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The Iran Trap

Why Israel and the West are running out of time.

By John Jenkins

The world is full of signs for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. In ­September 2018 Iran struck the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an Iranian opposition group, in Koya, a small town in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The air strikes were unusually precise, involving a mix of drones and cruise missiles. The Iranians had hit targets in the Kurdistan Regional Government before – and would continue to do so – but this strike was odd. The KDP, unlike some other Iranian opposition groups, was small, ineffective and non-violent. Why bother?

The missiles had been tracked. The distance from the launch point to their target was more or less the same as that from Al Bukamal on the Iraq-Syria border to Tel Aviv. It was a significant range. The precision of the targeting was the result of increasingly sophisticated guidance systems. The Iranians had long been supplying Lebanon’s Hezbollah with the same technology. The Israelis, with good reason, were worried. According to Iraqi and Western intelligence sources, Iran had begun to supply the same kit to friendly Shia militias in Iraq, who controlled its border with Syria.

That was the point. Iran was extending its franchise of force beyond the homeland and southern Lebanon into Iraq, complicating the military calculations of any enemy, specifically Israel. The Koya hit was also a ­deliberate demonstration of the new precision with which its missiles could strike. Unlike a nuclear weapon, the missiles gave Iran and its allies the means of both responding rapidly to an external threat and carrying out targeted offensive operations at a time of their choosing.

Missiles were combined again with drones in the unprovoked 2019 attack on Saudi-owned oil facilities and the attacks on airports in the United Arab Emirates in 2022. These attacks were attributed to the Iranian-backed Houthis, a predominantly Shia militant group in Yemen. In fact, the attacks almost certainly originated in southern Iraq, the heartland of the Iranian-backed Shia militias. Yet keeping your enemies guessing about the provenance of attacks is an asset in the murky arena of sub-state actors, grey-zone warfare and mafia-like extortion rackets that increasingly constitute inter-state conflict in the modern world. Violence is spectacle. Behind the spectacle lies a message, but to understand the message you need to know the code.

When it comes to deciphering Iranian intentions, that is a problem. Western policymakers have interpreted Iranian intentions over the past four decades not as a combustible mix of tactical pragmatism and eschatological fervour but through a hermeneutics of secular rationality. The Islamic Republic of Iran, the West believes, may have started off as an expansionist revolutionary state with the language of religion masking essentially ethno-nationalist ambitions. But that phase ended sometime in the mid-1980s, as the Iran-Iraq War revealed the limits to Iranian power. There followed a period of pragmatism, allowing the then president of Iran, Ali Khamenei, to emerge as Supreme Leader.

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Khamenei’s aim was no longer actively to export the revolution to Iran’s neighbours and then around the world as the constitution required. It was to recoup Iranian losses domestically and ward off looming external threats. He did so through the construction of a powerful praetorian state designed to prevent a repeat of the uprising of 1979, but also prepared to act as a normal state within a regional state system if the right incentives were offered. After all, wasn’t that the logic behind the 2015 nuclear deal with the UN Security Council and the EU, in which Iran agreed largely to suspend its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief?

[See also: The Age of Fury]

Khamenei and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) periodically called for the elimination of US influence in the region, including the destruction of Washington’s principal regional agent, Israel. But they knew neither was achievable. As President Barack Obama once remarked, it was possible to imagine Iran agreeing to share the region with others. Since the Hamas attack of 7 October that view now looks naive.

To understand why it ever seemed plausible we should consider the ideological underpinnings of the Islamic Republic. That requires an understanding of Islamism and of the ties that bind together varieties of Islamism – Shia, Sunni, Salafi, quietist, activist, revolutionary, Hamas, Hezbollah – as well as the ways in which they differ and compete.

The most basic point to make about Islamism is that it is not traditional. It is intensely modern. Its impulses – against colonialism, imperialism, the desacralisation of the world, instrumental reason and vulgar consumerism – reflect at least in part the influence of the Western counter-Enlightenment tradition that stretches from Herder and Fichte through Nietzsche to Marcuse, Deleuze and Foucault (who claimed in 1978 to detect in the Iranian Revolution the emergence of a “political spirituality”). Its organisation – secretive, cell-based, authoritarian, vanguardist – is Leninist.

Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was selectively familiar with 19th and early 20th century European social thought. The Tunisian politician Rashid al-Ghannouchi, a significant contemporary Muslim Brotherhood thinker, studied modern European philosophy. A particular reading of Heidegger – and of Sartre – was a significant influence in the development of the Islamo-leftism of the Iranian intellectuals Jalal Al-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati, both of whom helped to shape the 1979 Iranian revolution.

At the same time, Islamism claims an authenticity and moral authority – derived from divine revelation – that it contrasts with the secular decadence of the West. This is a heady ideological mixture, and it retains a visceral appeal to many. Sophisticated Westerners may think it bogus. But there is no sign that Khamenei or Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah or Hamas’s leadership have any doubt. Just watch the clip of the Hamas official Ghazi Hamad telling the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation on 1 November that they will repeat the 7 October attack “again and again until Israel is annihilated”.

This is not an isolated example. You can find the same absolute moral conviction and millenarian certainty of victory in any of Khamenei’s and Nasrallah’s televised addresses over the past two decades. The latter’s most recent – and eagerly awaited – address on 3 November was cautious about involving Hezbollah more directly in the Gaza conflict but he remained absolutely confident of final, divinely directed victory.

It is true that there are significant differences between the different strands of Islamism. Shia Islamism has a mystical side foreign to most varieties of Sunni Islamism. Al-Qaeda targeted – at least initially – the far enemy (meaning the US and its Western allies) rather than those nearer to home (particularly Saudi Arabia). Different groups will accuse others of being sell-outs. Islamic State – which had its own fierce internal doctrinal debates – accused Hamas of being apostates: they regard extreme performative violence as an end in itself. Yet they all share an underlying ideology and common reference points, particularly the writings of the Egyptian Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb (translated into Farsi by Ayatollah Khamenei), who held that all contemporary Muslim states were in fact Jāhiliyy – that is, they represented a heretical political order that Islam rejected as illegitimate and godless.

For Qutb, the answer was vanguardist revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had claimed the right to force men to be free. Qutb wished to force them to be righteous. They all believe that the global triumph of Islam is divinely ordained and will lead to the destruction of Islam’s enemies and the rul­e of the godly. The only real difference is how and how soon.

[See also: Where are the leaders who can tell us who we are?]

At the heart of Islamist ideology is a particularly hostile view of the Jews. This was doubtless shaped by the ethno-nationalist competition between Jews and Arabs over Palestine from the late 19th century onwards, and the way in which Islamism adopted wholesale many of the core beliefs of European anti-Semitism. From the early 1930s onwards, this mix of secular competition and ideological hostility led to an intense concern with the issue of Jerusalem, its safeguarding as one of the three most important Islamic holy sites and ultimately its reclamation. This is reflected in Hamas’s 1988 Charter, its 2017 Document of General Principles and Policies and the regular statements of its leaders.

That is why Hamas also named the most recent attack on Israel Toufan al-Aqsa – Operation al-Aqsa Flood – reflecting the prophetic links of the mosque and its resonance in wider Islamic discourse. Ghazi Hamad in his Lebanese TV interview rejected any Jewish claims to the land, in line with Hamas’s consistent view that the whole of Palestine is sacred to Islam. This position is also apparent in the repeated statements by contemporary Iranian leaders that destroying Israel and freeing Jerusalem – and most particularly al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem  – is a religious duty.

This is at the heart of Iran’s involvement in the savage war in Gaza and Israel. Iran’s support for Hamas is not opportunist. There have been difficulties in the relationship, particularly over Syria, where Hamas did not support Bashar al-Assad’s assault on fellow Sunni Islamists. They do share, however, an overriding common goal: the destruction of Israel.

