Lauri: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to welcome you to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET)’s weekly webinar. This week we will discuss Iran’s accelerating proxy war against Israel and the US. Our webinar features Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow from the foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). We appreciate your watching our weekly webinars and sharing the links with your friends, neighbors and colleagues. We would also much appreciate your support for EMET’s mission and sponsorship for our webinars. This week’s webinar will be recorded and available for view afterwards. We will also hopefully have some time towards the end to take some questions from you so please place them in the QA queue at the bottom of the screen. We have a lot to cover so I am not going to go into the extensive and impressive bio of our expert speaker. Behnam has appeared for us before and his bio is included in the invitation, so please take a look at that. Please also follow his work at https://www.fdd.org/. Behnam often appears on Fox News and other news channels as well. Welcome, Behnam and thanks so much for joining us this afternoon.
Behnam: It’s a real pleasure to be with you.
Lauri: We all recognize Iran has been at war with Israel for quite some time, mostly through its terrorist proxies. While we are going to discuss Iran’s “ring of fire” around Israel, I want to start with Iran’s war against America. I believe this will help us to better understand Iran’s unprecedented aggression in the Middle East. Since October 17th, Iranian-sponsored groups have launched at least 105 attacks on US personnel in Iraq and Syria. The US has retaliated to these attacks only seven times and with pin prick airstrikes. A number of US soldiers have been injured in these attacks. These numbers include three soldiers wounded in Iraq this past week by a drone launched from Iran. Our response was to strike drone depots in Iraq. We know this type of response will have absolutely no deterrent effect on Iranian aggression. Presumably Iran’s goal is to have the US leave the region entirely. Given how passive we are in the face of these attacks, Iran seems to believe that the more violent it becomes, the more success it is going to have in forcing us to abandon the region. Can you share with our audience what is going on in Iraq and Syria, where Iran has deployed 100,000 fighters? Where do you see this headed in the coming months?
Behnam: It is a pleasure to be with you, a happy new year to you and Sarah and the great team at EMET. It is always really great to be in conversation with you and this is absolutely not a one-way street because I learn as much as I give here. Thanks to the viewers who help make these important and timely webinars on national security issues possible. Iran in Iraq and Iran in Syria are key geographical questions we have to consider. Iranian influence and power spreading across the Middle East is being discussed now more than ever before. There would be no need to address Iranian power in the eastern Mediterranean if Iran did not have control over Hezbollah in Lebanon. Similarly, there would be no need to address Iranian power in the Red Sea if the regime did not have control of the Houthis in Yemen. Quintessential to the regime’s strategy is to create or co-opt militias, terror groups and proxy groups in the heart of the Middle East. Iran fought an eight-year war in Iraq after the revolution. Since then, it has been seeking economic, societal, military, political and religious means to puncture the Iraqi government in order to control Baghdad and make Iraq a part of the Islamic republic. Iran also found ways to connect Syria with Iraq to establish something of a free flow zone of men, money and munitions across the Middle East.
Control of Iraq and Syria is essential for Iran’s regional strategy. It is essential for Iran’s terror support strategy and it is essential for Iran to export its strategy of revolution successfully. That is why it invests blood, treasure, time and political capital into controlling and creating facts on the ground there.
Since May 2019, a year after the US left the Iran deal, there has been an uptick in firing at US forces. Iran has decided to try to turn the region against the US in a bid to get America to leave the area. The first secretary general of NATO had a phrase stating NATO was created to keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in. Similarly, since 1979, Iran’s regional strategy has been about keeping the Arabs down and America out. This facilitates its objective of destruction of the Jewish state. Iran created these militia and terror proxy groups in Iraq and Syria. These groups fire on US forces with rockets and drones provided by, or produced with the assistance of, the Islamic Republic, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In this way, Iran is creating a cycle of violence so it can take political control of the area and ultimately force the US out of the region.
There was actually a lull in attacks in 2023. As a result, just a few weeks before October 7th, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan, claimed the Middle East was as calm as it had ever been before. However, Iran was always in control of the spigot. In the aftermath of October 7th, Iran has turned on the flow of violence from Iran and Syria against US forces. Iran is placing political and military pressure on the US to make us pull the plug on Jerusalem’s war against Hamas in an effort to avoid a wider regional war. The Iranians want the US to connect the re-activation of the Iraqi Syrian theater with Jerusalem’s war against Hamas. As such, Iran is using military means to try to affect a political outcome. Iran is trying to create a cycle of violence in Iraq and Syria. This is because Iran understands America has concerns around a future cycle of violence and it believes there is a limited American interest in staying in the Middle East. It is trying to create a political crisis where America would force Israel to stop fighting Hamas in Gaza. Iran’s long-term goal in this instance is to use a cycle of violence in Iraq and Syria to save its proxy, Hamas, in Gaza. Although the Islamic Republic thus far, is not going to intervene directly to save the Palestinians, we know that this regime will fight to the last Arab to continue their ideological security policy. They will literally light the region on fire irrespective of location, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Jordan. This is the way they are trying to bail out Hamas.
