The recent outbreak of intense violence between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza has once again underlined the Iranian role in fomenting violence and instability across the region.
While Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system largely managed to cope adequately with the onslaught, all military observers agree that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have vastly increased the quality and quantity of their missile arsenals, firing many more at Israel over a far shorter time frame than in previous conflicts. The ranges, which now include the entirety of Israel, as well as their payloads and accuracy have all been upgraded.
Iran is directly responsible for the ever-increasing capabilities of these groups. While most of the munitions have been manufactured in Gaza, they are built using Iranian plans, Iranian-supplied know-how and often smuggled Iranian parts. Moreover, as Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iran's missile program, has recently detailed in a report for the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Iran has actually begun designing and testing simple, customised rocket variants optimised for local production by its various proxies.
This is not a secret - both Hamas and PIJ have publicly thanked Iran and its Iraqi and Lebanese proxies for supplying them with weapons, training, and funding, as they do during and after every conflict.
This is the current template for Iran's approach to all its proxies from Iraq and Lebanon all the way down to Yemen - directly smuggling missile and drone components, but, more importantly, enabling local production of systems specially designed by Iran for each particular proxy in the countries themselves.
This destructive and dangerous Iranian proliferation looks set to significantly worsen in the near future, thanks to the plans being discussed for a US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with Iran.
Indirect talks in Vienna between the United States and Iran aimed at stopping Iran's escalating violations of the deal appear to be setting an alarmingly low bar for sanctions relief. US officials are now hinting Washington won't wait until Iran materially returns to compliance before easing pressure on the regime, as they had previously indicated they would.
The underlying notion of the JCPOA is bribery; namely, that Iran will agree to halt or slow down certain aspects of its nuclear enrichment program and allow oversight over some of these activities for a very limited time in return for expansive sanctions relief and a massive influx of funds.
There are many problems with this approach, not least of which is that the JCPOA essentially legitimises Iran's advancing nuclear enrichment capabilities and research and even rewards Iran for continuing to upgrade its nuclear infrastructure and expertise, despite the fact Iran unambiguously established its entire nuclear program in pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.
The bribery, in a sense, has paid off in limited terms - Iran has agreed not to develop nuclear weapons until it has all the money it wants and has fully developed all the capabilities it needs to quickly field a nuclear weapon - at which point, JCPOA "sunset clauses" kick in which will allow Iran to enrich uranium in any amount with much reduced scrutiny.
Iran is making rapid progress on the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capability via its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) space program and rapidly increasing the level and sophistication of its enrichment program. Iran's view of the JCPOA is that it provides a window to fully develop all the capabilities it would need to quickly develop stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and field a nuclear weapon on an ICBM, once it is ready.
But the more immediate problem is that the massive influx of cash that would flood into Iran as a result of the US re-entering the deal would be catastrophic for international stability. Even now, under crushing sanctions, the Iranian regime is diverting much of what little money it has into its proxies. The Houthis attack Saudi Arabia's infrastructure almost daily with drones and ballistic missiles thanks to ever-increasing Iranian assistance. Iran's precision missile project for the wholly Iran-supplied arsenals of Hezbollah, the Houthis, and its Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi proxies continues, as does its support for their ongoing wars of aggression and for the Assad regime in Syria.
Now imagine an Iran, and by extension all of its proxies, unconstrained by crushing sanctions and wielding renewed political legitimacy after mutual US and Iranian re-entry into the JCPOA. The idea that more power and money would make these implacable jihadists less dangerous and aggressive seems bizarre.
Without Iranian support, Gaza's terrorist factions would at best be much weaker, and potentially out of power, and thus the constant, destructive wars we have been seeing would not have occurred. Without Iran, there would be no Houthis and therefore no Yemeni humanitarian catastrophe. Iraqi activists would not be constantly gunned down en masse or assassinated in the streets by Iran's Iraqi proxies, and the extent of the Syrian carnage would've been much reduced.
This is not a regime that should have access to billions of more dollars particularly given that the JCPOA not only can't prevent any of Iran's nuclear pursuits, but is in fact effectively rewarding them with money and political cover. If you are horrified by the destruction in Gaza, or the prospect of further wars triggered by Iran's proxy Hezbollah, to avoid a repeat it is essential to contain and sanction the Iranian regime, not empower it, hopefully considerations that US President Biden and his senior colleagues will now take more seriously.
- Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.