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Source: National Review

Jan 9, 2024

Iran’s Regional Aggression Masks Its Weaknesses

Beset by internal and external pressures, the regime finds its grip on power increasingly imperiled.


Recent events have thrust Iran into the spotlight, with the January 3 bombing in Kerman — during events commemorating the fourth anniversary of the death of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — grabbing most of the headlines.

While the Kernan incident might seem relatively minor in the global context, it underscores the immense pressure bearing down on the regime from all sides. Externally, Iran’s strategy of cultivating a network of proxies to harass Israel and destabilize the region is facing challenges.

Domestically, Tehran faces a growing water crisis, civil unrest, and rising insurgency. Beset by such dynamics, the Islamist regime is potentially at a tipping point of internal instability.

The external challenges Iran faces are substantial. The regime’s strategy of surrounding Israel with proxies was a masterpiece of asymmetrical warfare.

Often referred to as a “Ring of Fire,” it featured a network of proxies — Hamas, Hezbollah, pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen — that could take on Israel in a coordinated move. While occasionally destabilizing Israel, the Ring of Fire is also meant to deter an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Yet after Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7, the future of the Gaza-based terror group is highly questionable.

According to sources, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have killed about half of Hamas’s midlevel commanders in Gaza and eliminated up to 8,000 fighters in Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in response to the attack. Israel has destroyed a large part of the rockets-and-mortars stock that Hamas had amassed in Gaza over the years, leading the number of Hamas rockets fired into Israel to drop to 14 per day, down from an average of 75 per day.

The IDF has obliterated Hamas facilities manufacturing drones and rockets, as well as the weapons-production line that the terror group developed over the past 15 years in the Gaza Strip with the help of Hezbollah and the IRGC.

Most important, the ongoing actions destroyed the “Gaza Metro” and a similar network in Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Strip. Israel has also eliminated senior members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Hamas’s junior partner.

In short, whatever the political future of Gaza turns out to be, it is unlikely to involve Hamas, which appears not long for this world as a link in the Iranian chain of proxies.

Hezbollah’s current troubles present another setback for Tehran. Long before October 7, the terror group had come under domestic pressure because of its role in the virtual disintegration of Lebanon.

Warned by all sectors in Lebanon, including half of the Shiites, not to start a war, Hezbollah limited its support for Hamas in the aftermath of the attack to localized shelling along the border, prompting a forceful IDF response.

Hezbollah suffered the deaths of 147 fighters, on top of the embarrassment of having Hamas’s deputy leader, Saleh al-Arouri, assassinated by Israel in Dahiyeh, the group’s stronghold in Beirut.

Arguably more serious is the Israeli demand that Hezbollah withdraw north of the Litani River, as mandated in U.N. Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War.

The Israeli government, which had to evacuate some 100,000 citizens from the border area because of the constant Hezbollah shelling, announced its absolute determination to see Hezbollah relocate, preferably through diplomacy but, if necessary, by force.

The arrival of the American diplomat Amos Hochstein in Beirut underscores the seriousness of the situation, but it is not entirely clear how the regime will react to Israel’s ultimatum.

In Syria, Israel has started a targeted decapitation campaign against IRGC commanders in charge of moving weapons and logistics to Lebanon.

The IDF recently eliminated Seyyed Razi Mousavi, a longtime coordinator of IRGC activity in Syria, who took over many of Soleimani’s responsibilities after he was assassinated. In another act of targeted decapitation, the IDF killed 13 other senior IRGC officials in Syria. The Iranian regime vowed to severely punish Israel, but, again, there are no means of retaliating without risking deeper involvement in the conflict.

Pro-Iran militias in Iraq, collectively known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, have not fared well, either. After numerous attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, Washington took the rather unprecedented step of using a drone strike to kill Moshtaq Talib Al-Saadi, a key militia commander involved in the assaults, in Baghdad. Targeting a top commander was a less than subtle message that tactical deception could not be ruled out in the future.

