Challenged at Home and Abroad

By Yaakov Schwartz,, Hamodia’s military correspondent, written by Gavriel Meir

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, Iranians protests the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police last month, in Tehran, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)

Iran’s brutal repression of protests at home and its growing role in helping Russia commit war crimes in Ukraine pose an unprecedented threat to the ayatollahs’ regime.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Rob Malley, announced last week that the Biden administration wasn’t going to “waste our time” on the nuclear deal “if nothing’s going to happen.”

Malley told an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “several times we came very close” to an agreement to rejoin the deal, but that “each time we came close, Iran came up with one new extraneous demand that derailed the talks.” The latest such demand was that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, drop its probes of unexplained traces of uranium found at three undeclared sites in Iran.

“We’re going to spend our time where we can be useful,” Malley said, including supporting the protesters in Iran, and trying to stop the transfer of weapons from Tehran to Moscow for use in the war in Ukraine.

“We make no apology for having tried and [for] still trying to do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Again, a preference for diplomacy if that can work, with tools of pressure, sanctions in particular,” Malley said. “[But] we will use other tools, and in last resort, a military option if necessary, to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

The United States was the last of the Western powers to reach the conclusion that, for now, there is no diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. Back in September, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were saying that they had reached the “limit” of their “flexibility” following drawn-out negotiations with Tehran to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal.

“Unfortunately, Iran has chosen not to seize this critical diplomatic opportunity. Instead, Iran continues to escalate its nuclear program way beyond any plausible civilian justification,” the Western powers said in a statement.

Ayatollahs Face Unprecedented Challenge

The case of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a woman who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police on Sept. 16 after being accused of failing to comply with the country’s strict dress code, continues to make waves abroad and at home. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on 14 Iranian officials after a violent crackdown on nationwide protests, vowing to hold the regime accountable for its “brutal suppression” of dissent.

“The United States is imposing new sanctions on Iranian officials overseeing organizations involved in violent crackdowns and killings, including of children, as part of our commitment to hold all levels of the Iranian government accountable for its repression,” Brian Nelson, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department, said in a statement. 

Amini’s death has sparked more than a month of protests across Iran, despite widespread arrests as well as police violence that has killed an estimated 250 demonstrators. The sustained protests, which have spread to universities, factories, and teachers associations, mark an unprecedented challenge to the regime’s authority.

On a recent Wednesday, a large pro-government rally was organized in Ardabil, in northern Iran, including female high school students bused in for the event, that was supposed to feature the singing of a propaganda song, “Shalom, the Commander.” Instead, the students, and their teachers, sang, “Death to the Dictator.”

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin

Security forces, dressed in civilian clothes, responded by invading the school and beating the students, one of whom died of her injuries. Instead of deterring further protests, the action motivated Ardabil residents to go out into the streets in even greater numbers.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former head of IDF Intelligence and today a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, told Hamodia that the demonstrations sparked by Amini’s death represent the most serious challenge to the regime in terms of their longevity, the range of participants (including youths and adults), and the fact that they are a direct challenge to the Islamic Revolution, of which the hijab is one of its most visible symbols. The regime is determined not to give in to the demonstrators, but to use maximum force to quell the protests, as one of the lessons learned from the Arab Spring.

But while the situation in the streets in Iran distances Tehran from Washington, and puts a nuclear deal further out of reach, Yadlin cautions that the absence of an agreement is not cause for celebration in Israel.

“Every day without a nuclear agreement means that the Iranians are getting closer to being a nuclear threshold state, are continuing to amass fissile material and to enrich at high levels of 20 and 60 percent. The regime’s preoccupation with demonstrations at home doesn’t diminish the energy and resources it dedicates to its nuclear project and terrorism. Past experience has shown that even in times of tragedy — earthquakes, floods — even at the height of corona, Iran didn’t abandon its proxies in the region or stop advancing in the nuclear area.”

Yadlin believes that Israel cannot afford to rest on its laurels and must begin preparing to deal with Iran in other ways, though he wouldn’t specify.

Col (res.) Udi Evental, an expert on strategy and policy planning, agrees that Iran is in trouble because of the demonstrations at home. On the one hand, it can’t return to the nuclear negotiating table as long as the protests continue, since it is accusing the U.S. of instigating them. On the other, if it doesn’t get sanctions lifted, the dire economic situation in Iran (more than 50% annual inflation, 0% growth in 2023) will get worse, raising concerns among the ayatollahs of mounting protests surrounding political and economic distress.

On the other side of the equation, we have the United States. President Joe Biden has come out unequivocally on the side of the Iranian women in their struggle for freedom (having learned a lesson from former President Barack Obama, who turned his back on Iranian protesters in 2009). The administration will have a difficult time justifying resuming negotiations with a repressive regime. It would be untenable to provide the ayatollahs with an economic-diplomatic lifeline that will help them squelch the protests, precisely at a time of increased hopes for revolution and internal change in Iran.

Yadlin estimates that as long as the regime continues to repress demonstrations at home and to play a role in Russia’s brutal attack and war crimes in Ukraine, the chances of a return to the nuclear agreement remain remote, even after the midterm elections in the United States. However, his prediction comes with a caveat: The administration could decide to resume its efforts to reach a nuclear agreement in order to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran. This would increase the flow of Iranian oil, lowering prices and easing the world energy crisis after Russia and Saudi Arabia cut back on production.

He adds that despite the tendency to deal with Iranian threats separately (when it comes to its nuclear program, development of ballistic missiles and support for terrorism), the Iranian strategy is based on a combination of all subversive efforts, which it pursues simultaneously. The response, therefore, must also be comprehensive.

Israel Monitoring Iran’s Role in Ukraine

The Israeli defense establishment is paying close attention to Tehran’s involvement in the fighting in Ukraine. Iran is providing Russia with Shahed-136 attack drones and sending advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Crimea to train Russian forces in how to use them.

These attack drones have sown death and destruction in residential areas of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and damaged energy and water installations around the country.

There are those in Israel who believe that the fact that the ayatollahs are selling attack drones to Russia is a sign that they don’t believe Israel has a credible military option to use against them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be selling these drones to Russia. An Iran that is planning for the possibility of war against Israel, with potential American involvement, would be keeping as large a store of weaponry as possible.

According to Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, the Iranians sold the Russians 300 Shahed-136 and 131 drones in a first shipment, with a similar sized order set to arrive in Moscow shortly (the Russians are asking for a total of 1,700). In other words, in two months, the Iranians will be delivering some 600 attack drones, a fantastic number considering the production rate for such drones.

Turkey, for instance, manufactures 200 of its TB2 attack drones a year. Israel’s military industries produce far less. Again, the significance of such a large sale to Russia indicates that Iran is not worried about an Israeli attack in the near future.

Iran is reportedly examining the possibility of supplying Russia with ballistic missiles. This assistance is critical to Russia, whose supply of accurate weapons is rapidly depleting, and whose weapons industry is plagued by international sanctions that prevent it from receiving spare parts.

Yadlin and former National Security Adviser Yaakov Nagel believe that Iran is trying to show the West that it can make trouble in many arenas. That’s why it continues to support President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, arm Hezbollah, threaten Saudi Arabia and subsidize Palestinian terror organizations.

Despite mounting evidence of Iran’s sale of attack drones to Russia, the West has, for the time being, abstained from taking open steps against it. Will the supply of ballistic missiles to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine lead to increased pressure and sanctions against Iran in the international arena? Yadlin and Nagel say the issue is complex and prefer not to answer.

In the defense establishment there are those who are amazed at the way Iran is opening new and varied fronts. They note that Iran is holding large military maneuvers on its border, including, in a provocative move, launching a pontoon bridge on the river of Aras, a dividing line between the sides.

Add to this a series of declarations by Islamic Revolutionary Guard commanders that they will not tolerate “Israeli bases” operating against them, as it were, from Azerbaijan.

It has been years since the administration in Baku has denied Iranian claims of this nature, but it is no secret that President Ilham Aliyev has purchased large amounts of advanced weaponry from Israel, including drones and the LORA artillery system, and that Azerbaijan supplies Israel with 40% of its energy needs.

An attempt to ease tensions between the two countries by arranging a meeting between Aliyev and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has failed. The conflicts between the two “sister” Shiite countries have grown too deep to be papered over.

Israel’s security establishment is convinced that we will yet hear from this front, which is heating up, but not to a quick boil. n

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