Hezbollah in Lebanon has held off launching a major attack against Israel not because it is unconcerned about what Israeli forces are doing to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but because Hezbollah’s main purpose is to protect Iran and its nuclear weapons program. If Iran or Hezbollah changes its view of the fighting in Gaza, Israel’s northern border with Lebanon could erupt, according to Behnam Ben Taleblu.
“Hezbollah is the most successful export of the Islamic Revolution,” said Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Hezbollah is to be the knife at the neck of the Israeli state. … When Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran say, ‘Death to Israel!’ they mean it.”
Ben Taleblu is the author of a new monograph, “Arsenal: Assessing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Missile Program.” He reminded participants in the Jewish Policy Center’s November 9 webinar, “Iran’s Shadow Influence in Hamas Terror,” that the Islamic Republic is the major funder and weapons supplier not only of Hamas and Hezbollah but also Yemen’s Houthi rebels and other Middle East insurgents. These include Palestinian Islamic Jihad and militia in Iraq and Syria.
Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement), Hezbollah (Party of God), the Houthis and the others comprise what Iran calls its “axis of resistance,” Ben Taleblu noted. The mullahs—Shi’ite clergy—running Iran use the groups to form their “circle of fire” around the Jewish state.
Watching the Israeli military fight to demolish Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the group’s October 7 slaughter of 1,400 people in Israel and kidnapping of 240 more, Ben Taleblu said Iranian leaders recall former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s observation about the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict with Egypt and Syria: “Israel is not permitted to win a war.” Israel might defeat Hamas but lose the struggle for diplomacy and international opinion as pressure on Washington causes it to squeeze Jerusalem.
Iran’s progress not only with mortars and rockets but also drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles demonstrates “mastery of the whole unmanned vehicle area,” Ben Taleblu said. Still, Iran built up Hezbollah’s arsenal “not to bail out Hamas but to protect Iran and its nuclear program.”
Iran’s weapons progress, and proliferation from Iran to its surrogates and then “reverse proliferation” from them back to Tehran after upgrading some of the weapons illustrates a flaw in the Obama administration’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic. Focused on Iran’s nuclear weapons development, it dismissed the ballistic missile danger, Ben Taleblu said.
Yet now, Houthis have fired missiles with a 1,000-mile range from Yemen in the southern Arabian Peninsula at the Israeli port of Eilat on the Red Sea and shot down an American Reaper drone. Iran, which has enriched uranium to 83 percent—the atomic bomb the United States used to destroy Hiroshima during World War II used 80 percent enriched uranium—has placed “conventional warheads … across the region,” Ben Taleblu said.
Iranian support “is the common thread through all these groups” that threaten Israel and oppose the United States, he said. Tehran enjoys “growing confidence” not only as a nuclear weapons threshold state but also in the conventional arms it and its proxies possess. “It sees these capabilities as a deterrent to the United States and to Israel,” Ben Taleblu said.
Iran’s essentially “unconstrained” nuclear and conventional weapons growth “are things that would have led to military actions a decade or two ago,” he asserted. “The way we talk about deterrence in Washington is quite poor,” he added. “It’s not a light switch you turn on and off.” Instead, deterrence supports national security interests, “things worth killing, fighting and dying over.”
Intensifying the problem for Washington, “when the United States left Afghanistan the way it did in 2021,” with a chaotic exit, “Iran said, ‘this isn’t the same United States as 10 or 20 years ago,” he added. Iran’s growing hybrid military capabilities and network of alliances have been “designed to get adversaries they know are more military capable … to pull their punches.”
This explains why the Biden administration’s response to repeated attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq have been rare and ineffectual, Ben Taleblu said. “By changing risk-response considerations, Iran believes it is deterring the United States and Israel.”
He noted that American economic sanctions against Tehran “remain on the books … but enforcement is another matter. The “good news” is that Europe, alarmed by Iranian drones going to the Russian military in Ukraine, has relisted more than 300 Iranian entities. “But there is much more work to be done with missiles” to get the Europeans and Washington on the same sanctions page, he said.
A year’s worth of protests against the regime, sparked by the brutal death in custody of a young woman for not properly wearing a hijab, shows “how sharp the contrast between the state and society in Iran is,” Ben Taleblu noted. “The U.S. and Israeli governments should take this into consideration.”