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Has Iran Fallen Into a Strategic Trap?

The recent exchange of fire between Iranian and Israeli forces along the Golan is supposed to highlight "the nightmare scenario Israel is facing: arch-enemy Iran entrenching on the other side of its border with Syria." The conflict is real. Only its scale is uncertain. The prospect of actual war between Tehran and one of America's closest allies may have forced Trump to cancel Obama's nuclear deal with the Shi'ite power. It would have been absurd to continue the arrangement with the ayatollahs in the face of a conflict in which the U.S. could not be neutral.

But is it a nightmare for Israel or has Iran has fallen into a strategic trap too good for its enemies to miss? The IDF, while formidable, is short-ranged. Its conflicts have all been fought on the border or within Israel itself. The United States, though able to project power long distances, did not have the political will or the obvious justification to mount a military action against Tehran. Thus, while the Islamic Republic of Iran stayed within its borders it was probably safe from any meaningful American or Israeli threat.

Viewed in this way, Israel's problem has been how to bring its arch-foe within effective range. That problem may have been solved by the ayatollahs themselves. The Islamic Republic is now embroiled in three major campaigns: a proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia in Yemen; participation on behalf of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war; a state of conflict with Israel across the Lebanese border via Hezbollah. These not only represent a considerable burden for Iran's limited resources, they also bring a large part of Tehran's forces within effective range of the IDF.

This constitutes a major opportunity for Israel to catch Tehran at the end of its tether, forcing it to retreat. Iran is overstretched and far from home. The seeds of this weakness were planted by the expansionary tendencies within the Islamic Republic itself. Drawn to Lebanon by the prospect of running lucrative rackets and unable to resist exploiting the chaos occasioned by Obama's inaction in Syria, it joined the list on the side of Assad.

The former administration's policies "empowered Russia and Iran, produced ISIS, strengthened al-Qaeda and created the refugee crisis which became a strategic threat to Europe," according to one analyst from the BBC. These were astonishingly reinforced by the Obama nuclear deal, which not only guaranteed American nonaggression but also provided a source of money to pursue the Islamic Republic's ambitions.

Drawn on by these prospects, its grasp may now exceed its reach. Trump's repudiation of his predecessor's executive agreements and the reimposition of the sanctions probably come as a profound shock to a regime running on "resupply by appeasement." In the words of a guest editorial in the Washington Post, "Trump just accelerated Iran’s implosion. He won’t like the results." The WaPo article describes in baleful terms how the new administration's actions may bring Iran to its knees.