Behnam Ben Taleblu, a native Farsi speaker, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, where he focuses on Iranian security and political issues. He speaks here with BICOM Director Richard Pater about the role of Iran in supporting its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, to wage war on Israel.
Richard Pater: What was the relationship between Iran and Hamas/PIJ prior to 7 October?
Behnam Ben Taleblu: These are Sunni Palestinian terror groups, in contrast to Shiite Iran – rejectionist, if not genocidal outright, vis a vis the Jewish State. They need to be understood in the context of the larger constellation of Iranian proxies, terror groups, and militias in many of the battlefields of the Middle East today – what the Islamic Republic calls the “Axis of Resistance”. It’s a politically loose order, but cohesive in the sense that they are rejectionist forces – rejection of the balance of forces in the region; of the status quo; revisionist in their overall approach to the pro-America, pro-Israel, pro-Saudi moderate bloc in the Middle East which has for several decades tried to ensure peace. They’re looking to overturn that order using military force.
The revolutionary message of the Islamic Republic – the ideological message for export – has most resonance not when there is peace, stability, or prosperity, but when there is chaos. Iran can manage that chaos to achieve some of its foreign policy ends. There are places like Iraq where Iran has created groups – the same is true of Hezbollah – but when you look at the Palestinian theatre, those are groups and causes that Iran has coopted. The same could be said for the Houthis in Yemen. When you have a local actor in a jurisdiction far away, whether that be in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, or the Palestinian Territories, you have a local actor that is shooting a target that you, the foreign patron, wish to shoot at too. So Iran has been able to harness the hatred, the animosity, and the willingness to use violence by Hamas (a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot) and PIJ (who Iran more directly inspired).
Through Iran’s material and financial support of these groups in the 1990s, it was able to be a spoiler for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It then began to do more than use these groups sporadically. They became more instrumental elements of Iranian power against Israel and in the Levant. Hezbollah in the north would pose a conventional deterrent to Israel – would be a knife that the regime was sharpening against the neck of the Jewish State – through the provision of more advanced Iranian equipment and capabilities. And what they were doing with Hamas and PIJ was making sure that geographically and demographically, Israel would not be able to be at peace.
Iran’s recent strategy has been to take the material, political, and financial support to the next level, to run a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ policy. That’s why you’ve seen the boom and bust cycle of violence coming out of Gaza since Israel evacuated it in 2005 and Hamas took over in 2007. Iran has found a jurisdiction for those rejectionist terror groups – arming them, training them, equipping them – but also, starting in 2014, helping them indigenise select long-range strike capabilities, particularly rockets. Iran, from so far away, is able to maintain its support of these local actors. When Iran says ‘death to Israel’, it means precisely what we saw on 7 October.
RP: There’s a debate in Israel about how much the Iranians knew about the details, or was directly involved in the planning of the attack.
BBT: It’s important to understand the nature of the Axis of Resistance rather than to look for the “go order” from the Supreme Leader to the Supreme National Security Council, via the IRGC and Quds Force to Hamas. Looking for that chain of transmission would be a mistake. If you have a local actor that is willing on its own to do something that achieves your strategic objectives as a foreign patron, what really matters is less the politics and more the material support and capability. That’s where you’ve seen Iran continue to surge and be more than the patron – to be the big brother.
We saw drama – even a falling out some would say – between Hamas and Iran in the early days of the Arab Spring including Hamas moving from Syria to Qatar and Iran potentially losing a Sunni terror group in its largely Shiite axis. After 2017, Iran reincorporated and rehabilitated Hamas directly back into the axis. They share a similar, though not identical, ideology and want to achieve it in the same way, through violence. In this sense, the lack of smoking gun, the absence of the “go order” being found is in and of itself the smoking gun. That’s why the regime has a proxy to begin with – not to aid in attribution, but to hinder it. In other words, they seek to obscure causality between patron and proxy.
We have two very diverse schools of thought about the proxy network. There is the Washington approach which says that patrons of proxies have direct ties and immediate command and control like a western military. And you have largely academic theories about the ‘principle agent’ problem – foreign principle, local agent. Over time, the local agent, because of its capabilities and proximity to the target will actually have more influence over the foreign patron, will acquire more agency, and the leash will have to grow longer and longer. Both views are extremes – the answer is in the middle. It’s a two-way street, and an open conversation, and when both of them say “death to Israel”, they mean it, and the Islamic Republic is the one who has put the capabilities in the hands of Hamas to effectuate it in the way we saw on 7 October.
