I have been tracking Iran for Israeli intelligence for decades.
Through the interplay of circumstance, the precedent set by my father – who found his professional home in the IDF – and sheer willpower, I am one of only a handful of Druze Israelis to ever achieve the rank of general in the IDF.
I have spent my career, almost 40 years now, as a national security, intelligence and counter-terrorism expert for Israel, serving as military secretary to two Israeli presidents and advising the Israeli prime minister on behalf of Israel’s National Security Council.
I have seen a lot happen in this region over four decades. That includes watching, and actively contributing to, changes that have entirely resketched the practical and conceptual boundaries of the Middle East.
As a native Arabic speaker, I was enlisted in the efforts to cultivate clandestine relations with the Arab world. I admit that the fruits of this diplomacy have gone further than my wildest dreams. We have truly seen bridges being forged where once only walls stood, gesturing at the possibility of a radical transformation of our region and the broader global reality. When I reflect upon these changes, the optimist in me emerges front and center.
So, why I am so troubled right now?
IS ALL-OUT WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST IMMINENT?
While I was serving as Shimon Peres’ military secretary in 2012, I joined him for a trip to Washington, where he was to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for a lifetime pursuing peace. Before the ceremony, we sat down with the administration for what turned into a two-hour long meeting in the Oval Office, poring over the intricacies of what was then deepening Iranian entrenchment in the Middle East.
I shared in no uncertain terms my belief about the threat posed to the region and to the Free World at large driven by an unquenchable quest for dominance fueled by a messianic Shi’ite interpretation of religious doctrine that had flourished into a hard-line operative strategy under the Ayatollah regime.
I described to then-President Barack Obama what I viewed then, and continue to view now, as a brilliant overarching strategy adopted by the Islamic Republic (and overseen largely by Qassem Suleimani who was to be taken down by the Trump administration far too late). It included developing, on the one hand, iron-clad internal security, capable of promptly squelching any internal resistance or potential uprising of the sort experienced throughout the Arab world.
On the other, cultivating a vast web of influence, using proxies to infiltrate every possible strategic front and extend Iranian influence for the moment of reckoning that would present itself sooner or later. Both the domestic and foreign policy that followed hinged on the cultivation of an enormously powerful non-state actor. The Army of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), originally founded by Khomeini as a militia with ideological underpinnings, was slowly, but with remarkable effectiveness, morphing into a state-within-a-state, replete with its own expansive infrastructure: intelligence, weaponry, ports, and an intricate web of control over local economic institutions, the banking system, the legal and judicial systems.
Most pertinent for the broader world, the IRGC under Soleimani became a remarkably effective agent for expanding Iranian influence throughout the Middle East and the world. I pressed, in that meeting with the American administration, for the IRGC to be declared a terrorist organization and believe the U.S. made the right decision in ultimately obliging.
When, later that evening, over the jazz music that Obama graciously served up for Peres (the two of them shared a love of that musical genre), Iran came up again in conversation, Peres waved me over and the three of us found ourselves huddled together again, for another go-round. As I delved into further detail about the threat Iran posed, President Obama looked over at President Peres and pointed to me, “Gee, Shimon,” he said with his signature ear-to-ear smile and inimitable charm, “This is the general who knows everything!”
If ignorance is bliss, I’m afraid that knowledge, in this case, is misery.
Exactly 10 years have since elapsed. I have watched my grim vision get more and more grounded in reality and materialize into what I still fear is my worst nightmare: all-out war in the Middle East with disastrous consequences for the world at large. I am genuinely concerned that the moment I have long feared is upon us.
WEST HAS BEEN TREATING SYMPTOMS RATHER THAN ROOT CAUSES
The Middle East has long been a political region that lends itself to western misreading. It has puzzled and frustrated western leaders, and yielded a consistent fertile crop of experts and shifting foreign policy that has donned many forms in its attempts to reel in the chaos of this unwieldy swath of territory, responsible for so much global havoc.
From the two invasions of Iraq, to the actual elimination of Saddam Hussein, from the ousting of Libya's Muammar Gadaffi to the battle against al-Qaida and ISIS, the West’s MO has been fairly consistent: Contain the chaos, prop up governments favorable to the West, support opposition forces where necessary, and support the Arab peoples gaining their voice. Concordantly, the Arab Spring uprising of 2011 was regarded as an overwhelmingly positive development. The exit of evil dictators like Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Gadaffi were welcomed. The assassination of key villains like Osama bin Ladin and the fall of ISIS, naturally, embraced.
But here’s where the west has it wrong.
I know it sounds radical, but I believe that a little bit of chaos in the Middle East is just what we’re missing. Because while the West, led by the U.S., has been busy finding cathartic release for the insult and frustration of 9/11, chasing down such unsightly phenomena as Hussein, ISIS and al-Qaida, Iran has inched closer and closer to finally realizing its vision.
It may be counter-intuitive, but it is the precarious juxtaposition of varying interests – the very mess – that had kept a semblance of order in the Middle East until now. It may not be a pretty choice, but I’d nonetheless take an assortment of tug-of-war political and religious persuasions, perversions and patrons that fuel ongoing low-grade chaos and perpetual power struggle, over the regional hegemony of one nefarious and highly competent actor, willing – and able – to go to all lengths to redeem the Shi’ite caliphate and impose its murderous ideological vision on the world.
I believe that it is the West’s discomfort with chaos, its desire to see a Middle East (a world!) crafted in its own tidy image that has been responsible for a far greater threat. The pretentious assumption that western intervention can stop it has fueled grave miscalculations that have pushed the Middle East toward an abyss that this region is peering over at this very moment.
Because if ISIS and the likes are a violent id, cobbled together out of wild-eyed jihadists from around the globe, titillated by flashy, cathartic shows of violence, Iran is a perfectly functioning, fully-blown ego: a hyper-civilized and calculating hegemonic power with imperial ambitions, replete with a highly-developed air force, armed to the teeth with precision guided long-range missiles, massive stores of unconventional weaponry, unmanned aerial vehicles, a trained army, navy and air force, droves of mercenaries ready to show up on call, and the vast resources of a scientific, cyber and soon to be nuclear superpower to hoist upon proxies strategically stationed throughout the region.
It's true. It’s not as if the world hasn’t noticed Iran or hasn’t taken steps to counter-balance and curb its power through a range of diplomatic and military maneuvers. Israeli objection to Iranian nuclear ambitions has been a mainstay of its foreign policy, Israel is constantly targeting Iranian arms supply in the region, to Russia’s growing chagrin, and the alliances with Turkey, Egypt, and the moderate Arab world have done a great deal toward deterring Iran.
But while the Free World is locked into an exhausting war of attrition with the Islamic Republic over the intricacies of a purported nuclear deal – talks are, yet again, set to rev up – attention has been diverted from a no less serious series of developments. Iran, with the elegance and coy of a Persian cat, has slowly been spinning a vast web of influence throughout the Middle East, stepping into every vacuum that every western intervention has left. And it has reached a pivotal moment.
With Russian (and global) attention diverted elsewhere, a draining and protracted global pandemic, U.S. leadership contending with its own domestic political and economic travails, a dysfunctional Israeli government coming apart at the seams for the fifth time in three years, Iran is finally poised to capitalize on what has been a long and patient strategy of infiltrating the governmental and popular infrastructure of every millimeter of territory.
At this point, there isn’t one tactical front left uncontaminated. It has effectively entrenched itself along every one of Israel’s borders and far beyond. It has developed strongholds in Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah, Kataeeb Hezbollah in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza. It is breathing down Jordan’s neck as well, frighteningly close to establishing a stronghold there as well, in what promises to have devastating consequences for Israel and the West.
It has massive presence in Gaza, a stone’s throw from Israel’s civilian communities. Israel’s frantic attempts in recent weeks at protecting its citizens in Turkey – where the Revolutionary Guard has been desperate for some tangible show of victory – are an ominous foreshadowing of what the immediate future holds. The final threads are being sown in to what has become a vast web of influence.
And there is a further piece that has largely escaped the eye of public attention: The IRGC has recently set its sights and concerted efforts on making inroads into minority communities throughout the region, including right on Israel’s borders. Exploiting the impoverished conditions of Druze, Yazidis, Alawite, Sunni and Christian minorities, Iran has used its vast resources (largely the product of its control of South American drug-cartels) to take over villages, particularly in southern Syria, buying out whole areas, introducing drugs into the youth population, counterfeiting and distributing money, penetrating local education systems and unraveling their societies from the inside. This is yet another step in its master scheme, playing out right in front of our disbelieving eyes.
