Iran Is Winning the War

Right now things look good for Israel. But the Islamic Republic is playing the long game. And its advantages, alas, are many.

Is there an ending to the Gaza war and all its complementary confrontations in which Iran and its proxies lose and Israel and the United States win?

On the surface, things look good for Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces appear to be demolishing Hamas—the most important Sunni member of Iran’s mostly Shiite axis of resistance. Crushing Hamas in Gaza would be a significant accomplishment even if, as one retired Israeli general put it, the group survives and the victory gives the Jewish state only “three to eight years” of peace.

But “mowing the lawn”—Israel’s periodic pummeling of its enemies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank—doesn’t eliminate the Jewish state’s foes. (Indeed, the IDF’s reliance on that tactic may have contributed to the hubris that made Israel’s vast intelligence failure of October 7 possible.) Still, Israel’s aggressive counteroffensive in Gaza has introduced more concern in Tehran and Beirut about a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah and the possibility that Jerusalem just might finally strike Iran’s nuclear program.

Moreover, Israel’s determination to continue the war, despite the Biden administration’s increasingly aggressive pressure campaign to stop it, makes Israeli deterrence in the Middle East more credible even though the devastation in Gaza is a public-relations disaster. The recent unintentional death of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers highlights how war in the Strip, where Hamas makes it excruciatingly difficult to separate combatants from civilians and even the best targeting intelligence perishes rapidly, will always play against Israel. Urban warfare produces ghastly mistakes.

But these short-term tactical victories don’t fundamentally alter the Islamic Republic’s advantages. And those advantages, alas, are many.

Israel Getting Bogged Down in Gaza: Advantage Iran

Separating tactics from strategy is nearly impossible in the Middle East. For Israelis, who live in a violent neighborhood with shifting alliances and no regional allies, accumulating tactical victories is a strategy. In other words, the country hasn’t really developed a grand strategy toward its primary foe: Iran. Instead, it has hoped that accumulating tactical victories, combined with the still-enduring expectation that America will finally intervene militarily against the Islamic Republic, would save the day before the clerical regime went nuclear.

Under the leadership of Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic has pursued a grand strategy to achieve regional dominance. It revolves around the development of aggressive Islamist proxies, a wide array of ever-improving missiles, and nuclear weapons.

For Iran, the Gaza war is a bonanza of possibilities: if tens of thousands of IDF soldiers get tied down in the Strip, since no alternative to occupation may work, that’s a very good deal for Tehran. Armed resistance may continue for years, especially if the IDF fails to destroy Hamas’s weapons stockpiles and tunnels. The fact that Israel just had to purge al-Shifa Hospital of Hamas terrorists after it had cleared the hospital earlier in the war is not a good sign of Israel’s long-term plan.

There are further benefits to an ongoing war in the Strip from Iran’s perspective. One of them is that the lasting Palestinian trauma in Gaza could roil the West Bank and oblige a large IDF presence there. This could greatly complicate an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which is essential if Jerusalem intends to resecure its northern borderlands. Right now almost 100,000 Israelis from northern towns and communities have been forced to flee indefinitely thanks to Hezbollah rocket attacks.

The Death of Israeli-Sunni Normalization: Advantage Iran

Despite the still-fervent hopes of many in Jerusalem, Congress, and the White House, Israeli-Saudi normalization is probably dead. The Abraham Accords, which many Israelis and Americans thought beckoned Zion’s acceptance among Muslims, don’t look so epochal at the moment. In a single day—October 7—Sunni and Shiite Islamists unraveled an emerging Sunni-Israeli alliance. It turns out Hamas and Tehran had a far better grasp of “the Arab street” than did their enemies.

The Israeli approach to the Middle East has always been top-down—an understandable disposition. But even before the Arab Spring traumatized rulers throughout the region, Arab military juntas and monarchs were always wary of openly straying too far from popular opinion on sensitive subjects, and Israel has always been a live wire. But the Gaza war has forced a significant reset, a recalibration of risk versus gain. For the United Arab Emirates, a small concatenation of sheikdoms that happily trade with Zionists and Iranians, the profit from Israeli commerce is meaningful; for Saudi Arabia, a large country inextricably attached to its Islamic identity, the benefits of an Israeli relationship are less clear.