RP: Can you elaborate on the significance of the Palestinian groups being the only Sunni groups in the axis. Does it make a difference to the Iranian willingness to see Palestinians die for their own cause?
BBT: In this sense I’m much more confident in the ecumenicalism of the Islamic Republic, of its willingness to push past those labels. This is really the real estate motto of ‘location, location, location.’ Because the Palestinians are on the fault line of Iran’s major adversary, Israel, it need not matter what their orientation is. There was talk a few years ago of Iran trying to set up a smaller Shiite organisation among the Palestinians, but largely this is a place where ecumenicalism takes hold.
This flexibility has also given Iran the ability to provide support to Al Qaeda, which was moving westward from Afghanistan after 9/11 and the US war. From 2009-10, Iran materially supported the Taliban, because it led the fight against US forces there. The same logic applies to the Sunni groups like Hamas and PIJ because of the shared target.
RP: Hezbollah joined the fighting on 8 October, but has so far limited its focus to the border. One explanation from analysts in Israel is that the objective is to provoke and keep the IDF busy but not to escalate it further, on Iranian instruction. Another explanation is that Iran sees Hezbollah as its insurance policy, in case Iran is attacked by Israel or the US, which provides a disincentive for Hezbollah to fully attack Israel right now.
BBT: I largely agree with that. It’s worth zooming out for some context: Hezbollah was not created to merely bail out Iran’s Palestinian proxies. Yes, its firepower is helping drain political attention, resources, and capital away from a different front, forcing the Israelis to consider the possibility of a multi-front operation. Even with the weapons that Hezbollah is firing – drones, IRAMs, shorter range rockets, anti-tank missiles – it is causing a loss of life and is causing people to flee in northern Israel. It is causes major economic and logistical challenges in the north and that’s without it being the full barrage.
That larger arsenal is close to under 200,000 mortars, rockets, and the precision guided munitions that Iran has been trafficking for well over 5 years, via a land bridge from Iran, to Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon are more lethal and precise. This technology turns unguided rockets into guided short-range ballistic missiles (300-1000 km) – that’s the goal here. That arsenal is not meant to be expended yet. It is designed to be a conventional deterrence policy against Israel in the event of an overt Israeli kinetic strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities or larger regime installations. One could even say the lack of such an Israeli strike since 2006 to the present is not just political or due to the JCPOA or logistical challenges. The potential for another Lebanon war is something Israel has to take very seriously.
When you look at Nasrallah’s speech [of November 3] it very closely resembled Khamenei’s speech, where they don’t take credit for the attack but they support the idea of it. The gradual escalation is a ‘new normal’, and one that Hezbollah continues to revise. Unfortunately, the language in the trans-Atlantic community has been poor when looking at Hezbollah. It has been monadic, as if it’s a light switch: “Will Hezbollah intervene – yes or no?”; “Did Hezbollah enter the fighting – yes or no?” It’s better understood as a volume dial – moving from a 2, to a 3, to a 5: a measure of escalation.
My ultimate fear is that it is not diplomatic or military threats which are restraining Hezbollah: it is simply that the local actor and the patron haven’t yet seen the need to sacrifice those forces to bail out Hamas. The open question is whether the more successful the IDF is, the more tempting it is for Hezbollah or Iran to change that policy and render Hezbollah much more aggressive.
RP: We’ve also seen sporadic rocket attacks from the Houthis in Yemen as well as from the Shiite proxies in Yemen. US forces have been attacked dozens of times by other proxies from Iraq.
BBT: There has been a marriage of intention and capability, and we have to take the adversary at their word. The Houthis, since as early as 2017, expressed their interest in intervening in a military conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis or between Hezbollah and Israel. They have made this threat several times.
The Israelis have known the growing ranges of Houthi long-range technology. There was a story during the heyday of the Abraham Accords when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plane was slated to fly from Israel to the UAE and had to reroute given concerns over Houthi ballistic trajectories.
It’s high time analytically we connect the dots: the Houthis are a group the Islamic Republic has coopted with the provision of this long-range strike technology. From 2017-2019, short-range (by US military standards) – over 300 km but under 1000km – liquid-propellant ballistic missiles have been fired from the Houthis at both civilian and military targets including residential areas, multiple times during the Yemen war. These have now been upgraded to medium range (1000-3000 km, most of these now between 1200-2000 km). The Houthis took over the Yemeni capital in 2014-15 and that’s when the material support from Iran surged. They also have suicide drones which function as the poor man’s cruise missile. Iran has helped expand their range, and they can now strike Israel. This is a threat which is slated to grow and I would expect more attacks from the Houthis on civilian targets in southern Israel.