The activation of the Houthi threat is similarly designed to create another cycle of violence. The objective in the case of the Houthis, is also to get the US to put the political handcuffs on Israel and pull the plug on the war to defeat an Iranian proxy.
Lauri: It is fascinating to see how it is all tied together. Let’s talk about the Houthis now. I think there have been around a hundred attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Many of these vessels have no connection to Israel. These attacks occurred despite the presence of the Ford and Eisenhower carrier strike groups in the region. With the Ford on its way home now, we have no presence in the gulf. The Ford’s departure presumably announces to Iran that we have no interest in any future military action against it. President Trump had placed the Houthis on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations. In his zeal to reverse everything, Trump, Biden removed the Houthis from the list of foreign terror organizations as one of his first actions in office. This was to appease Iran and was presumably based on an obsession to negotiate a new nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. There was also the desire to distance America from Saudi Arabia, with whom the Houthis were at war. It took the foreign policy experts in the Biden administration almost two years to realize that daylight between the US and the Saudis was not a very smart move and the administration began changing course on that the past year. The Houthis aggression has really escalated and Biden still has not added them back onto the terror list. Adding them back to the list would have economic implications and could possibly put pressure on them. Why do you believe the administration has not added them back to the list of foreign terrorist organizations? Do you think they will do it anytime soon and otherwise, what is to be done about the Houthis?
Behnam: The foreign terrorist organization designation is the absolute minimum that needs to happen to even begin guiding US policy to where it needs to be with respect to the Houthis. I think you are correct in that this de-designation was a political decision made very early on by the current administration. On their way out, the Trump administration designated the Houthis as a foreign terror organization. I think that within a month, the secretary of state spoke about a review of this decision and within a month and a half maximum, the de-designation occurred. In my view, this decision was driven by the larger foreign policy problem we seem to have in America where the current administration reverses the accomplishments of the previous one. This creates a level of instability which leads to our creating distance between the US and partners like Saudi Arabia, as an example. Saudi Arabia is a major energy, political and security partner of the United States and hopefully could become one of Israel as well. Rather than build off of an inherited legacy, however, the administration pushed it away.
Even during the campaign period, then incumbent Joe Biden talked about Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state on the hill”. When he entered office, partners of Biden’s administration continued to try to find ways to circumscribe the political space for the Yemen war, a war against an Iranian proxy. In 2018/19, I remember talking to folks about Iran replicating the threats that we had long faced globally to freedom of navigation and oil shipments in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. I warned these threats could be extended to the Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. The warnings were laughed at. Today, no one is laughing anymore. The Houthis are literally able to raise insurance premiums. They have succeeded in getting Lloyds of London to raise costs. They are able to play with oil prices despite not being an exporter of oil and they are harassing a part of the world through which about 12% of global trade passes, particularly east-west Asia to Europe. No one is laughing anymore and it makes sense to start evaluating the threat objectively. The Houthis are more a part of Iran’s axis of resistance today than ever before and naming this threat is necessary but not sufficient. Designating the Houthis as a foreign terror organization is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
Sometimes foreign policy crises are born from success and not failure. This is particularly true as regards October 7th and the Houthis. Iran feared the sudden shift in the Biden administration as, at the last minute, they pivoted from trying to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia to trying to recreate the Abraham Accords. The administration appeared to be succeeding in bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia together under some kind of larger diplomatic normalization agreement which Iran feared. I believe one of the proximate causes of the Iran inspired Hamas October 7th terror attack was an attempt by Iran to ignite the Arab street against the Arab state to create a political gap between Israel and the Arabs and to subvert the pending normalization agreement. This is a tactic Iran has employed successfully in the past. This is one example of one foreign policy crisis born out of success.
The Houthi crisis is also born out of success. The Israelis intercepted every single Houthi fired suicide drone that went up to 2500 km, every single medium range ballistic missile that went up to 2000 km and every single land attack cruise missile that went up to 2000 km. This is a game changer, by the way, because the Houthis are in possession of the longest-range strike capabilities out of any Iranian proxy. The Houthis are the newest Iranian proxy with weapons even Hezbollah does not have. Fortunately, the Israelis intercepted every weapon headed toward them. Once the Houthis saw this, they began attacking the lowest hanging fruit, the undefended targets at sea. In this way, they are hoping to generate a political and a military challenge that puts pressure on America. Similar to what the Iranians are trying to do via the Iraqis and the Syrians, they hope the US will transfer the pressure to Israel in the case of the Houthis as well. By attacking a major global shipping artery, they are trying to create an economic challenge to pressure the US in the hopes the US will transfer the pressure to Israel. It is the same strategy as with Iraq and Syria but in a different theater. Both theaters are designed to encircle Israel and create a political challenge while Israel fights a military war. Their strategy is to enable the regime’s proxy in Gaza, Hamas, to fight another day.
