How To Contain Iran’s Dangerous Warmongers – Analysis

Even among hardcore ideologues of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), caution — sometimes referred to as “strategic patience” — had been the watchword when confronting Israel. That ended on April 13, 2024, when Iran launched a missile and drone onslaught against Israel directly from its territory. It was a first in Iran’s long-running feud with the Jewish state.

New rules in the Iran–Israel war

The unprecedented Iranian attack marks a significant escalation from the two countries’ ongoing shadow war. Previously, the Iranians directed their attacks on Israel through their proxies, such as the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or other militia groups in Syria and Iraq. For its part, Israel limited its operations against Iran to attacks on those proxy groups, cyberattacks against various Iranian computer networks, including the famous one in the Natanz nuclear weapons development complex, and assassinations of key Iranian nuclear scientists and IRGC commanders.

It was just such an elimination operation in Damascus against the IRGC’s senior commander for the Levant on April 1, 2024, that led to Iran’s decision to launch its 320-plus missile and drone barrage against Israel. Israel responded with its own missile strike on an Iranian air base in Esfahan. While that attack avoided nearby Iranian nuclear facilities, it sent a clear message to Tehran that Israel can strike Iran anywhere it desires with destructive effect. Meanwhile, Israel shot down nearly all of the Iranian missiles and drones launched its way with minimal damage and no loss of life, thanks to considerable help from the Americans, Jordanians and others.

For now, the two sides have decided to stand down. However, few believe that this most recent exchange is the end of it all. Iran will continue to employ its IRGC-supplied and directed proxies to attack Israel, including, since October 7, the Houthis in Yemen. And Israel will take measures to protect itself, not only targeting these various proxies themselves but also the IRGC commanders who advise them. The gloves are off for both; their respective territories are now fair game under the new rules of the game after April 13.

IRGC power is now increasingly assertive in Tehran

Why did Iran, whose IRGC officers have been targets in the past of Israeli and American attacks, decide to respond with a direct attack on Israel? Previously, Iran had been careful about directly targeting Israel or US facilities in the region. The one clear exception was Iran’s January 2020 missile attack against a US base in Iraq that injured more than 100 US soldiers. The attack was in response to the US assassination of IRGC commanding general Qassim Soleimani only days before during a visit to Iraq. Then-President Donald Trump had ordered the assassination. Like the April 2024 attack against Israel, the 2020 attack against a US facility was the first direct Iranian attack against its adversary launched from inside Iran. The Americans did not respond to the missile attack against their base, and the tit-for-tat stopped.

It is more than a coincidence that these direct attacks occurred in response to the killings of very senior IRGC officers. One was the senior-most commander, while the other was the second senior-most IRGC officer in the Levant. Soleimani, in particular, was an immensely powerful and popular figure in Iran with almost superman status. So, it wouldn’t be presumptuous to infer that the IRGC demanded that the political leadership in Tehran, namely Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, approve direct reprisal attacks to redeem the IRGC’s honor and establish a red line on eliminating its senior leaders.

Younger IRGC officers, who are much less risk-averse than their senior leaders, must have been furiously overwrought that their senior leaders could be removed in this way without compensating losses among senior leaders of Israel and the US. To maintain the loyalty and commitment of the IRGC — Iran’s most ideologically committed, dedicated and likely best-trained military force — the political leadership had no alternative but to bow to their demands. Why else would the Islamic Republic of Iran risk a war with a vastly militarily superior Israel backed by the most powerful superpower on Earth, the United States?

The day after the Iranian attack on Israel, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran was summoned to the IRGC headquarters. (As there is no US embassy in Tehran, the Swiss officially represent US interests in Iran.) The ostensible reason was to deliver a message for the ambassador to pass to the US: Do not involve yourselves in an Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran. The surprise is not the content of the message, which is entirely predictable, but that it came from the IRGC as opposed to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which is typically tasked with communicating with foreign missions in the Iranian capital. The real message is that the Iranian Foreign Ministry has been sidelined for all but the most routine diplomatic functions. The IRGC is in charge.

The IRGC are not the only nationalist hawks in Iran

But there was a second group of voices insisting on a reprisal attack against Israel. In a nation where “hardliner” is hardly a specific enough descriptive of political leaning, there is one group that occupies the most extreme right wing: the Paydari Front, or Front for the Stability of the Islamic Revolution. These are uber-extremist Shia who eschew any and all forms of compromise with external or internal groups. It was the Paydari Front that argued for stronger enforcement of hijab laws in Iran in spite of mass uprisings opposing the hijab rule. This extremist organization maintains an almost apocalyptic view of conflict, believing that it will hasten the coming of Imam al-Mahdi, aka Imam al-Zaman, the mystical twelfth imam of Shia Islam. This is the Shia Muslim version of the end of days.

While the Paydari Front occupies only 24 of the Iranian parliament’s 290 seats, their uncompromising views hold considerable sway in a country almost under siege from the West. The organization’s summer camps and youth education programs have trained many of the IRGC’s up-and-coming officers, who share the Paydari Front’s monochromatic view of the world, its intense religious beliefs and its fanatically fearless approach to challenging Israel and America.

So, to the IRGC voices clamoring for a direct attack against Iran’s “two Satans,” we must also add the Paydari Front. In the irrefutable logic of religious zealots, to do anything less would be treasonous and even godless. These are arguments not easily or honestly debated among Iran’s already closeted leadership, who are trapped in an echo chamber of ever-more rash, radical and dangerous ideas.

Iran’s growing extremism implies a fraught future

What does this mean for Israel, the West and moderate Middle Eastern governments? The Islamic Republic is reportedly only weeks — or months, depending on which ominous report you consult — from producing the necessary highly enriched (90%) uranium for one or even more bombs. So, the US and its allies cannot disregard the real threat that Iranian extremist hardliners will insist on a mad rush to produce a nuclear bomb and weaponize its delivery by land or by sea. Any such possibility, of course, will likely precipitate a direct Israeli attack against major nuclear sites at Natanz and even Fordow, perhaps with the help of the US. Both US and Israeli leaders have said repeatedly that they will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

As Iran’s isolated leadership and its IRGC praetorian guard take increasingly hardline stances, the country’s population seeks a more secular, less militarized state and greater ties with the West. The former oppresses the latter, making revolution effectively impossible. So, change from within seems unlikely for the foreseeable future, barring a major uprising on par with the 1979 revolution. The IRGC knows full well how that was done and, therefore, how to shut down any whiff of revolution.

The West and moderate Arab regimes have largely written off regime change in Iran for now. Therefore, they must seek a regional alliance to make it plain to Tehran that any aggression will be met with united and overwhelming force. To be more effective, that alliance must include Israel, whose inclusion can only be possible if its leaders recognize the necessity of working toward a two-state solution with Palestinians. Unfortunately, Israel’s own uncompromising current political trajectory under Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is undermining the nation’s security against its true existential threat, Iran.

Only a united regional alliance capable of inflicting enormous destruction on Iran could persuade the moderate and conservative hardliners that it’s time to shut down the saber-rattling mob on the far right. These hardliners might do a cost-benefit analysis of their reckless aggression and decide to reopen negotiations on both its nuclear program as well as Iran’s troublemaking activities throughout the Middle East. Such negotiations seem to be the best shot for peace.

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