Opinion: What does Iran really want?

What does Iran really want

On the surface, Iran’s Saturday missile and drone attack on Israel was a response to the Israelis’ airstrike on an Iranian consulate building in Damascus two weeks ago that killed at least seven officials, including commanders of the nation’s Revolutionary Guards.

Yet it also was an outgrowth of the enmity between Iran and Israel, including its ally the United States, that has been building for decades, a result of both the Iranian regime’s nature and of policy reversals and blunders by the US ever since the Western- and Israel-allied Shah of Iran was overthrown by Islamists in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

“A modern, strong, peaceful Iran could become a pillar of stability and progress in the region,” former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in 2006. “This cannot happen unless Iran’s leaders decide whether they are representing a cause or a nation – whether their basic motivation is crusading or international cooperation.”

Like other regimes driven by a revolutionary ideology, Iran’s ayatollahs chose to be a cause, exporting their influence and ideas to other countries and to an array of militant groups.

The goals of the ayatollahs are threefold: to evict the United States from the Middle East, to replace Israel with Palestine and to bring down the US-led world order, according to Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour, whom I recently interviewed for the Audible podcast “In the Room with Peter Bergen.” These are not modest goals, but Sadjadpour said you can’t underestimate the revolutionary fervor of Iran’s leaders.

The Iranian campaign to evict the United States from the Middle East began in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when Iran backed a ragtag bunch of militants living in the Shia-dominated areas of southern Beirut who had founded Hezbollah, “the party of God.”

Using the then-novel technique of suicide bombings, they bombed the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including eight CIA officers, the deadliest day in CIA history. Hezbollah also bombed the Marine barracks building in Beirut, killing 241 American service members.

Those attacks by Hezbollah achieved their aim. The Reagan administration pulled all US forces out of Lebanon. A wealthy young Saudi fundamentalist named Osama bin Laden was watching closely: He concluded that if you applied enough military pressure on the Americans, they would pull out of the Middle East.

After bin Laden’s al Qaeda attacked the US on September 11, 2001, the Americans effectively handed the Iranians a big gift, which was the 2003 overthrow of their mortal enemy, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, against whom Iran had fought a ruinous, almost-decade-long war during the 1980s.

Following the fall of Saddam, Iraq was wracked by a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands. Iran introduced into the Iraqi war zone highly effective roadside bombs known as EFPs – Explosively Formed Penetrators – that wounded and killed hundreds of American soldiers. In 2011, the US withdrew from Iraq.

The official US Army history of the Iraq War concluded that Iran was the only winner of that war. This wasn’t the conclusion of vocal war critic Noam Chomsky but of a group of sober US Army historians.

Norman Roule was the top US intelligence official on Iran from 2008 to 2017. Roule observed to me for the “In the Room” podcast that “Iran uses a cookie-cutter approach across the region, but the dough in each country is different, and the cooking time is different.”

In Syria, a civil war began in 2011, and Iran saw another opportunity for this cookie-cutter approach by propping up the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad with billions of dollars of aid as well as Iranian advisers and Hezbollah forces on the ground fighting for the Assad regime.

That explains the continued presence in Damascus today of senior Iranian military leaders and advisers like the ones who were killed by the Israeli airstrike on April 1 that precipitated Iran’s missile and drone barrage against Israel on Saturday.

In Yemen, the Houthis started fighting the central government, and – particularly after Iran’s rival for regional dominance, the Saudis, intervened in the Yemeni war in 2015 – Iran trained the Houthis and supplied them with missiles and drones. These are the same weapons that the Houthis have been using against ships in the Red Sea, effectively closing the shipping route to and from the Suez Canal and cutting off a critical route for global trade.

And then there is Hamas. While Iran had no foreknowledge of Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, according to Christine Abizaid, the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, Iran has supplied Hamas with hundreds of millions of dollars for weapons and training, according to the US Treasury Department.

Iran’s proxies in the Middle East, to one degree or another, now exert significant influence on Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. These proxies are grandiloquently known as “the axis of resistance” to Israel and the United States, and they exert their influence on a region that extends 1,500 miles from the north in Lebanon to Yemen’s Red Sea coast in the south. And now the Iranians are closer than ever to having nuclear weapons.

The most significant foreign policy blunder of the Trump administration was pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal inked by the Obama administration, which was preventing the Iranians from enriching uranium above around 4%; you need around 90% enrichment of uranium for a nuclear device. Before former President Donald Trump reneged on the deal, Iran was observing the terms of the nuclear agreement, according to Trump’s own intelligence chiefs. Today, the Iranians reportedly have enough highly enriched uranium for three weapons and are considered closer than ever to having a workable nuclear weapon.

‘Deemed concluded’?

Saturday’s drone and missile attacks against Israel were designed to show Israel and the region that the Iranian regime can’t be trifled with, and the Israeli attack on its military leaders in Damascus would be avenged. However, it might not trigger a major war since 99% of the 300 drones and missiles launched by Iran were intercepted, according to the Israeli military. It’s likely that Iran’s theocratic regime, which has faced major internal protests and is approaching a generational transition, wanted to respond to calls for retribution for the Damascus attack without triggering a major war with two superior militaries – that of the US and Israel.

The Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York released a statement as Iran’s attacks were in progress, saying they had now responded to the strike against “our diplomatic premises in Damascus” and “the matter can be deemed concluded.”

That, of course, doesn’t mean that Israel will deem the matter concluded. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hasn’t achieved his strategic objectives in Gaza of wiping out Hamas militarily and returning the 100 or so hostages held by Hamas, and is also not well-liked by most Israelis, can surely benefit from a rally-around-the-flag effect by casting himself as an assertive wartime leader. Of course, the Israeli public may also demand action to restore deterrence against Iran, having just lived through a barrage of Iranian missile and drone strikes.

So, despite President Joe Biden calling Netanyahu on Saturday night to tell him that Iran’s attack hadn’t succeeded and saying the US wouldn’t support any counterattack, it would hardly be in character for Netanyahu not to respond in some fashion against Iran.

And here is where things might get even worse as the burgeoning regional conflict that the Biden administration has long tried to avoid is now in higher gear, and it’s unclear where everyone’s red lines are and what might trigger a major war with Iran.

As Abizaid noted in an interview for my podcast before Saturday’s attack by Iran, the issue is that “everyone has sort of a loose understanding of what these red lines might be, and events could change your perception of whether one of those has been crossed at any given time.”

The Iraq factor

On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani will meet with Biden at the White House. The meeting comes at a time when there is considerable pressure in Iraq to withdraw the 2,500 US troops who remain there on an anti-ISIS mission.

The withdrawal of the US troops from neighboring Iraq is a key goal of Iran, which exerts considerable influence over some Iraqi politicians.

This poses a dilemma for both the Iraqi government and the Biden administration since the US troops based in Iraq have been frequent targets of Iranian-backed militias since the Gaza war started. While these attacks stopped following the killing of three US soldiers by an Iranian-backed militia in Jordan in January, if conflict were to start heating up with Iran, those attacks against US bases in Iraq could resume.

Balanced against that is that the last time the US pulled all its forces out of Iraq was in 2011, and within three years, ISIS had taken over much of the country, a history that the vast majority of Iraqis do not want to repeat.

It will be interesting to see whether, given the increasingly bellicose stance of the Iranians, the Biden administration puts considerable pressure on the Iraqi prime minister to keep those US soldiers on the ground in Iraq.