Lauri: What are your thoughts on the multinational naval force known as Operation Prosperity Guardian? The US recently announced this force is intended to curtail Houthi aggression in the Red Sea, Moments after the announcement, Spain, Italy and France backed out of the agreement. Britain seems to be more on board and seems to understand the Houthis are committing acts of war requiring an international response. Britain says it is evaluating appropriate responses. It seems to me however, that Operation Prosperity Guardian is more of a defensive operation and we should be on the offensive, not the defensive. We have not yet discussed our ability to wage war in this arena and to actually eliminate the Houthis missile capacities, which you described as being very dangerous and very frightening. A retired naval captain, who is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, made the observation that if the Biden administration wants the Houthis to stop, it should remember that Houthis cannot fire missiles and drones they no longer have. What are your thoughts on a more aggressive stance towards the Houthis by the US?
Behnam: A more aggressive stance against the Houthis is absolutely required. A quick note about the, unfortunately not-so-prosperous, military maritime coalition. These types of coalitions are actually pretty finicky. Prior to the announcement of this multilateral maritime coalition, the US already had a maritime group operating in that part of the world. I believe it was Combined Task Force 153, which did Red Sea patrols. I think there was a destroyer already there which could bring in other naval assets from the Rota Naval Base in Spain if needed. This facilitated the linking of assets from the Persian Gulf world, the Red Sea world and the eastern Mediterranean world as needed to defend this very important waterway.
The British constructed the global security architecture which the US inherited after World War II and they were also committed to freedom of navigation. As such, it makes absolute sense to me that the British would be an enduring partner of ours, even prior to the announcement of this maritime security construct. The French did shoot down a Houthi drone and it is unfortunate that there are these diplomatic spats with the Spanish and the French. When we have large political fights, the net winners are the Houthis and the Iranians and our adversaries win. It is not one side of the Atlantic versus the other side that wins. It is wise for both America and Europe to know the consequences of airing their dirty laundry with each other. I would be fine with France not being part of the coalition, as long as they continue to shoot down as many Houthi projectiles as possible.
I would like, however, the US to understand that deterrence by denial, the ability for the US to track and intercept and destroy projectiles, is necessary and important but not sufficient. Those firing the drones, rockets, mortars and missiles have to know they risk losing something more valuable than the cost of the projectile they are firing and we need deterrence by punishment.
It is not just the Houthi stockpile that I think should be targeted. The Iranian spy ship which is allegedly operating near the Red Sea, and providing targeting information to the Houthis, should also be a target. This is the lowest of the low hanging fruit. This could be something achieved with plausible deniability. Something perhaps that could be done more publicly is prohibiting the Iranian destroyer, the Alvand class destroyer, from entering the Red Sea. There is no reason why the sponsor of the Houthis should have freedom of navigation in the Red Sea while those committed to freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce are molested and harassed. That is low hanging fruit. Eliminating the launching and the targeting infrastructure of the Houthis is also low hanging fruit. That includes elimination of radars, transporter erector launchers, rail launchers and an immediate response to the point of origin of the attacks. It is, in my view, good news that the US did return fire on the Houthi fast attack craft. Again, that action was necessary but not sufficient. We have to eliminate their coastal launchers and coastal radars, much like we did in 2016 when they fired cruise missiles.
Lauri: This is a good transition into my next question. In one of your recent columns, you addressed Iranian aggression in the region when you wrote, “in 2019, for example, Iran used a combination of land attack cruise missiles and suicide drones to target Saudi oil installations, in January 2020, Iran employed a barrage of precision strike short range of ballistic missiles against US positions in Iraq after the killing of Tehran’s top terrorist mastermind, Qasam Soleimani, by the Trump administration. The move reportedly marked the largest ballistic missile attack ever against Americans and led to over 140 traumatic brain injuries. In January 2021, Iran-backed militants in Iraq fired drones at targets in Saudi Arabia, in July 2021, Iran launched a delta wing kamikaze drone at an Israeli-owned tanker, killing a British and Romanian national. In January 2022, the Houthis fired medium-range ballistic missiles, drones and land attack cruise missiles at the UAE and in September 2022, Iran fired close-range ballistic missiles and drones at northern Iraq and killed a US citizen. In no instance did the US or its partners respond with force.” You then concluded the lesson, “restraint by America has not and will not beget restraint by Tehran.”
Behnam, why is it that the Biden administration does not understand that appeasement of Iran only leads to a more dangerous and aggressive Iran? Do they understand they are making political calculations that will ultimately damage our national security?