The situation in Yemen since October 7 has turned tense because the Houthis, on Iran’s orders, have taken to attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea, a strategic waterway through which approximately 15 percent of global seaborne trade — including 8 percent of global grain trade, 12 percent of seaborne-traded oil, and 8 percent of the world’s liquefied-natural-gas trade — passes. In response, the U.S. and other countries have launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, an important new multinational security initiative aimed at jointly addressing security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The Houthis have continued to assault passing vessels, prompting the British foreign minister to warn of a multinational military response. To support the Houthis, Iran has sent its warship, the Alborz destroyer, to the area, but even combined, its regular naval forces and the IRGC’s navy are not enough to adequately respond to a consolidated attack.

The litany of external problems is more than matched by domestic challenges. Iran’s struggling economy is grossly mismanaged despite numerous efforts at reform. Inflation is alarmingly high, with the national currency, the rial, consistently losing value, which in turn diminishes the purchasing power of the public. Official reports state that the annual inflation rate exceeds 46.5 percent, with point-to-point inflation at 63.9 percent. In certain sectors, including food, inflation has soared beyond 90 percent.

The economic crisis in Iran has escalated to such an extent that Ayatollah Khamenei has declared 2023–24 the year of “inflation control.” Hassan Khoshpour, a former deputy of the Program and Budget Organization, pointed out that the government’s revenues have fallen short of the budget’s projections. To manage this deficit, the government is taking measures that lead to dramatic surges in prices and even more inflation.

The impact of U.S. sanctions has been significant as well; foreign direct investment in Iran in 2023 plunged to nearly zero. Furthermore, issues including corruption and poor governance have exacerbated the outflow of capital from the country.

Just as worrisom, Iran is facing ecological degradation and a severe drought, which the government has failed to effectively address. A combination of climate change, poor water-management practices in agriculture, and the lack of treatment of urban and industrial effluence has led to a crisis described as “existential.” A U.N. report stated that the acute water crisis would devastate agricultural production and cause a massive movement of ecological refugees.

Some Iranian sources claimd that, within three decades, up to 40 million people would have to move from drought-stricken areas. Remedying the water and ecological disasters would require billions of dollars, which, under the best of circumstances, Iran would be hard-pressed to find — the current sanctions have put even the most modest hydrological projects in jeopardy. Yet the 2018 protests touched off in part by water scarcity show the political dangers of the problem for the regime.

The regime is also facing domestic insurgency groups that in recent months have been reactivated. For instance, Jaish al-Adl, an armed Sunni Islamist group, is active in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It has recently attacked the military and security forces, assassinated regime officials, and kidnapped Iranian border guards and armed forces.

Kurdish militias, among them the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), a leftist anti-regime group, are waging war on IRGC members in the country’s Kurdish areas. In the southern province of Khuzistan, there is a resistance group that supports the province’s Arab minority, has carried out terror attacks within Iran in the past, and could be expected to do more if the regime’s grip weakens.

None of which even addresses the January 3 attacks in Kerman. ISIS took responsibility for the twin suicide bombings, which killed more than 80 people and wounded some 200. After initially reporting on the ISIS proclamation, the regime changed its tune.

Tasnim, the news agency linked to the Revolutionary Guards, announced that Israel was behind the attack. Going after the “Zionist enemy,” a bogeyman for all that goes wrong in Iran, indicates the leadership’s panic over the chaotic situation.

Embarrassing to the security services as the attack was, it opened a flood of rumors about additional culprits and anxiety over citizens’ personal safety. Top judicial authorities warned in response that there would be stiff penalties for spreading rumors on social media or for complaining about the state’s failure to foil the attacks. In another sign of unease, the Ayatollah Khamenei advised his commanders to practice “strategic patience” — that is, to abstain from actions that might push Iran into a broader conflict.

Known for its longtime destabilizing influence in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic now finds its own stability increasingly threatened. It is too early to speculate whether the regime can survive all of the pressures it faces. But it is already clear that the Ring of Fire strategy has put the Iranian theocracy in serious peril.

Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at the Philos Project. Susanna Hoffman is a social-media manager at the Philos Project, where her work focuses on Western engagement with the Middle East.

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