Whether Iran helped to plan the 7 October assault is irrelevant. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah – all of whom operate out of Beirut’s southern suburbs – have coordinated their positions in various ways for years in pursuit of what they see as the greater good. Iranian funding to Hamas – as to Hezbollah – has been a major element in the survival and resilience of both organisations.

The only question now will be over tactics. Iranian, Hamas and Hezbollah leaders have all said many times that the state of Israel’s days are numbered. Israel’s enemies often compare it to the crusader states that lasted at most 200 years before being expelled from the region as alien bodies. When exactly this will happen is not clear, but they are certain it will happen. Every conflict is a way station on the path, weakening Israel’s resolve, draining its resources and demoralising its supporters.

Hamas does not necessarily think that Israel will collapse because of this current conflict. But the group does believe Israel will be unable to achieve its goal of destroying Hamas, and it will not stop its attacks until final victory. Iran – like Hamas – can wait. For the moment it is enough that Israel is engaged in some way or another on several fronts: in its assault on Gaza, in the spiking violence on the West Bank, and fielding missile attacks from Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

For Hamas, it is enough that Israel can be accused of war crimes and will be forced to take some responsibility for territory cleared of Hamas fighters. It is enough that normalisation with Saudi Arabia has been set back significantly. If that means that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions to make Saudi Arabia a regional economic superpower have been dealt a blow, that’s good news.

Iran’s development of a ballistic missile programme began in the late 1980s. It was a rational response to the obvious military weakness of a regime that could not rebuild its conventional armed forces because of Western-led sanctions regimes. Missiles were an integral part of a nuclear-weapons programme, but they also offered a self-contained means of projecting force. They were easier to build than tanks, warships or other weapons platforms. Why bother when you could obtain the basic technology by either legal or illegal means, develop it domestically and then launch the product from within your own territory or – as it turned out – the territory of neighbours whom you had either colonised or otherwise attached to your strategic purposes?

Iran, bolstered by Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias and the Houthis in Yemen, is now a formidable enemy. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimate that Hezbollah alone has up to 150,000 missiles of various ranges that can hit any part of Israel. Combine all this with drone swarms and you have a powerful, adaptable and effective arsenal, deployed to the north, east and south of Israel, with ­innumerable possible launch sites.

Some of this arsenal is already in use. Yet it is not a full-on assault. To embark on that would carry unnecessary risks for both Iran and Hezbollah, particularly with two US carrier groups – sent by President Joe Biden following Hamas’s attack – in the vicinity. But Iran calculates it has time on its side. Showing you can hit Eilat from Yemen or Herzliya from Lebanon is warning enough at this stage. Combined with regular targeting by local militias of US forces in Syria and Iraq, it is enough to distract both Israel and the US.

If it looks as though Hamas will suffer considerable damage in Gaza, the level of aggression can be cranked up. In any case, there will always be another chance. Hamas is not going away. Nor are Hezbollah or the Houthis. Nor most certainly is Iran.

All that, of course, poses a challenge for Israel and the US. The longer the Gaza conflict goes on, the more chance of others being drawn in and the lower the chances of Israel being inclined to make concessions. It also makes a durable settlement of the Palestinian issue (which gives Iranian support to Hamas its particular resonance in the wider Islamic world) more urgent. But given Israeli reluctance to look weak, it also makes such a settlement less likely.

That is the trap Iran has set. It is an agonising dilemma for Western policymakers. It is also a threat to the stability of Arab states that have no sympathy for Iran or Hamas but have publics outraged by the destruction in Gaza.

This illustrates the difficulty of trying to address an essentially political problem when your enemies do not believe in negotiated political solutions. And that means that while commentators are speculating on whether Iran or Hezbollah will miscalculate militarily, the more pressing question is how much the US, Israel and Europe are prepared to risk politically to support those in Israel – and there are many, particularly in the national security establishment – who see the only long-term chance of stability as a settlement involving the wider Arab world that provides for genuine Palestinian political self-determination. Because whatever else this crisis has revealed, it has shown that neither the West nor Israel have time on their side.

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London.

[See also: Jon Lansman: what the left gets wrong about Israel]

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury