Iran is starting a war it knows could destroy it

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 18 January 2024. © Richard Kemp

The Iranian strikes in Iraq, Syria and even Pakistan are signs of weakness. In recent days the US has assassinated an Iranian proxy terrorist leader in Baghdad and the Israelis have killed Hamas and Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon. Iranian state media said the recent strikes in Erbil, supposedly against Israeli ‘spy bases’, were in retaliation for such killings. Hitting targets in Iraq and Syria of course elicited no military response from Iran’s client governments there, but striking inside Pakistan was an altogether different prospect which was met by a retaliatory attack into Iranian territory.

Why on earth would Tehran provoke a conflict with a nuclear state with a massive, well-equipped army that could, if it wanted to, overrun the regime? In order to send messages of deterrence to the US and of strength to its proxies in the face of what looks like a dangerous turnaround in the ayatollahs’ fortunes.

For many years Iran has been building what has been called a ‘ring of fire’ around Israel, comprising proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, with more distant flames in Iraq and Yemen. The purpose is to strangle the Jewish state, because the ayatollahs deplore its very existence and see it as an outpost of American power, opposition to which has been a cornerstone of the revolution since it began.

But following the 7 October attacks that all seems to be going wrong. Israel is steadily taking apart Iranian proxies Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, killing their fighters in large numbers and destroying painstakingly constructed terrorist infrastructure. In Lebanon, Hezbollah seems to be faced with the prospect either of a hugely destructive war or a humiliating withdrawal north of the Litani River. In Yemen, the Houthis’ attempted missile strikes on Israel have all been blunted and the US and UK have unexpectedly switched from defensive to offensive operations to thwart their attacks on Red Sea shipping.

The provocation of Pakistan, however, with the inevitable retaliation, and perhaps further escalation, may go even deeper. The ayatollahs are pondering a much greater threat than their ring of fire being extinguished: regime collapse. Iran’s leaders are ageing and the population is increasingly seeking another form of government, with widespread protests over the past 16 months representing the most severe challenge to the authorities in decades. Non-regime Islamist groups, such as Isis, seem to be on the rise too, a reality driven violently home by suicide bomb attacks in Kerman two weeks ago.

Struggling dictatorships have often resorted to fomenting external conflict to bolster support at home. But that doesn’t always work out as planned – think of the fall of Galtieri’s military junta after the abortive Falklands invasion. But the ayatollahs may have a Plan B in mind. For them, the revolution is everything and they might think the only way it survives is to export it rapidly and violently, and that requires invalidating national sovereignty across the region.

Of course, Iran can’t possibly take on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Israel at the same time. But as the revolution diminishes internally, its leaders may now be prepared to commit suicide for the sake of their twisted ideological dreams.

Image: Commemorative Banners for Ayatollah Khomeini, Adam Jones/Flickr