Iran Triumphant?

As the dust seems to be settling in the Middle East, who is coming out on top? Perhaps, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh write in the Wall Street Journal, it is Iran. First, some history:

Iran’s theocratic regime has to stand as the most successful imperial power in the Middle East since the British Empire. The comparison would offend the mullahs, but both managed to patrol large swaths of territory by relying on proxies—imperialism on the cheap. Soon after coming to power in 1979, Iran began putting together its collection of terrorists and militants. In Lebanon, it created Hezbollah, established a tight relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization (especially its lead military organization, Fatah) and later funded the more explicitly Islamic Palestinian rejectionist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The clerical elite learned early that they could inflict pain on their adversaries with a measure of impunity if they hid behind their proxies. Their record of achievement is extraordinary.

Follow the link for a rather lengthy account of those achievements. On to the present:

Through all of this mischief, Iran’s territory remained immune from retaliation as its embattled adversaries kept insisting that they could not expand the conflict.
Khamenei surely anticipated severe Israeli retaliation [following Gaza’s October 7 massacres], while also assuming that the old rules would prevail: Iran would stoke its “rings of fire,” inflaming Israel’s frontiers through its proxies, and the ever-anxious West, led by the escalation-dreading Biden administration, would step in and impose a settlement on Israel. A badly battered Hamas would eventually emerge from its tunnels and declare victory.

For a while, it looked as though Iran’s bluff was being called. But now:

To a large extent, the script has played out as Iran anticipated. Forced into unforgiving urban warfare, Israel has scorched Gaza. Facing increasing pressure from the White House, the IDF hasn’t moved on the last Hamas redoubt in Rafah. Unwilling or unable to sustain a significant occupation elsewhere in Gaza, Israeli forces are already encountering insurgent attacks in cleared areas.

Then followed Israel’s assassination of General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and six of his deputies in Damascus, Iran’s launching of hundreds of drones and missiles against Israel, and Israel’s response:

The scale of Iran’s retaliation surprised many. The Iran-Israel duel had been a confrontation with understood limits: Iran relied on terrorism and Israel on cyberattacks and targeted assassinations. The Syrian civil war stretched those limits but didn’t erase them. The Islamic Republic built armed encampments on Israel’s borders; Israeli planes continuously pummeled them. Yet both sides exempted each other’s territory from direct assault. All that changed when Tehran shot hundreds of projectiles at Israel on April 14, followed by Israel’s retaliatory attack on targets in Iran on April 18.

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was widely criticized for describing Israel’s Isfahan attack as “lame,” but I agree with him. Is this where matters will come to rest? If so, isn’t Iran in the driver’s seat? Hezbollah is more or less untouched, the Houthis are unscathed, and Hamas, not having been exterminated, will claim victory and plot new October 7s.

And Iran may decide to go nuclear:

Khamenei must wonder now if his situation would be better if Iran had already tested a nuclear weapon. Would Israel have attacked one of his cities if it had to think about the prospect of a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv? As successful as the axis of resistance has been for Iran, it has not checked offensive Israeli actions. A combination of Islamist proxies and an Iranian bomb, however, might well do the trick.
In reality, there are no technical barriers left that Iran’s engineers cannot overcome. Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization and the regime’s most well-credentialed nuclear engineer, recently remarked: “We have [crossed] all the thresholds of nuclear science and technology.” Whatever the reasons behind Khamenei’s apparent reluctance to give the final green light, what’s happened since Oct. 7 must certainly give him pause about this hesitation.

The Gaza war has clarified the struggle between Israel and Iran. The Palestinians, surely much to Hamas’s displeasure, are again bit players in the Middle East’s new great game. In such a contest of wills, nothing checks one side better than the fear that the other might actually use a nuclear weapon. The Islamic Republic obviously doesn’t fear Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The same can’t be said for the reverse. With the ultimate weapon behind it, Iran would be not just a nation of consequence but a regime too dangerous to fail for those Americans still dreaming of regime change. Nuclear weapons don’t change everything, but they change a lot.

In the past seven months, America and Israel have been shocked by two events that were once unthinkable: the attacks of Oct. 7, Israel’s mini-Holocaust, and Iran’s missile attack, the first direct assault on Israeli territory in 45 years of unrelenting enmity. The next surprise may well be an unexplained seismic tremor in one of Iran’s deserts.

Hamas appears to have gotten away with the horrors of October 7 and lived to fight another day, under the sponsorship of Iran. Israel needs regime change in Iran to stop the endless warfare with Hamas and Hezbollah. But its first real opportunity to try to seriously undermine the mullahs has passed without significant result. Is there any reason why the Ayatollah should doubt that he has the upper hand?

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