Behnam: To be totally honest, I see this as a bipartisan foreign policy problem. Our political system sometimes incentivizes politicians to look at what is politically expedient versus considering our strategic national interests. There is a declassified CIA memorandum, from around 1987 or 1988, addressing Iran’s use of terrorism. I know the tools they employed then were different from the current ones but let us just go with the analogy for a second. The memo notes that until the regime knows that they have to pay a price for the use of tools of terror, the terror is going to continue. That is a rational conclusion. If you are doing something with perceived benefit but no cost to you, you would be foolish to discontinue the use of it. That principle applies to terrorism in the 1980s, to missiles, drones and rockets in the 2000s and all the way into the present.
Unfortunately, the political logic of treating Iranian backed terror acts as disconnected and not as part of a larger strategy, is what has allowed us to get into this position we are in. We have treated Iranian terror as something we could afford to absorb because of the perception that the political cost of responding far outweighs the political cost of absorption. There is a straight line from the shortcomings of the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administration to current issues with Iran. The incubation period is mostly late Obama into present and it is a bipartisan foreign policy problem.
I do not like the way candidates on both sides of the aisle today talk about isolationism and an even more circumscribed American national interest. It is music to the ears of Iran and their proxies when we announce we want to leave the area and we are not going to respond to their attacks. It does not deter them when they see us responding to their provocations with pinprick strikes in Syria. It does not discourage our adversaries when two thirds of the American media express concerns we are on the brink of World War III. Iran knows America has greater conventional capabilities than they do. However, they see the publicly expressed political logic of our elected and sociopolitical elite and they know there is no appetite to confront their acts of terror. It is not a battle of capabilities but very much one of will. For deterrence to work, punishment must be signaled. They must understand this punishment is not going to be reversed with a different headline or with a different election. Until a non-partisan consensus congeals, Iran will take more and more and more risks.
The scariest thing is that many of the projectiles discussed in the long quote you mentioned, have been fired from Iranian territory. These are not all attacks from outside of Iranian territory. The regime is firing from their own territory and signaling they are so confident that we will not respond militarily that they do not need to rely on their proxies. This changes the game as regards how they think about the situation and is the kind of thinking that needs to be de-incentivized. Absorbing terrorism conducted via speedboats, drones and missiles, is going to lead Iran and their proxies to take even more risks in the future. Also, the regime knows how to walk and chew gum at the same time. In addition to discussing how to counter these acts of terror, we need to consider how quickly they are increasing their nuclear output. We need to have a policy and a strategy regarding their nuclear threat as well.
Lauri: I was going to ask you a little later about the IAEA report on their nuclear program but I want to continue discussing the topic of Iranian proxy terror for a couple more minutes. We hear a lot from the Biden administration about how they are working to de-escalate the situation with Iran and not inflame tensions. Iran, as we all know, has its tentacles in every terrorist activity in the region. The administration appears to be instructing Israel to limit civilian deaths in Gaza and hurry up and finish the war with Hamas. We understand the administration is also telling Israel not to preemptively strike Hezbollah in Lebanon and not to retaliate when the Houthis launch missiles and drones at them. Will the US eventually take actual preemptive action to stop these Iranian aggressions which are targeting Israeli soldiers, civilians or US forces, in the Red Sea, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere? Do you believe that the US policy of appeasement may evolve into an approach more aligned with the peace through strength doctrine? I do not know if the administration’s current policy is dictated by the hope for a new Iran nuclear deal or just a fear of war. I know reports from about ten days ago indicated Iran’s navy added sophisticated cruise missiles to its armory. This leads me to believe that the longer the US ignores Iran, the more powerful and dangerous Iran becomes. There was a former Middle East director at the National Security Council who stated everyone, including Iran, is trying to avoid escalating and falling off the ladder. Given what we know, it is hard to believe that anyone in the administration believes Iran is trying to avoid escalation when we see all they are doing is creating escalations. Can you share your thoughts on whether you think that there is ever going to be an evolution in thinking around this topic within this administration?
Behnam: Given how close we are to the 2024 US elections, I think de-escalation is going to continue. Unfortunately, in my view, this will be seen as restraining American partners and giving a freer hand to American adversaries. There are a couple of reasons why I think de-escalation will continue.
One is that the American people may accept a response with a cost is necessary at time one and time two, but may not accept the cost after times three, four and five. Peace through strength will not magically arrive overnight, even after an election. Peace through strength means we have the resolve to solve the problem over time. It means our actions demonstrate we are committed to either enforcing sanctions, responding to terrorism or responding to missile strikes and our adversary is made to understand our resolve.
At this time, the administration has elected restraint for multiple reasons including cost, popularity and the upcoming elections. You hit on the big one as well, they are also still trying to find a way to tempt Iran back into the nuclear deal for whatever misguided strategic reasons. They may still think the deal could be good for political reasons or the idea of a nuclear agreement with Iran may be still deeply rooted in democratic foreign policy dogma and part of Obama’s legacy. Whatever the reason for this objective, pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran is still going to be a force that leads to more restraint rather than response and escalation.
