Ayatollah Ali Khamenei walks past Iranian flags (Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

April 23, 2024   5 mins

It is only now, almost 16 years since Obama first entered the White House with the private determination to end Iran’s “death to America” hostility at all costs, that his Iran policy has achieved the exact opposite of what he had wanted: direct warfare, with US fighters intercepting Iran’s bombardment drones. All along, it was a policy that had two different faces: one perfectly reasonable, and the other perfectly delusional.

The delusional part stemmed from the mistaken belief that the US could persuade the Tehran regime to abandon its “death to America” hostility. Perhaps because he relied on his law-school buddy Robert Malley (whose extreme hostility to Israel did not make him an Iran expert), Obama failed to see that, by the time he set out to win it over, the regime’s blend of oppression and institutional corruption had lost it the support of most Iranians. Unmoored from popular opinion, it had instead become entirely dependent on the professional extremists of the Revolutionary Guards, the much larger Basij militia, and the most politicised clerics.

This is why all attempts at mutual reconciliation under Obama were doomed to fail, in spite of two successive nuclear accords and the wholesale lifting of sanctions. Even if Iran’s leaders had wanted to reciprocate they could not abandon their performative hostility to the US, because Iranians at large are so hostile to the theocratic regime that many even tell pollsters that they have renounced Shi’a Islam altogether: visitors report empty mosques in all but the poorest neighbourhoods.

Partly because Obama compelled Biden to take on Malley as his own Iran coordinator (until he lost his security clearance), the Biden Administration moved very fast to repudiate Trump’s hostility to the Ayatollah’s regime, going overboard in its own attempt at reconciliation. One example is sufficient: the Houthi militia that is Iran’s proxy in Yemen, which the US Navy is now battling in the Red Sea, was unilaterally removed from the terrorist list in exchange for nothing at all, merely to signal to Tehran that the Obama courtship of the regime was being renewed after the Trump interval.

The reasonable, even wise, part of Obama’s policy was to disabuse Washington of the illusion that Iran could be knocked off the board as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been, with a quick march to Tehran by a couple of US divisions. Of course it is a much bigger country (almost four times as large, with twice the population), but the real difference lies in the fact that Iran’s statecraft is derived from the country’s pre-Islamic and imperial past, not from its extremist religion. Those principles are so deeply ingrained in the country’s political culture that even the ruling religious fanatics are high-functioning imperial operatives when it comes to diplomacy and war.

They know how to manipulate foreign perceptions of Iran to suit their aims; for example, they successfully simulated a very warm conviviality with the US negotiators they privately resented, while in confrontations they know how to go right to the edge, without falling into the abyss. Consider how Iran Air still operates out of London several times a week, despite the route being used by Tehran’s goons to fly in, attack dissidents, and return home with a quick taxi-ride to Heathrow. Knowing that the UK Foreign Office is desperate to keep its embassy and its diplomats in Tehran (to have something the US lacks), the regime perpetrates all manner of abuses secure in the knowledge there will be no retaliation.

Most significantly, Iran’s leaders were given the time and the oil revenues to recruit the Shi’a militias from Lebanon to Yemen now holding the Middle East to ransom. Ever since the fall of the Shah in 1979 — for which Khomeini successfully obtained support in the West by pretending that he was a persecuted humanist— Iran’s campaign to dominate the region has been vigorously pursued. To succeed, the regime had to somehow overcome the deepest schism in the Islamic world by persuading Sunni Arabs that the Sunni-Shia divide was less important than their collective hatred for the Jews, and that the ancestral hostility between Arabs and Persians was less important than their shared hostility to Israel. In the meantime, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards revealed true imperial skills in turning Arabic-speaking recruits in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen into obedient soldiers ready to fight for Iran’s aggrandisement — much as the British Army did in India with native troops. In fact, the power of the Revolutionary Guards within the regime steadily increased because of the military strength it generated with its abundant, cheap and, above all, expendable molokh khor “lizard-eater” Arab manpower (Ever since the huge losses of the Iraq war, Iran has been very casualty-sensitive).

But the Revolutionary Guards finally failed strategically because their Arab recruitment policy was so successful that it overshot the culminating point of success: seeing the historic Sunni capital of Damascus under Shia domination, and Baghdad the very seat of the Sunni Arab Caliphate ruled by Iran’s agents, Sunni Arab states from Morocco to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which had repeatedly fought Israel from 1948, moved to abandon their hostility, openly or discreetly. And while the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7 gained no goodwill for Israel or the Jews, Israel’s overall response proved that it has the strength to resist Iran’s imperial ambitions. When an Israeli air strike decapitated the Revolutionary Guard expeditionary high command gathered in  Damascus on April 1, by killing its chief and his entire staff, not a word of criticism was heard in the Sunni Arab world.

Iran’s response was an all-out air offensive with hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones, and cruise missiles. But this very expensive attack failed most miserably, wounding just one Israeli, a seven-year-old Bedouin, and inflicting only trivial damage to the non-functional edge of a runway.

“Israel’s response proved that it has the strength to resist Iran’s imperial ambitions.”

Israel’s response was on the smallest possible scale but calculated to terrify the regime: an aircraft penetrated all the way to Isfahan, much further from Israel than Tehran, to drop a token UAV next to the Uranium Hexafluoride plant — the country’s major nuclear installation, most incautiously placed in the centre of the city whose population would suffer huge casualties from the highly corrosive poisonous gas if the plant were bombed.

With the exception of Algeria that is absorbed in its own traumas and Libya that has never recovered from its civil war, every Arab Sunni state in the Middle East welcomed the outcome of the aerial war — in which the Jordanian air force actually took part shooting down Iran’s drones — because all of them can and do coexist with Israel, while they abhor the threat of Shia and Persian domination.

As for Iran’s military chiefs, their standard of success is so low that, in the immediate aftermath of the failed aerial offensive, Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, declared that Iran “has achieved all of its goals”. He then unwisely added a vainglorious threat: “If the Zionist regime or its supporters demonstrate reckless behaviour, they will receive a decisive and much stronger response.” It was the sort of comment that gives effrontery a bad name. Iran’s strategists know perfectly well that if they ever come close to assembling a nuclear weapon, Israel will not hesitate to strike first with its manned and unmanned airpower. That too is a reason for the Sunni alliance, perhaps best symbolised by the uninterrupted flights of Air Dubai and Ittihad to Tel Aviv that persisted even as both US and European airlines repeatedly cancelled their own.


Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.