Iran has been playing a dangerous game of kinetic brinkmanship with the United States since the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979.
Beginning with the Iran hostage crisis, wherein 52 American diplomats were held for 444 days in Tehran, it has evolved into the funding of Hamas, Hezbollah and other militia and terrorist groups sponsored by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), such as the Houthis in Yemen.
Underpinning Iran’s clash with Washington has been Tehran’s decades-long determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. That overarching objective is nearing the goal line. Tehran’s path to nuclear breakout is now measured in days, not weeks, if and when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chooses.
On Oct. 7, Iran went too far. IRGC support and planning of Hamas’s heinous attack on Israeli civilians has now engulfed the Gaza Strip in total war. On Tuesday, elements of that war spread to Lebanon when Israel carried out the strike that purportedly killed Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official.
Nearly 1,200 Israelis died — and U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have been attacked by Iranian-backed militias 118 times. Khamenei is in a proxy war with the U.S., and arguably it goes far deeper than that, given Tehran’s growing alignment with Moscow over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s faltering war in Ukraine.
Iran’s day of reckoning, however, is nearing. Israel’s decision to target al-Arouri in Lebanon, where he had fled after the Israeli incursion into Gaza, was likely intended as a kinetic wake-up call by Jerusalem to Khamenei and to Hassan Nasrallah, the Shia cleric head of Hezbollah.
Last August, Nasrallah declared, “Any assassination on Lebanese soil against a Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian or Palestinian will be met with a decisive response. We will not tolerate this, and we will not allow Lebanon to become a new killing field for Israel.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet just called his bluff.
Israel’s new unit, known as Nili, a Hebrew acronym for “The Eternity of Israel Will Not Lie,” is now operational. Jerusalem has made it clear that no one who aided and abetted in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel will be safe anywhere. That includes not only Mohammed Deif, Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzouk and other top Hamas military and political officials, but also their sponsors.
The Middle East is now at an inflection point. For decades, Iran has survived as a terrorist regime by playing off of regional interests and benefiting from U.S. domestic politics. First as a check on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, then later as the poster boy for why neocons were itching to drag the U.S. into another “forever war.”
Yet you do not have to be a neocon to grasp that Iran is the cancer infecting the entire Mideast. Tehran in effect funded Oct. 7. The IRGC has turned Shia Hezbollah and southern Lebanon into a loaded weapon aimed at Israel, and propped up President Bashir al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria.
Khamenei’s machinations have served to undermine ongoing U.S. efforts to normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Tehran continues to threaten key oil shipping lanes by closing the Strait of Hormuz — a tactic straight out of Iran’s playbook dating back to 1988, which resulted in Operation Praying Mantis against the Iranian Navy after the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine, severely injuring 10 U.S. sailors.
Meanwhile, Khamenei is presently playing the same game in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab el-Mandeb Strait courtesy of IRGC-backed Houthi rebels operating from northern Yemen. To date, the U.S. response has been minimal, feebly described by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as “necessary and proportionate.”
Iran, to date, has been highly effective in flipping narratives in the Middle East, and a young European and American TikTok-influenced audience is falling for it. Palestinians in Gaza are suffering and dying because Khamenei, likely at Putin’s urging, ordered Hamas to attack Israel as a distraction to its own accelerating nuclear program. Tens of thousands of Syrians have died because of Iran’s backing of Assad.
In Yemen, more than 377,000 people have died directly or indirectly due to Tehran’s proxy war against Riyadh. Ukrainians are dying as a result of Iranian drones. Iraq continues to be marred by deaths as a result of Iran’s meddling. Iran’s human death toll is in the hundreds of thousands, and that does not count the systematic repression and murders of its own people — men, women and children alike.
It is time Washington held Iran to account. Yet because it is a U.S. presidential election year, Khamenei is calculating that he can buy more time for his pursuit of nuclear weapons and efforts to further destabilize the Mideast. Israel’s taking out of al-Arouri should disabuse Tehran of that notion. It was, in effect, the laying down of a gauntlet.
For his part, during a speech on Wednesday marking the fourth anniversary of the death of Qasem Soleimani, Nasrallah signaled he is maneuvering to keep Hezbollah out of the IDF’s crosshairs. He appears to sense Iran’s day of reckoning is coming and he wants to avoid being part of it. The usual bombastic threats and bluster were there, but by the end of the speech his sword remained sheathed.
Wittingly or not, Nasrallah revealed the extent of the web Soleimani and the IRGC had spun across the Middle East on behalf of Iran. Nasrallah credited the former IRGC commander with spawning the “Islamic resistance” movements in Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, Palestine, Syria and Yemen, and transforming them into an “axis of [Islamic] resistance.”
Iran is indeed the cancer killing the region, and Washington had best be ready with a cure.
Israel is likely to keep forcing the issue, widening its attacks against Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tehran’s nuclear program now represents an existential threat to Jerusalem, and Hezbollah is a key cog in Khamenei’s strategy to deter the IDF from attacking Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier, on Christmas Day, Israel put the IRGC on notice as well, killing Seyed Razi Mousavi, one of its key advisors in Syria.
Khamenei’s reckoning is coming. It is only a question of whether Israel or the U.S. delivers it, and in the process saves the Middle East.
Mark Toth, an economist and entrepreneur, is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweetserved 30 years as a military intelligence officer and led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.
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