From the Iranian perspective, they view America as being on the way out, regardless of partisan changes in government. About a month after the US left Afghanistan, the head of the IRGC said, the US is not the same US of 10 or 20 years ago, and Iran is also not the same Iran of 10 or 20 years ago. The Iranian navy lost rapidly against President Reagan in the Persian Gulf, at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war. Thereafter, the world assumed America would ensure Assad would be deposed. However, Assad is still in power. America wanted to succeed in Afghanistan, but the way we left Afghanistan made it look like we lost that war. America supposedly stands with Saudi Arabia, but the Iranians believe they can sway the Saudis toward their side. America is trying to get the Arabs and the Israelis together, but they look like they dislike each other more than ever before. The Iranians are capitalizing on so many of the Americans’ own goals. In the minds of these ideological, but still rational, adversaries, they can rationally progress toward achieving their ideological objective.
What would cause the Iranians to stop what they are doing? The Iranians are exerting pressure but they have pressures of their own. It is important the debate as to how we deal with Iran not be seen as left or right or respond versus do not respond. The debate has to be about when we are going to respond, for how long and in what geographical areas.
That said, I do not believe this administration will change its policy toward Iran. We have addressed the various reasons for de-escalation including cost, popularity, the upcoming election, the JCPOA and the dogma of the Democratic Party. Putting all of these things aside, I would say that an administration that did not deal with a proxy problem when it was less robust, is very unlikely to deal with the patron itself now that the proxy problem is more robust. It took from October 2007 to October 2017, for Bush and then Trump, to defer and then ultimately put the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the Treasury Department Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list. They were not even placed on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. The Bush administration deferred their decision even as the IRGC was killing many American and coalition service persons in Iraq. I do not believe that mentality will change quickly and I think that means that we would have to look at ourselves and not at Iran to understand why we are so reluctant to change our posture toward Iran. Sorry to be so pessimistic.
Lauri: I am also pessimistic, but I always do learn so much from you. I think there was a lot packed into your answer and I appreciate it. Israel is now facing a six-front war with Iran, and its proxies including Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Judea and Samaria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Iranian backed terror groups in Iraq and Syria. As we discussed, in addition to the Red Sea attacks, the Houthis attacked Israel directly using Iranian provided missiles and drones. I did not realize that Israel had had the amount of success that you discussed at the very beginning of our conversation. However, in one of your articles, you shared that Iran has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.
I want to turn to this “ring of fire” around Israel. At the same time Israel is confronting attacks from all of these fronts, the US policy of appeasing Iran has led to restraints on what Israel can do in its own national security interests. One of those restraints came from the Biden administration early in the war when it told Israel not to strike Hezbollah preemptively. We know Hezbollah has a much more dangerous and extensive missile arsenal than Hamas. Iran uses Hezbollah and its arsenal threat to deter Israel from attacking its nuclear weapons programs. Hezbollah is using some of those weapons to kill Israelis, both civilians and soldiers in the north. Do you believe that a war between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable?
Jonathan Spire, authored a recent Wall Street Journal column entitled Hezbollah has already Opened the Northern Front. In this article he stated, “in the era that ended on October 7th, the consensus of the Israeli security establishment was that it didn’t matter what was on the other side of the border so long as Israel’s fences were strong, that consensus has gone. It now seems that Israel must choose between a preemptive action against Hezbollah and effectively ceding the northern border area to Iran’s proxies”. Do you agree with Jonathan? How do you see it playing out in the north?
Behnam: I do unfortunately agree that war with Hezbollah is inevitable. If you frame this inevitability as a third Lebanon war, I do believe that there will be a third Lebanon war. I think there will be a major military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, for sure. The question remains when and under what conditions. Make no mistake, the Syrian theater is quieter than Iraq and Syria vis a vis America. However, Syria vis a vis Israel, is not silent or quiet.
Hezbollah in Lebanon has volleys of precision-guided munitions, volleys of rockets, an inventory of 150,000 to 200,000 of mortars, rockets and missiles courtesy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Lebanon is not firing the most dangerous of its weapons toward Israel at this time, that does not mean it is not firing. If you pay close attention to the border, there is a new normal being established in the north of Israel and the south of Lebanon. First of all, the internal Israeli population displacement results in economic effects and mobilization has a cost as well. These have follow-on political, social and economic effects.
Aside from what is happening in the north of Israel, the Gaza war will need to end with Hamas defeated before Israelis can have a semblance of peace, security and normalcy in their lives. I agree with Jonathan when he says that Israel can no longer rely on high fences for its security. In my view, it is not just the Israeli political establishment who are done with that philosophy. Based on anecdotal evidence from the limited people I have spoken with, it appears Israelis are done with that view as well. If you lived on the front lines of Gaza and you trusted that high fences made good neighbors, then October 7th, changed everything.