The Resilience of the Axis of Resistance: Advantage Iran

Iran’s “axis of resistance” has proven impressively resilient. The last devastating Israeli intrusion into Lebanon in 2006 may have reduced the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to a mea culpa, but it did minimal long-term damage to the organization, which in the interregnum has seized control of Lebanon, in part by reducing the country to an ungovernable mess. Ditto Israel’s assassination campaign against senior Iranian officials in the Levant. Taking out Iran’s Revolutionary Guard general, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and several of his associates in the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus is appropriate punishment; it’s likely only to dent the clerical regime’s strategy in the region.

Today, Hezbollah’s missile stockpiles are larger and more lethal than in 2006. Its tunnel system and conventional capacity against the Israeli army are more extensive. Its stockpile of short- and medium-range missiles (some estimate 150,000 projectiles) may already be too much for Israel to handle. If a full-scale war broke out, Hezbollah might be able to pincushion Tel Aviv before the Israeli Air Force could suppress the launch sites. Add on bigger, longer-range missiles in Syria—the transport of which will become easier if a reelected Donald Trump removes U.S. forces along a major Syrian-Iraqi thoroughfare—and Israel’s defenses could be overwhelmed.

In other words: a conventionally armed Iran and its proxies may already be deterring a nuclear-armed Israel. And Tehran’s promises of another “forever war,” if the United States were to be so audacious as to attack the Islamic Republic, certainly has had a deterring effect in war-weary Washington.

Weakness in Washington: Advantage Iran

Do Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signal fearsome intent when they fire missiles at Iranian proxies while telling Tehran the United States has no desire to escalate? When Secretary of State Tony Blinken says to Iran, “we would like to see them tell the Houthis to stop,” do you think Iran feels the heat?

The questions answer themselves.

Amazingly, some senior Biden administration officials give the impression that the supreme leader’s supposed fatwa banning nukes just might be real—despite the history of Ali Khamenei driving the country’s once-clandestine nuclear-weapons project. Nothing about the Islamic Republic’s “peaceful” nuclear research since 2002, when the weapons program was first publicly revealed, makes sense unless one assumes the supreme leader’s original objective remains.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the regime currently has enough 60 percent enriched uranium for three nuclear weapons, which could rapidly be spun up to 90 percent, the ideal bomb-grade. The stockpile of 20 percent uranium would allow for several more. As it stands now, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, which closely monitors the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran could produce bomb-grade uranium for one weapon in seven days; one month would give enough for six bombs; five months would allow for 12 weapons.

Washington went through a similar experience with North Korea. There, U.S. officials wanted to believe that there was a chance that Pyongyang could be bought off short of a nuclear test, and if it couldn’t, then nuclearization was better than risking war on the peninsula.

Barring some monumental miscalculation by Tehran, Biden surely will be no more bold against the Islamic Republic than George W. Bush was against North Korea. The president’s recent decision to release $10 billion held in escrow for Iraq’s electricity payments to Iran, combined with the not-so-secret indirect talks between U.S. and Iranian officials in Oman, strongly suggest that the White House is trying hard to appease Tehran. Washington wants the clerical regime to halt its proxy attacks on U.S. forces and its atomic advance short of a fissile test—at least before the November election.

So What Can Be Done?

Americans and Israelis have for decades shied away from militarily punishing the mullahs for their malevolence. This hesitancy—an unwillingness to escalate—has fed an Islamist appetite for violence. But diplomacy and its euphemisms, sanctions, and whack-a-mole retaliatory strikes have run their course. And what Jerusalem is doing right now—beating back Iran’s proxies—will become a lot dicier once Tehran goes nuclear. Jerusalem might be obliged to accept as permanent a low-level, bloody duel with Iranian proxies. An insoluble Palestinian problem will gnaw at Israel from the West Bank, Gaza, and possibly from within Israel itself. Khamenei’s vision for destroying the “Zionist colonial settler-state”—an approach that will surely survive his death—is to erode Israeli happiness and foreign investment, not a catastrophic nuclear confrontation. Iranian nuclear weapons, the ultimate check on Israel and the United States, are a means to that end.

We are way past time pretending that any other avenue than military action against Iran has a chance of checking an Islamist nuclear-threshold state that is close to dominating the Middle East. The Biden administration’s preferred path—encouraging regime change in Israel, pining for a two-state solution, and importuning the Saudi crown prince to recognize Israel (while granting more sanctions relief to Iran and quietly sending emissaries to Oman)—is guaranteed to make a bad situation worse. As everyone in the Middle East knows, and as the Israelis momentarily forgot before October 7, hard power is the only coin of the realm.

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