Nuclear war, after all, isn’t the only or most likely scenario under current circumstances. Iran is disinclined to jeopardize millennia of Persian heritage in an all-out nuclear showdown with the west, certainly not one that would ‘dirty its hands’ on its own territory. But similar disincentives are not in place with conventional warfare. And Iran has carefully amassed massive stores of precision-guided missiles and unmanned aircraft – literally, tens of thousands – and deployed them within striking distance of Israel from virtually every possible strategic direction, in a region stretching from Baalbek to Rafah.
It has similarly amassed mercenaries across thousands of kilometers, preparing hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers on land and at sea, some directly under Israel’s nose in Gaza and, shortly, possibly in Jordan, poised to give the signal and strike at just the right moment. The one, I believe, is very, very close.
UNITED AGAINST ISRAEL
A month ago, a dramatic media event in the Arab world went largely under the radar. The commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Salami, appeared on Hezbollah's television station in a dazzling rhetorical display intended to rally viewers around resistance to Israel’s celebration of Jerusalem Day.
He was joined by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, head of Islamic Jihad Abd Al Aziz Awda and other terrorists. These are unlikely bedfellows, to say the least, as competing Shi’a and Sunni sects. But sectarianism, in this instance, takes a back seat to expediency.
Iranian and Sunni terrorist leaders are prepared to put aside differences – well, centuries of intense hatred, really – when it serves the immediate goal: joining forces to discomfit whatever is standing in the immediate path of the quest for dominance; namely, at present, Israel.
DIPLOMACY HAS BEEN WORKING
To be clear, I don’t believe that global and Israeli leadership have been turning a blind eye to the developments on the ground. No, the West has not been willfully ignorant with regard to Iran. And, yes, Israel and the West have wisely and dutifully been building the regional allegiances that are the only true counter-weight to Iranian regional hegemony. Just weeks ago Israel confirmed its participation in the U.S.-led Middle East Air Defense Alliance and the developing alliance with Saudi Arabia has basically emerged from the shadows by now. And Iran has taken note.
But now is the time to capitalize on those investments, to place every strategic emphasis on seeing them through to fullness, so that they can act as a strong and effective bulwark against Iranian aggression that threatens broad-scale destruction, in the image of Iran’s deepest dreams, and everyone else’s most chilling nightmare.
Israel and the U.S. have met success when they have worked in tandem to deter Iran on the ground. Iranian efforts in Sudan to deploy massive arms, for instance, were foiled by a dual military-diplomatic campaign led by triangular American-Israeli-Saudi efforts. A combined military offensive coupled with diplomatic efforts ultimately successfully convinced Sudanese President Omar al’Bashir to reject the Iranian overtures and pursue collaboration and peace through ties with the west.
Likewise, in Oman, diplomacy led to breakthroughs and normalization, in a country that shook off Iranian courting and has joined the coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis, helping to restore stability to all-around benefit.
These are precisely the types of decisive maneuvers that need to become front and center in a clear and uncompromising strategy of fortifying strong anti-Iranian alliances and being unafraid to take whatever military initiative necessary to neutralize Iran.
There is far more that can be done. Minority communities, like the ones mentioned above, should be given attention and aid, both because it is the ethical choice and because they are critical allies in the attempt to ward off Iranian influence. There is further a great deal more that can be accomplished through diplomacy with the moderate Arab world: with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Libya, the Gulf States and, especially, with Turkey. Strategic defense collaboration can be deepened through intelligence and military cooperation.
Once Iran has achieved nuclear capacity, the game will have radically shifted in its favor. Now is the time for Israel and the West to use their full capacity – militarily and diplomatically – to be proactive in preventing what could prove to be a devastating war.
Israeli history boasts examples of both proactive and passive approaches. In 1967, it preemptively struck Egypt’s air force, ultimately preventing what would have been a disastrous war for Israel. In 1973, it chose to wait, and paid the price in huge casualty rates. This time, in open conflict with a superpower with ruthless imperial ambitions on the cusp of nuclear capacity, it would be wise to act swiftly and decisively.
The Arab world is on board, well aware of the threat Iran poses, long overshadowing any residual resentment toward Israel’s presence in the Middle East. By joining hands and responding with a resounding ‘no!’ to Iran, it might still become a region of thriving peace and prosperity.
IDF Gen. (res.) Hasson Hasson was the military secretary of two Israeli presidents and special forces officer in the IDF, and now is a senior member of the the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF).