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January 17 2024

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The Cost of Complacency: The Islamic Republic Gains as America Steps Back

Navid Mohebbi

ADVISORY COUNCIL

The Islamic Republic is besting the United States. Over the past two decades, as the American public has tired of engagement in the Middle East after it peaked in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Iranian dictatorship and its terrorist proxies have won the war of wills in the region and are now firmly in the driver seat. It doesn’t have to be that way. But as America has gradually moved from a policy of destroying terrorist groups to one of containing them, mistakenly believing they can be coexisted with, the United States will continue to fall behind the Islamic Republic if it doesn’t reverse course. With sympathizers of the Islamic regime planting the regime’s flag and pictures of its dictator on the steps of the Capitol and proudly marching in major cities around Europe, this is not a threat relegated to the sands of the Middle East. Every American is at risk.

The United States has historically adopted a firm stance against terrorism, characterized by a refusal to negotiate with or legitimize terrorist organizations. Instead, it has focused on locating and eliminating such threats. America’s iron-fisted confrontation of Al-Qaeda, which dismantled the group’s operational capabilities, and the impressive coalition of dozens of nations it marshaled in Operation Enduring Freedom stand as testaments to that commitment. The commitment was costly and, at times, cumbersome. But it kept the homeland safe.

This approach was grounded in the recognition that legitimizing terrorism was both morally and strategically unacceptable. There is no viable way to deal with groups that fundamentally oppose the most basic human values. . There is no moral equivalence with those who consider women second-class citizens and use innocent civilians as human shields. There are no negotiations to be had with those who seek not to beat you, but to annihilate you. However, instead of recognizing this as a constant reality, the United States has reneged on its commitment to weed out terrorism,  spurred by the burdensome war on terror, lack of clear objectives, uninspired political leadership, and domestic disapproval.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. With economic anxiety and social strife on the rise, many Americans preferred to look inwards and attend to their proverbial backyards. Decades removed from the images of the office workers falling to their deaths in downtown Manhattan and the flames rising from the Pentagon, many Americans took their security for granted and were lulled into complacency. The benefit of the immense cost to destroy Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups was poorly explained to the public. Involvement in the Middle East was viewed as not only useless, but as a failure. Listening to their voters, politicians on both sides of the aisle have promised to end the “endless” wars. The problem is that the terrorists in Tehran don’t have voters to listen to and their war– their jihad– is not only endless, it has expanded in both magnitude and scope.

The bipartisan rhetoric out of Washington calling for reduced American involvement in the region and even calls to do deals with the Islamist dictatorship in Iran were music to the ears of the Ayatollah, who has, incidentally, banned many types of music and forbade women from singing. The message from many corners in Washington and the West was that the Middle East had to be “shared” and the Islamic Republic was a rightful, partial owner. So, while Tehran was increasingly being treated as a legitimate actor and partner, it could expand its revolutionary, revisionist plans.

As America drew inwards, the regime expanded outwards. The terrorist forces backed by Tehran have steadily expanded their influence, exploited the waning American resolve, and cemented new, previously unimaginable power dynamics. Across the Middle East, the Islamic Republic is investing more than $100 million per year in financing, training, and supporting their proxy groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Houthis, dozens of groups in Iraq, and others across the region.

Tehran’s proxies have methodically fortified their positions, no longer operating from the shadows but actively engaging in the governance and administration of their regions and progressively enhancing their international ties, granting them false legitimacy. The Islamic Republic and its proxies are not a rag-tag band of terrorists. They now control Tehran, Gaza City, Sana’a, Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut.

Even in capitals it doesn’t control directly the Islamic Republic has been able to force concessions and exert control.  Most glaringly, it has been able to force a dishonorable “peace” deal upon its foe, Saudi Arabia by directing the Houthis to ratchet up the pressure and bring the kingdom to the negotiating table. . Its pressure campaign has even made its impact in Washington. It may not have re-signed the JCPOA it sought out so desperately, but it nonetheless got $6 billion for five American hostages and billions more from a Biden administration seeking any chance to show that they are good acolytes in the church of the assembly of appeasement. The regime is on a winning spree.

