This is not another perspective on Iran’s military nuclear program or U.S. efforts to reenter the nuclear agreement. This is primarily about something else: the “nonnuclear” dimension of Iran’s regional policies and behavior, and how to stop the erosion in Israel’s deterrence on the home front by the Islamic republic.
Naturally, the “nuclear” and “nonnuclear” dimensions are inextricably linked, but in terms of policy thinking and formulation, they can and should be dealt with separately.
The late Gen. Israel Tal, one of Israel’s premier strategic thinkers, believed the Israeli dictum that it is imperative to always move the battlefront into enemy territory. However, he also argued that because of its size, reliance on the U.S. and the geopolitical landscape, any Israeli triumph is by definition tactical while a possible defeat will, by definition, be strategic in its consequences. Therefore, he advocated that Israel must maintain a level of deterrence that can be achieved only through disproportionality of response.
This concept has been refined and adapted to the Iranian-Israeli model by an American with deep roots across the Middle Eastern landscape: Thomas Kaplan.
A billionaire businessman and doctor of history, Kaplan uses history as his primary predictive tool. He made his name by detailing why Iraq’s Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait, more than a year before it happened. The Mossad rejected his analysis; so too did the Saudis.
So, to redress the inability of intelligence agencies to use history proactively, he created a world-renowned program at Harvard to give friendly agencies the necessary analytical tools to be predictive.
Incredibly, he timed almost to the day the September 2019 Iranian drone attack on Aramco – and so warned his friends in the Gulf. Not surprisingly, he is regarded by many in the region as among the very best analysts on Iranian strategy. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said publicly that he is the very best.
Kaplan believes there is a disconnect between the Iranians and Israelis regarding strategy and tactics. Israel is thinking in terms of targets and how to navigate what is and is not a “proportionate response.” In other words, it is confining itself to tactics.
But the Iranians are playing a different game. Their playbook is a long-term strategy, and they believe they see a path to victory.
It is a variation on the German concept of “einkreisung” (encirclement): If you encircle the enemy, you limit its freedom of maneuver and the scope of its deterrence. That is Phase One.
Phase Two is to get the enemy to accept encroachments on its physical security and to demoralize the enemy while advancing a larger agenda on different fronts. In this case, Iran is recreating an empire that now stretches from Tehran to two seas, “the Med and the Red.”
The long game
As good as the Israelis are at the tactical game they are playing – with many of Israel’s clandestine operations over the last 15 years undoubtedly being innovative, creative, bold and daring – the Iranians are clearly proving their endurance in the long game. Their nuclear program has advanced and everyone is paying attention, but so has Iran’s reach.
Iran is an expansionist power, driven by a combination of geopolitical hegemonic ambitions, ancient enmity with Sunni Arabs and a messianic, theocratic ideology. Some of these principles were evident when Iran was a monarchy, but now under the ayatollahs’ regime, there is the added element of religious fervor and cause.
From this mission statement, Iran derives a coherent, agile and adaptable playbook comprising of three layers. The first is overt ambition: Iranian nationalism, protection of Shi’ite communities and minorities throughout the Middle East, and the expansive as well as innovative use of proxies.
Second is an astute understanding and exploitation of its adversaries’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. These weaknesses create vacuums and present opportunities that Iran uses the first layer to take advantage of. Third is the quasi-covert military nuclear program.
Iran’s business model calls for it to keep its enemies off guard as it marches to the seas through the use of a network of proxies. These are designed to undermine Iran’s rivals. And the proxies themselves bear the brunt of the retaliation. So, Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s missiles fired at civilians in Ashkelon or Tel Aviv are met with Israeli strikes against Gaza; Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia are met with Saudi retaliation in Yemen.
It is as clever a policy as it is cynical. And it works because Israel, Saudi Arabia and the wider world accept the convenient fiction that the “parent company” is legally distinct from its “wholly-owned subsidiaries.”
The result is that, strategically, Iran and Israel – as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are all wandering endlessly in M.C. Escher’s “Ascending and Descending” geopolitical lithograph. This asymmetry serves only Iran.
To borrow from Vladimir Lenin, what is to be done? And what might that look like?
