Iran-Israel Conflict: The Return of Realpolitik

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Victor Meyer | Supply Wisdom


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Iran-Israel Conflict: The Return of Realpolitik
Reflections on a Tough Neighborhood

Observers of the rapidly evolving situation in the Middle East would do well to assess the Weltanschauung or world view of the various parties to the conflict.

The primary risk here is that the situation deteriorates into what John Authers, in a recent Bloomberg piece, calls the “Aeschylus Trap,” which “centers on the notion of blood grudge; each time someone achieves vengeance, someone else must wreak vengeance on them, and so the tragic cycle continues.” Having spent much of my adult life in the region, my experience is that the various parties in the Middle East have raised tit-for-tat to an art form.

While complex, it’s the interaction of four or five important actors with competing world views that will ultimately determine the near to mid-term outcome. Let’s examine them.

The Biden Administration Worldview

The Biden Administration continues to ignore the all-important reality of how Israel views the conflict by pounding a square peg of US Presidential politics into the round hole of the historical reality on the ground in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu does not care about US Presidential politics nor wishes his freedom of action to be constrained by them. Yet that is the only frame of reference through which the Administration can frame events. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s spectacularly ill-timed and poorly written Foreign Affairs article last October, hailing what he thought was the greatest regional stability in decades is emblematic of this institutional naivete.

To be fair there are a few bright spots. Team Biden dramatically reversed its early policy of making Saudi Arabia a pariah by borrowing some of the core concepts of Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords. Leveraging Saudi diplomatic pragmatism and desire to contain Iran by making the promotion of an Israel-Saudi alliance a cornerstone of its regional strategy appears to be paying military and diplomatic dividends as evidenced over the weekend with the Kingdom’s participation in Israel’s air defence.

Nevertheless, the Biden Administration’s almost Panglossian desire to see the world as it wants it to be evokes Otto von Bismarck’s sardonic description of Napoleon; “His intelligence is overrated at the expense of his sentimentality.”

Iran’s Worldview

It’s little understood amongst the extent to which Iran’s worldview has increasingly been defined by two events — one historical and recent and one ideological and ancient.

The first is the Iran-Iraq War. For the Iranian people, the war shaped their society, cemented the formation and empowerment of the Islamic Republic, and solidified distrust of the US and the international community. Despite antagonistic views of the Islamic Republic itself, ethnic, religious, and political minorities who participated in that war—like the larger society in which they live—generally have no regrets about having done so. They remain Iranian nationalists. Moreover, Iran allowed itself to become strategically isolated during the Iran-Iraq War. Having learned that painful lesson at a cost of 500,000 lives lost, it has since created the Shia crescent which extends through Iraq and across the Alawite regime in Syria and into Lebanon. Iran has repeatedly shown the ability to project power well beyond its shores via its proxies into areas as far-reaching as South America.

If the Iran-Iraq War was the defining event of the current IRGC leadership, then Mahdism is its defining ideology and the main prism through which the IRGC and affiliated hardline clerics understand the world around them, and which directs the IRGC’s actions. Mahdism is based on a fundamental belief in the return of the 12th divinely ordained Shi’a Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi (or the Hidden Imam), whom Shi’a Muslims believe was withdrawn into a miraculous state of occultation (hiddenness) by God in 874 CE and who will one day return to rid the world of evil and injustice. His coming will bring about "one final apocalyptic battle” between two armies, in which Shi’as believe that Mahdi and his forces will prevail over evil. Western diplomats fail to appreciate how Iran, and especially the IRGC, views itself and its Messianic mission.

Moreover, the IRGC as a force unto itself is grounded in its status as both a parallel state and one of the world’s foremost transnational criminal organisations. The IRGC is calling the shots, which is why the Trump Administration targeted and Israel continues to target its leadership so aggressively.

Israel’s Worldview

The most important factor at play here is how Israel sees itself and the threats facing it. For Israel, the Hamas attacks of 7 October 2023 shocked and galvanized public opinion in a way not seen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. American security guarantees notwithstanding, the Israelis know that they live in a tough neighborhood. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak described it best — “…because if push comes to shove, we are willing to play by the local rules. Have no illusions about that. You will not outcrazy us out of this neighborhood.”

Iran and its proxies learned a painful lesson on the back of Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two IDF members that has constrained their actions since. The Israeli response was so ferocious that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a now famous interview on Aug. 27, 2006, with Lebanon’s New TV station, shortly after the war ended: “We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture [of two Israeli soldiers] would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11… that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”

Far from being inclined to take President Biden’s advice to “Take the win”, Israel correctly views the Iranian threat as existential. If Iran wins, or gains the use of nuclear weapons, it means the end of the world’s only Jewish State. That is an unthinkable outcome for Israel.

The Sunni Arab Worldview

Iran’s drone attack on the Saudi oil fields in Sep. 2019 and the costly proxy war against the Houthi Shia minority in Yemen woke the Saudi regime up to the danger posed by the expansionist Iranians.

But it also opened the door to the Abraham Accords which was perhaps the most significant diplomatic achievement since the 1978 Camp David agreement. There is little to suggest that the Kingdom will repudiate a strategy of “enlightened self-interest” under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as it simultaneously attempts to contain Iran and modernise and diversify its economy.


To be sure, there have been some recent surprises on the upside such as the Israeli, US, and British success in downing ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles and drones launched by Iran and its proxies in Yemen and Lebanon. Will that luck hold up? And can Israel and its allies continue to use million-dollar missiles to shoot down $20,000 drones? And what happens when eventually one slips through? The US would be hard-pressed not to destroy the two Iranian AGI intelligence vessels operating in the Red Sea and upon which the Houthis depend for their targeting.

But the downside risks far outweigh the upside. Because at the end of the day, it’s indeed possible that Iran will simply not be contained. All would do well to remember the words of the most gifted practitioner of realpolitik since Bismarck himself, Henry Kissinger, who once said, “An Iranian moderate is one who has run out of ammunition.” So gauge your actions accordingly.



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