Would the same principle not apply to a much stronger adversary than Hamas with more robust weapons and a more direct tie to the world’s former state sponsor of terrorism? I think, unfortunately, it would. That is one reason why I believe there will be a third Lebanese war. That may mean Israel would have to do something militarily as the Gaza war winds down or co-terminus with the Gaza war. Many people are discussing the potential for a solo Israeli military enforcement of UN resolution 1701. In that scenario Israel would push Hezbollah to the area North of the Litani River. Unfortunately, Hezbollah has longer range weapons, which invalidates part of the rationale for enforcing UN resolution 1701. It is still an important geographic rationale if you live close to the border in northern Israel. It does not remove the threat completely but it does enough to alleviate some of the concerns of the people living in the North.
Israel, to me, is beginning to sound like America. Until recently, every time I went to Israel, I would notice the thinking in Israel was more similar to that of continental European than to that of America with respect to national security problems. America usually sees problems as black and white with little gray area with respect to problem solving. The Israelis were very good previously about managing in the gray areas. This attitude was reflected in the way they talked about the Syrian campaign, the counter-Iran campaign and about countering Hamas. Their talk about the different cycles of violence, mowing the grass, war between the wars and the campaign between the wars, reflected their approach of managing problems. This is fundamentally and philosophically the European style of managing problems. The Europeans live in the gray. It is not that they do not have problems, it is that they try to manage the problems. After October 7th, Israelis really do appear to have adopted the American model. The question is, can the economy, society and military fully adopt that American model. The American model essentially means complete resolution of problems. It means regime change in Gaza and moving Hezbollah back to the Litani river in Lebanon. Those types of solutions take time, money, effort and resources. The Israeli economy today is much bigger and more dynamic than it was in the 1980s.
There is a Persian saying from a popular movie in the mid- 2000s that explains when you try to push people into heaven, you might end up getting them to pop out of hell. You might have people wanting to resolve every national security problem completely and when this does not occur, they will count anything less than 100% resolution as a failure. I am worried as to what the other side of Jonathan Spire’s quote looks like in practice.
I think the least bad option for Israel in the North is the military enforcement of 1701. As I discussed, even that does not solve the problem 100% given the range of some of Hezbollah’s systems. Iran may have been risk tolerant as regards allowing Israel to demolish Hamas. They may not be as tolerant when Israel turns its guns on Iran’s most successful proxy, Hezbollah. This may risk a more direct Israel Iran conflict than what we have seen already.
Lauri: What are your thoughts on Israel’s successful assassination of Hamas’s second in command, Saleh al-Arouri, who apparently was the liaison for Hamas with Hezbollah? He was targeted at Hamas’s office in Beirut, which I think surprised a lot of people. To me, that shows how capable Israel is in dealing with Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. Your FDB colleague Rich Goldberg pointed out on Twitter that the White House’s response was a rush to say, oh, it was not us, we had nothing to do with it, we advised Israel against the strike. What are your thoughts on what this says about the northern border?
Behnam: Israel did not only successfully assassinate Saleh al-Arouri but also Sayyid Razi, General Suleimani’s former right-hand man and coordinator between Iran and the local proxy. Even amid the crazy, tough national security picture the Israelis are facing right now, they achieved two immense national security successes. They did not dismantle the terror network overnight, but they removed key nodes and introduced a psychological element. These strikes were completed with deep intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and monitoring in places that these individuals thought would have been safe for them or were actually safe in the past. In a world where Israel is struggling between problem solving and problem managing, these assassinations were a net win and show that Israel prosecutes its wars when outgunned with quality and not quantity. Israel has successfully removed from the battlefield two major terrorist commanders who functioned as liaisons between the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and designated foreign terrorist organizations.
Lauri: You mentioned Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA recently announced that Iran has accelerated production of its near weapons grade uranium. This makes Iran the only non-declared nuclear power in the world, producing 60% enriched uranium. It takes only days to convert this enriched uranium to weapons grade. The Islamic Republic has tripled production, bringing them back to their prior enrichment levels, with some saying they have enough fuel for three weapons. At the same time, they have pocketed billions of dollars in sanctions relief. To me, this shows that the current administration’s policies are a failure. They certainly are not easing tensions. What do you believe should be the response of the international community, the US and Israel, which, by the way, warned that it would take military action against Iran if it starts to produce uranium enriched to 90%. Can you touch on the embargo on Iran’s production and sale of ballistic missiles that the US just allowed to expire and the implications of that on a broader war?
Behnam: If we take into account Iran’s entire stockpile, I think they actually have seven to nine bombs worth of uranium that they could produce if all of it were to be enriched to weapons grade. Even scarier, around February of this year, it was reported the regime went to 83, 84% purity. We talk about even 60% being a stone’s throw to 90%, but 83, 84% is the ultimate stone’s throw to 90%. 90% is technically perfect weapons grade uranium. At the end of World War II, the US dropped one uranium and one plutonium bomb on Japan. The uranium bomb was allegedly enriched to only 80% purity and we know the reaction it had. So, Iran has enriched uranium to 84% while the only previous nuclear use of uranium was with 80% enrichment. The 90% red line is, in my view, more of a politically salient red line than a technically salient red line.
