their back from a security perspective, they may look elsewhere for their security needs. Their concerns regarding security stem from our in-and-out policy towards Assad in Syria, our sanctions relief and JCPOA-driven approach towards Iran, and our failure to have their back on the Yemen war. If the energy element of the relationship is changing, they will look elsewhere for security

Another, more recent, example of changing relations, occurred in the UAE. The UAE hosted President Vladimir Putin a few months ago even though Putin has an arrest order against him. The UAE used American jets to paint the Russian flag in the sky with their exhaust fumes. There should be no sharper contrast in the minds of US policymakers attempting to stop hedging in the UAE. Some may say we are making too much of this display because both countries have red, white, and blue flags. I would answer that the French and British flags are also red, white, and blue but this exhibition was conducted specifically to welcome the Russian president and it is a huge sign.

The UAE has been great on Arab-Israeli normalization and the Abraham Accords but it has been a mixed player on the Iran sanctions issue. The hedging we are observing results from a continued lack of a clear direction from the US. The US is projecting that we are disinterested in the fate of the region. This messaging is going to foster more instability, not just for Israel but for America. America’s adversaries, Russia and China, will embed themselves in the region and this will leave Israel open to more predation by them. It is exactly what Israel does not want from its US partner.

On April 13th and 14th, we observed high-level, high-tech relationships operating together easily and well. However, the Arabs are hedging because they are observing the trend lines. They know Washington lives in the moment, in the electoral cycle, or between tweets. To be regarded as a strong horse in the area is to vest in the long-term future of the region. I do not think the Arabs who have normalized will undo their normalization agreements based on changes in Israel’s politics or policies. However, they still see Israel as part of the pro-Western, pro-American order. Since they are having to hedge these relationships more publicly, the price of the normalization with Israel will go up just like it has since October 8th.

Lauri: Very insightful, Ben. Thank you for that. Someone asked, Israel always said it would defend itself by itself, and April 13th and 14th was a change from that doctrine. What does it portend for Israel going forward? Will Israel’s response options be constrained going forward?

Behnam: There is no doubt the Israelis will continue to defend themselves by themselves as they have done since 1948. The ability to defend itself is endemic in Israel’s structure and illustrated by its ability to fight different sets of wars against both state and non-state actors. The conflicts are existential for Israel and get very dicey very quickly. On April 13th and 14th, I was reminded of the strategic depth and size of Iran versus the complete lack thereof for Israel. Uncontrollable factors like geography will necessarily produce a different kind of military response from Israel versus Iran.

I think the successful defense on April 13th and 14th is a case that could be replicated over time but it will be costly. Because of this cost, we should want to help Israel defend itself with offensive weapons as well. Over time, the cost of deterrence by denial architecture is going to cost a lot more than anticipated and we have to be cognizant of the impact of the cost element.

I think the states who supported Israel in thwarting Iran’s attack, saw the attack as something worth defending against. They did not rush in to support an ally who had not made any budgetary investments in air and missile defense. The US, UK, France, and others rushed to support an ally with robust coverage and they functioned as the extended arm of that coverage. Israel benefited immensely from the fact that America patrolled the airspace between Iraq and Jordan and was able to shoot down around 80 of the 100 drones fired. This is the point of having a good partner. However, the US engaged because they knew the attack was worth defending against. This was not a freebie, nor was it missionary work, a term coined by Henry Kissinger. The attack was initiated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Israel’s allies wanted to stop their missiles from flying. That, in and of itself, was a reason for them to engage. Added to that was a partner with robust capabilities who made enormous budgetary investments in their defense. NATO should be aware these are things that are worth doing. However, they do not undermine the fundamental philosophy of the Sabra Zionists who do things themselves and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, pioneer style.

Lauri: One of our board members asked what will happen to the coalition comprising the US, UK, France, and Jordan if Israel responds. Will the coalition survive?

Behnam: Honestly, if they do, it will not be as robust. This is because of the politics of the situation. In my view, there will have to be some kind of Israeli military response because of the deterrence equation we discussed. However, it would be a mistake for Israel to rush its response. I know the Israelis may talk of a closing window but the Iranians know the Israelis have an overwhelming military capability. The regime should be living in fear as to what the response will look like and when it will occur. We should not let the Iranians be the victor in the game of psychological warfare. The Israelis too can engender fear and panic and can begin exacting their revenge with psychological warfare.

On Saturday evening, Israel experienced a real win in obtaining Jordanian support. Since 1994, Jordan has been Israel’s historic partner. Over the past six months, however, the rhetoric, foreign policy, and commentary from Jordan has been very unhelpful. On April 13th and 14th, we saw a sudden change in Jordanian behavior. It would be a shame for Jordan to emulate the bipolarity of its partner, the United States. If there is something Israel can do to bring Jordan along, that will be key. If it cannot even bring Jordan along, it should work to placate or manage Jordan and to have the Jordanians tamp down their anti-Israel rhetoric.

Diplomacy is about management and not solutions. When people refer to diplomatic solutions they are referring to methods of management. In the aftermath of this successful defense, Israel can and should improve its methods of management regarding Iran. It should lay the diplomatic groundwork for a consensus on an enhanced pressure policy towards Iran. It should work to lay the foundation for a more integrated, peaceful, and prosperous region based on an agreement as to what constitutes a good life. People should be asking whether their governments are oriented toward directing missiles and rockets at the only democracy in the region, or whether they are interested in doing something for their people?

Lauri: Thank you. We have time for one more question before we go. I am sorry I did not get to all of the audience’s questions. You were talking about hedging bets earlier in the context of the Gulf nations, but what about Israel? Is Israel hedging its bets with India, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia?

Behnam: I think there is both a strategic and ideational element to Israel’s relationship with India. I think the relationship with China was just commercial and mercantilist. I think the Israelis went so far into the commercial and mercantilist world, that they did not see China’s predation in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. This is something the Americans have been able to see and have rightly been calling out.

Russia is a little bit different. When I come to Israel, I find it interesting to observe the immigration lines and take note of how many names are in Cyrillic versus Hebrew and English. During the Bennett government, there was talk about managing Israel’s relationship with Russia or trying to play the role of mediator. Russia is beyond that today. I fear that the more the strategic competition heats up, the more the Russians will exact a cost on the Israelis and favor the Iranians in Syria. That has not happened yet, but it might and I am worried about it because the Russians can dangle it over the heads of the Israelis.

I wonder what it is that the Russians are currently getting from the Israelis. I understand the realities of the region and they are the same realities that are plaguing our partners in the Persian Gulf. It is disconcerting to see America’s allies having to hedge in this way. The more they hedge, the greater the chance they will exhibit the opposite behaviors from what we want to see, and the greater the chance they will move away from the West. A counter-productive tension pulling on the rope binding allies can eventually break it. I am thinking of the line Khrushchev sent Kennedy at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. He advised Kennedy not to pull on the rope on which he had tied the knot of war. There is not a knot of war between Israel and America, thank God, but it is still not helpful to pull on the rope.

Lauri: Yeah. Benham, thank you so much. We so appreciate you sharing your insights with us. I urge everybody to follow Benham’s work. You are not on Twitter, but you are very prolific and your work is published everywhere and you appear on all sorts of news channels. Please, everybody, follow Behnam’s important work. Again, thank you very much, and wish everybody a good afternoon.

Behnam: Thank you so much, Lauri. Appreciate it. Thank you all for tuning in today.

Lauri: Bye.

Behnam: Bye.



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