For all the jokes made about America’s octogenarian politicians, the limp and cancer-ridden 84-year-old Ayatollah, who has not left Iran since a state visit to Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea in 1989, is running circles around the United States and its young “strategists” and staffers in Foggy Bottom.

Remarkably, Khamenei’s success has not made him arrogant. This, perhaps, is among the benefits of being a tyrant for 34 years with an end-of-days time horizon. For while he has successfully routed the United States, he has yet to fully throw his weight around. Instead, like a true bully, he has gone after what he thinks is a much more manageable target. Innocent Israelis and Palestinians are paying the price for his test and the feckless American policy that gave him the confidence to run it. October 7th was just the first of more such tests to come.

While Khamenei has not yet chosen to fully engage the United States, his attacks haven’t been limited to the “little Satan.” From its priceless Aramco facilities to the constant badgering along its southern border, the Islamic Republic has gone after another critical American ally in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Such was the extent of Khamenei’s strategic success that even the negotiator of the peace he was able to force on the kingdom opened a new threat to the United States. He has warmly welcomed America’s chief geopolitical threat, the Chinese Communist Party, to play an increasingly active role  in the Persian Gulf. This is to say nothing of the brinkmanship he is conducting by attacking American bases and forces across the region through one of his many proxies.

So, while the United States thought it could cohabitate with or at least contain the Islamic Republic in the Middle East, Tehran used the reprieve to draw out a noose long enough to encircle America’s allies and potentially hang the U.S. itself by dragging it into more unending conflicts. Washington’s view of Tehran may have changed, moved along by public pressure to bring the boys home, but Tehran’s view of Washington, and their ultimate goal to destroy it, never changed and cannot be contained.

The notion of coexistence, containment, and disengagement has proved to be wishful thinking, a devastating and potentially catastrophic misjudgment of the ongoing, overarching threat. Israel was the first to pay for Washington’s naivete. It will not be the last.

Sadly, the pressure America faced not to destroy but to attempt to contain terrorism also seems to have permeated Israeli politics.Instead of rooting out Hamas, Israel handed Gaza and its people over to it. Now Israel has the far more challenging job of eliminating a wholly-embedded Hamas, which will inevitably come at the cost of more innocent lives– just what Hamas wants.

Israel is justified in its efforts to eliminate Hamas, a group that has consistently maintained its goal of wiping Israel off the map. Further delay, allowing Hamas to reorganize and plan its next attack as they wait for the Islamic Republic  to restock its weaponry and cash reserves, could result in much more horrific assaults on innocent Israelis.. This is not conjecture. This is Hamas’ publicly and proudly-stated intention.

Israel’s problems don’t end there– far from it. While Hezbollah has yet to enter the war, the threat it poses is far more dire. Not only has Hezbollah taken Lebanon and its people hostage, but the terror group has also developed a significant ballistic missile program with notable offensive capabilities. Sooner or later, Hezbollah will likely attempt actions far worse than those of Hamas given their advanced capabilities. The threats continue from Israel’s south with the Houthis having officially declared war. Thanks to American policy failures, Israel is surrounded.

Looking to destroy the Islamic Republic’s proxies is an insufficient strategy. Today Tehran has Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. If Israel were able to destroy those, what would it do with Palestinian Islamic Jihad? What would it do with the new group the Islamic Republic will inevitably form tomorrow? What of the suicide bombers it will send into Israel itself?

No. Destroying the proxies will not do. It must end the threat once and for all by going after the head of the snake in Tehran– the Islamic Republic itself.

That doesn’t mean initiating a war with Iran. Because while Israel is increasingly alone as global public opinion and politicians sensitive to it turn against it, it does have one solid ally: the people of Iran. Iranians inside the country and abroad have risked their lives to show their solidarity with the people of Israel because they know they suffer from the same ailment: the terrorism and ideology of the Islamic Republic.

So while Israel and the United States must return to a doctrine of destroying terrorist organizations, they also must work together with their only other reliable ally– the people of Iran– to help them end the regime financing and facilitating this encirclement.

The Iranian people’s victory over the Islamic Republic will also help the United States because their success is the one true hope of ending the endless wars. It is only when the Islamic Republic is assigned to the ash heap of history that American soldiers will no longer be dragged into skirmishes, conflicts, and wars that the mullahs have fomented in the region for four decades.