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.
Trump just accelerated Iran’s implosion. He won’t like the results. The country is teetering on the edge of an economic collapse that would empower the hard-liners.
President Hassan Rouhani has already lost his base of support.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal signed with Iran and the European powers in 2015 doesn’t just make it likelier that Iran, too, will abandon the treaty and renew its push to make a bomb. It could also determine if the social unrest sweeping the Islamic Republic deepens and further destabilizes the regime. The government is facing perhaps its greatest opposition nationwide since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Trump’s decision will change how that story plays out in ways that will further destabilize the regime while giving conservatives more power for now.
While some might argue an Islamic Republic implosion is actually a feature, not a bug, the article fails to consider the obvious alternative to collapse. The regime can abandon its expansionary ambitions and devote its resources to economic development within its own borders. Retreat will bring relief. Limitations on Israel's manpower and power projection capabilities mean that it probably could not pursue.
That might accidentally produce a hiatus in regional proxy wars as unexpected as the wild conflict that followed the last administration's idealistic outreach. The supreme irony would be if the repudiation of the deal reduced rather than exacerbated regional tensions by making it logistically difficult for war to continue. But in this age of the breakdown of conventional wisdom almost nothing seems impossible.
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