Recalling Gen. Israel Tal, Kaplan calls it “Back to the Future”: equilibrium must be restored to the Israeli-Iranian dynamic. Iran’s “promotion of continuous and sustained disaggregated conflict in a fashion that has allowed its own territory to be immune from a proportionately destabilizing counterforce must end,” he says.
Tal and Kaplan created two different and distinct studies, but they are compatible on the most critical issue: Israel’s current strategy of vociferous but unspecific threats, high-toned “We won’t allow…” speeches and surgical, Mossad-generated strikes on Iran are not going to be enough if the home front is to be protected.
As we all know how wars begin but rarely know how they will conclude, Kaplan suggests that, in this case, the ideal conflict is one in which no further shots are fired. He is a big believer in giving warnings – ideally face-to-face. Nevertheless, he has no doubt that even major events like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait or the attack on the Abqaiq Refinery could have been forestalled by terse phone calls with a simple message: “We know what’s going on in your minds: don’t even think about it.”
As a war is already going on in plain sight where escalation can happen at any moment, Kaplan believes that to head off bigger clashes, Israel itself needs to start by making that phone call. Otherwise, Iranian overconfidence regarding Israel’s perceived vulnerabilities will likely encourage further adventures.
Before we ourselves lose a tower block or two, our concept of proportionality should pivot from “system to system” to “strategy to strategy,” he argues. And we should let the Iranians know the rules of the game are changing in a way that they will understand: From now on, attacks on the Israeli homeland by Iranian proxies – be they Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese or Yemeni – will be regarded as an attack by Iran itself. In other words, winding the clock back to 2006, Israel will not accept its towns and cities being hit. If they are, the mothership itself is now an address for retaliation.
In this, Kaplan’s first objective is a limited tactic: nip miscalculation in the bud by restoring sobriety. But if Tehran thinks Israel is bluffing, he suggests that Iran’s proxy campaign should be reverse-engineered into an Israeli strategy that is proportionate to that of Iran’s.
It should be simple: We discuss how it might look and agree that some things are best left uncommunicated. Suffice to say that they will know it when they see it, for while the new strategy will be proportionate, the tactics employed will be implemented disproportionately.
Grim but nuanced
Kaplan’s big-picture view of Iran’s intentions is grim but nuanced. While conventional wisdom has it that Iran is essentially a rational actor that makes rational decisions, however nasty and repulsive its behavior, Kaplan sees it as a question of context. The regime will stay rational as long as the regime is secure. If the Iranians feel strong, even if they had nuclear weapons they would not use them in a first strike.
That’s the good news. But if a revolution took place that was succeeding and the regime concluded that all was lost, notwithstanding Israel’s second-strike capability, he is confident the Revolutionary Guards would unleash whatever they had against Israel before going down. The Soviets could be deterred because after a certain point, their ideological fervor had extinguished itself. We’re not there with Iran. As Bernard Lewis once quipped about then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for him “Mutual Assured Destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement.”
For that reason, Iran cannot have the bomb. No Israeli prime minister could or should allow Israel’s national survival to be held hostage to Iranian domestic tranquility.
Though Iran and Israel are on a collision course due to Iran’s pathological anti-Zionism, Kaplan believes all-out war is not inevitable. After all, were it not for the present regime’s ahistorical stance toward Israel, civilizationally, Iran and Israel were destined to be allies. From Cyrus himself – arguably the world’s first “philo-Zionist” – to 1979, national amity was natural for both “periphery states.”
“It does not make sense to assume that the policies of the past will achieve the desired result,” Kaplan observes. “Knowing that they cannot win through what grand strategists would call ‘force on force,’ Iran has pursued a much more subtle and effective disequilibrium through ‘force on will.’ This must be reversed. So long as Tehran believes it can bombard and sabotage its rivals with impunity … the result is likely to be at best stalemate and, at worst, an escalation without a defined strategic purpose.
“Just as the way to deal with an aircraft’s stall is not, as human nature would suggest, to pull the nose up but to push it down,” Kaplan concludes, “it is likely that the only way to create true momentum in the region is to use the ‘art of strategic proportionalism’ to reveal the kernel of a scenario that could ultimately create the atmosphere for truly holistic and comprehensive stabilization of the Middle East.”