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Should the US consider Iran’s ‘deniable’ attacks a significant threat?

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The Iranian flag is seen in this June 10, 2021, file photo.

For years, Iranian-directed proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Syria have attacked the Islamic Republic’s enemies. The West has willfully ignored the overwhelming evidence and allowed Iran to continue its violence with impunity.

Today, the Biden administration and the G-5 + 1 fear upsetting Iran’s leaders, hoping to appease them through willful ignorance, and cajole them into rejoining the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This one-sided “agreement” was never sent for Senate approval as a treaty, and it outsourced American security interests to international actors. Foreign policy advisers in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have told me that when European diplomats come to the Senate to discuss the nuclear deal, they are astonished to learn the JCPOA is no more than an executive agreement without the force of American law.

Even when Iran directly acts — as when it attacks international shipping in the Persian Gulf — America seems paralyzed to act. The Iranians are innovative and strategic. They will continue to attack until there is some significant response. Delaying that response increases the chance that Iran will overplay its hand and turn what could have been a limited American response into something much more significant that could snowball into a regional war. Turning the other cheek is not in the Islamic Republic’s playbook. 

Iran’s cyber-terrorism may be the greater threat to American security. The Begin-Sadat Center reported that since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei established the Supreme Council of Cyber Terrorism nine years ago, the Iranian regime has become “a considerable threat to global cybersecurity … a sophisticated and multi-layered cyber operation … responsible for a wide range of cyber operations around the world.” 

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Iran uses Hezbollah and Hamas as proxies for cyber actions. Iranian hackers targeted the accounts of employees at major manufacturers and operators of industrial control systems. Iranian hackers targeted more than 170 universities around the world … stealing $3.4 billion worth of intellectual property … (conducted) attacks on current and former U.S. government officials, journalists and Iranians living abroad, (and) targeted LinkedIn users.” This doesn’t include their cyber attacks against 200 oil and gas companies, the telecom and travel industries, U.S. financial firms, and the flood control system of a dam in Rye Brook, N.Y.

Do the American people know or care about this?

Americans know that Iran’s foreign policy grand plan is predicated on undermining and eventually destroying the “Great Satan America.” A TechnoMetrica Institute of Policy and Politics poll this summer revealed, “Two-thirds of Americans believe Iran poses a threat to the U.S. and its interests. The poll found that Republicans (79 percent) and conservatives (75 percent) are more likely to share the view that Iran poses a threat, although most Democrats (68 percent), liberals (68 percent), moderates (66 percent), and independents/others (63 percent) also agreed.”   

Still, it would stretch the imagination to believe President Biden would act against Iran, no matter how provocative its actions, as long as his Iran deal has the potential to be restarted. Suppose Iran does rejoin the JCPOA — an excellent agreement for the Islamic regime because it guarantees them a nuclear weapons program with international blessing in less than 10 years. In that case, they will have carte blanche to attack America’s allies and interests, fearing little or no response, lest it upset the nuclear apple-cart.

According to American Defense News, the Institute for the Study of War reported this year that the Iranian-directed attack from Iraq on Saudi Arabia “could signal a larger shift in Iran’s regional approach,” with the next attack from Iraq targeting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a critical U.S. ally. There is no logical reason that Iran should not test the waters of provocation; it knows the blowback will be limited as long as the nuclear deal remains in play. 

Appeasing Iran with inaction kicks the can down the road, at best. Biden’s most recent promise that America will never let Iran have a nuclear weapon rings hollow. The JCPOA, as written, guarantees the exact opposite outcome. Israel, with or without America’s involvement, will go it alone if need be. There is consensus across the Israeli political spectrum that having nuclear weapons in the Islamic Republic’s hands represents a threat that cannot be tolerated. Israel will enforce the Begin Doctrine and never allow an enemy that wants to destroy Israel to possess nuclear weapons. Just think of the 1981 and 2007 Israeli attacks on the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors.

Allowing Iran to continue to get away with plausible deniability for its malign actions increases the chances for a regional war, into which America will be drawn, whether it wants to or not. Our current path is paving the way to that possibility. As long as this American administration is in office, wholly invested in a return to the JCPOA, Iran believes its desire to create a permanent presence in Iraq — as it has in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — will be relatively unimpeded. And it believes its cyber attacks will never rise to the level of a significant military response as long as the JCPOA is alive. 

Allowing Iran’s smokescreen deniability-covered crimes to be acceptable to America is a dangerous policy that will undermine our long-term national security interests, at home and abroad.  

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post. 

Tags Iran–United States relations Joe Biden Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Middle East Politics of Iran

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