The Houthis, until recently, were one of the only proxies boasting land attack cruise missiles. In September this year, they unveiled even newer technology – a copy of a medium range, liquid-propelled ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon with a ‘baby bottle’ warhead. It’s an update of an Iranian model, itself an update of a North Korean weapon.
The ability of Iran’s proxies to expand the range of Iran’s missiles is clear. Iran has an arsenal in exile, and there is a new geography to Iranian power in the region, that is exemplified by these proxies’ very diverse arsenals. The Houthi rockets are a rehearsal in my view – not the full thing – of Iran seeing if it can bring its proxies to bail out the others. This is not Hezbollah’s goal. But with the Houthis and the Assad regime, it’s an open question.
RP: On the Iranian nuclear question, there is a concern that with the world distracted by what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, that this could be an optimum time for Iran to go for breakout and cross the nuclear threshold. Do you share that concern?
BBT: It’s certainly a concern I have. One has to interpret the debates in the corridors of power in Tehran. What we’ve seen since 2021, in slow motion, is a stockpile growing in qualitatively dangerous ways with irreversible capability, enriching to 60 per cent purity. These are moves that a decade and a half ago – way before the JCPOA or JPOA – would have been considered red lines for [western] military action. Iran understood this. They see the rendering pink or formerly red lines. If you were a risk tolerant security planner in Tehran, you might say: “there’s a string of attacks we’ve never been held accountable for. We’ve been able to push the nuclear envelope, while the US, Israel and others have been distracted. We’ve moved the centre of gravity away from unity against Iran to one of regional division. Would now be an opportune time for breakout?” I don’t think this would be the only voice in the corridors of power, but it would be a voice. The regime is underscoring, multiple times, its capability as a threshold state. This will affect the regime’s handling of its proxy network and its missile proliferation.
RP: How do you assess the Biden Administration’s current policy on Iran?
BBT: There is a restraint, a risk aversion. For example, the US has been estimated to have been hit more than 55 times in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed Shia militia groups. The US has only kinetically responded three times. Imagine a 55-3 ratio in any sporting event of your choice! It can feed into Iranian calculations of US deterrence and red lines – they will assume that US restraint in a secondary theatre against a smaller threat will equal US restraint in the Iranian nuclear theatre too.
The US has to strike these weapons depots in Iraq and Syria, and when it is attacked it has to respond against the point of origin.
There is a clear need to fix this and to actively enforce the oil sanctions on Iran – the US is not enforcing them. There is a clear divergence: no matter how good the US may be on Israel, and Gaza, and the Levant, it still seems divorced from this larger policy on the US’s ability to contain and roll back the patron, the source of all of these threats.
We’re one month past 7 October, but we’re two months past the anniversary of nationwide protests in Iran. The Iranian people have been among the longest suffering victims of the Islamic Republic. The domestic repression is directly tied to the foreign oppression and vice versa. It is not accidental that since at least 2009, in every iteration of anti-regime protests, the protestors are chanting “not Gaza, not Lebanon; my life for Iran!” The Iranian people know what this government is like, they have had their national interests and public good sacrificed on the alter of these expansionist, Islamist, genocidal causes.
There is a total lack of western willingness to connect the security situation to what the patron in Iran fears most: empowering the Iranian people. There is significant room for the Biden administration to improve and for US partners to improve, too. In the decade of the 2020s, the Five Eyes countries (the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia) and the European Union should be seeing the Iranian terror threat clearly. I would love for them all to formally use their counter terrorism authorities and proscribe the IRGC – the fountainhead of all of these other terror groups. And proscribe Hezbollah, Hamas, and PIJ too. We need to demonstrate to America’s adversaries and to Israel’s, whether they be state or non-state, that they cannot divide and conquer us.
RP: What else could the UK be doing?
BBT: Recently, there has been a report of the FCDO looking to develop an entirely new Iran-based sanctions programme. I’d love to see that passed and used. I’d love to see Magnitsky protocols more aggressively embraced against the kleptocratic Iranian leadership. Multilateral penalties are good, especially because of the political and diplomatic message they send. But I’d also like to see countries that do have more of a diplomatic presence in the Middle East leverage that influence to talk truth to power and not pull their punches.