This is something I have struggled to understand as regards the Europeans as well. At what point do you declare the nuclear deal dead? Iran violated the missile prohibitions. Iran violated the enrichment purity level, the enrichment stockpile amount and the advanced centrifuge restrictions. They violated these a long time ago, by the way. Now they have enough of a stockpile for about seven to nine bombs, depending on how you count, and they can make the first one within just over under two weeks, also depending on how you count. Why won’t the Europeans say that the game is over? Why won’t they fully detach themselves from a deal that only continues to function as a political shield for the adversary and an inhibitor of a tougher, more robust policy for us and our allies and our partners?
You might say philosophy, political dogma or the prospect of economic trade is driving the Europeans, the Israelis and potentially even some of the moderate Arab states in the region. Their stance on this might be a misguided approach towards non-proliferation. It is probably a cocktail of all these things, but it is self-defeating. It is exceptionally self-defeating when you consider that the Europeans have done some good work on drones and on missiles that could be foot stomped and highlighted.
Outside of Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have imposed very important missile sanctions on the IRGC. The EU and the UK do have more robust non-proliferation sanctions than ever before. I do not know if the Biden administration gets credit for this or if it’s the individual incentive of some of these countries. The EU and UK just saved over 200 missile military nuclear designations that they had promised to give up under the auspices of the JCPOA. This would have meant that in Europe, for example, the IRGC would not be subject to non-proliferation sanctions. Now they remain, thank God, subject to non-proliferation sanctions. The Europeans have not pulled the ripcord on the nuclear deal but they also have the sense that they need to stop scoring own goals.
IAEA Director General Raphael Grossi was flailing in November after a Board of Governors and IAEA report that reversed some of the assessments we saw in August and September about the allegedly slower rate of enrichment. However, the prior reports, combined with some attempt to show Iran as doing good in the world, resulted in Iran being able to access their frozen cash. This was pre-October 7th.
Post October 7th, the world is really distracted by what’s going on in the Middle East. Iranian drones are still helping the Russians in their war against Ukraine. The world is focused on the current theaters of war and seems to have taken its eye off of the proliferation problem. As we discussed, the Iranians can walk and chew gum at the same time and we need to do the same. I think step one in this direction means a major push for a resolution of censure at the next IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting. In my view, the problem here is not the Europeans, the problem is Washington. The Europeans are assessing the threat from a technical perspective and they live closer to the threat. However, they cannot be to the right of America on this problem. If America is to the left of Europe on this, we have a fundamentally bigger problem. This is not just about non-proliferation but about policy toward Iran overall.
We need a resolution of censure. We need a potential Security Council referral and we need snapback. The Europeans have kept those 200 plus missile military nuclear designations. As a next step, the Treasury Department and the State Department need to share all the targeting packages of every single missile, military and nuclear entity in Iran or supported by Iran in this kind of global illicit network that they have.
Now that the Europeans have taken their first step of departing from the deal, we need to lay the groundwork to ensure there is no daylight between us and our partners if we are to initiate a tougher Iran policy in 2024. We must make sure we are aligned in terms of sanctions and with respect to legal and economic options, I am not saying the military option is not on the table. However, in a world where the military option is looking less and less likely, we need to make sure all the other options are maximized, are shared with as many people as possible and that everyone in all the allied capitals see these issues the same way. There is a lot of boring legal and political work to be done behind the scenes here. The world is not going to suddenly jump to denuclearizing Iran when it is home to the biggest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East and while it is running a five- or six-front proxy war. Twenty years ago, Iran did not have such power and capabilities and they were afraid to take action against the regime’s nuclear program then. In lieu of immediate action, the least bad thing we can do is to get ourselves into a position for a much tougher approach starting in 2025.
Lauri: Great. Thanks, Behnam. There are some really good questions in the queue. I am going to start with the one that relates to this morning’s news about the explosion in Iran. I saw that 73 Iranians were killed in a procession to recognize the fourth anniversary of the death of Suleimani. There were also hundreds injured. Do you have any insights on that explosion, who might have been responsible for it?
Behnam: Thus far, it is still very much a guessing game. In the past, there have been attacks on the regime’s kind of “Hallmark” locations. There was an attack previously on an Iran Iraq war anniversary parade in the southwest. There was also an attack on the mausoleum of the founding father, if you will, of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. Depending on who the attacker was, the regime may choose to employ missiles like they did in response to both of the attacks by ISIS on Iran in 2017 and 2018. In 2018 and 2022, the regime responded to Kurdish, insurgent and opposition groups in northern Iraq with missiles. It interestingly has not done that with the Taliban and ISIS on Iran’s eastern front.
If I had to guess, the perpetrators in this case are likely a jihadist group or potentially a separatist or secessionist group targeting a major regime related function, which is what this four-year anniversary funeral ceremony for Soleimani was. I think we still have to wait to see who claims responsibility. I can guarantee that the regime will use this opportunity to continue to clean house and continue to narrow the political spectrum irrespective of who claims responsibility for the attack. They will use it as an opportunity to go after more political prisoners and more dissidents and to repress ethnic minorities who probably had nothing to do with it. We have seen this playbook before. Unfortunately, they never let a crisis go to waste, even when there is an abhorrent loss of life.
Lauri: Yeah. It is horrible. A number of people have asked your thoughts on the withdrawal of the aircraft carrier, the Navy’s USS Gerald R. Ford Strike Group. Does that play into the hands of Iran? What do you think that the military and or political calculations were in doing this?
Behnam: In the political war, it certainly does play into Iran’s hands. I know there is still an amphibious assault vessel there and we still have some robust naval assets there. I am concerned that even when there were two carriers in the Persian Gulf, Iran still acted out. Last January the IRGC aerospace force commander noted that previously when America would deploy an aircraft carrier towards a target, the target’s government would fall even before the aircraft carrier got there. He contrasted this to how differently Iran feels about this today. We are in a world where traditional symbols of deterrence have lost their impact because the adversary sees them much more as political symbols. This is because they are not deployed and you see carriers moved around for political reasons all the time. Also, some believe that the addition of the second carrier was more of a bear hug to the Israelis. The US was saying, here is a gift, but also do not act because here is a gift. I think this withdrawal is consistent with what we anticipate from the administration in 2024. We are moving into election season and we are looking for this war to wind down. That is the political messaging that I see and that, unfortunately, opens the political door for the Iranians to push more.
Lauri: Someone asked about the Biden administration threatening to cut off armed supplies to Israel if Netanyahu and the government does not accede to creating what this person called it a Fatah terrorist state in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. Do you have any thoughts on the day after in Gaza?
Behnam: Well, it is unclear what political end state the administration can conjure up on its own and what it will then succeed on imposing on the Israelis. At this time, we have an active war being fought and humanitarian issues and the refugee problems emanating from Gaza as well. I know the Europeans are quite big on transposing Fatah leadership into Gaza, I do not know exactly where the Biden administration will stand on this. Again, I am not a scholar of Israeli domestic politics and certainly not of factionalism either. I will say that I think daylight between America and Israel is part of why the regime initiated these attacks to begin with. They understand that there is no good option for Gaza. The whole point was to make all of the bad options as apparent as possible and then to have the world say, look what they are doing. I think, unfortunately, Iran and its terror proxies are good at using military tools for political ends while Israel and the US are not. The Israelis and the Americans are good at using military tools but I do not see political success coming from the end of the guns of the Israelis or the Americans in the region. I see the guns being immensely effective but I do not see them creating the political space for the solutions in a world where the Israelis have not come up with a perfect one. I find it highly doubtful that the Americans can transpose a better solution in that weird gray space and that is where the Iranian political victory is.
Lauri: A couple of people have asked if you have any update on the FBI investigation of Malley and are there ongoing JCPOA-type negotiations still going on? If so, who’s running them? In addition to Malley, are there any updates on the Tabatabai Department of Defense connections?
Behnam: Unfortunately, I do not have any updates on that. I will tell you, the overall posture of the administration without Malley may be diminished but it has not changed. Malley was perhaps the poster child for the administration’s overzealous engagement, or the sanctioned skeptical diplomacy at any cost, worldview towards Iran. The philosophy of restraint is still operating like an 800-pound gorilla in the room on every discussion that pertains to Iran.
Iran is moving into a quote unquote, parliamentary election period soon. What we are seeing is less and less public participation in any kind of sham election the regime has been organizing. This has been a trend we have seen for a while now. Hopefully less and less engagement means more and more protests in Iran. This provides the US more and more opportunity to stand with the Iranian people. A gentleman named Paley replaced Robert Malley. Late last month, Paley released a video on a major Persian holiday. This video provided the most vocal support I have heard from a Biden administration official to the Iranian people. I have never heard that from anyone in the administration before or since. I would hope, as we move into political seasons with the possibility of political fallout, those words are turned into action. Paley’s video was very interesting to hear. I think they would be surprised that I would be praising them but I call balls and strikes here and there.
Lauri: Yeah, there you go, Behnam, thank you. We always learn so much from you, you are a wealth of knowledge. I just wanted to share with everybody that next week our webinar is going to be on campus antisemitism with Ken Marcus from the Brandeis center. Ken used to work in the Department of Education fighting antisemitism. We will also be talking with Asaf Romirowsky of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. I hope you all can join us and thank you all for joining this afternoon. Behnam, I look forward to the next time.
Behnam: Thank you so much.
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