Richard Haass, one of America’s leading foreign policy strategists, believes Tehran’s weekend attack has thrown Israel “the lifeline of lifelines.”

Like many Americans, Richard Haass is still trying to understand why Iran decided to attack Israel directly over the weekend with a barrage of more than 300 missiles and drones, most of which were shot down. The attack was a retaliation for an airstrike by Israel earlier this month that killed a top general with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Damascus. But Haass believes Tehran has miscalculated and will come to regret its decision to shift from its longtime strategy of using proxy forces in places like Syria and Iraq into launching a direct attack on civilian areas in Israel, which has only rekindled sympathy for Israelis.

“The Iranians have lost control of the narrative,” Haass says.

Haass, the author of multiple books about foreign policy, retired as president of the Council on Foreign Relations last year after nearly 20 years. Previously he was director of policy planning at the State Department under Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Today Haass publishes a weekly substack called “Home & Away.”

The question for the Middle East now is whether Iran’s miscalculation will be followed by an Israeli one.

“I like to quote Napoleon’s dictum: When your enemies are making a big mistake, don’t interrupt them,” he says. “Iran interrupted its enemy at a time when Israel was increasingly isolated and on the defensive, both internationally and in its relationship with the U.S.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With the attack by Iran, the Mideast crisis has become an even more complex situation, with a lot of moving parts. What would you be advising President Biden today?

I’m not sure I agree 100 percent that Israel shouldn’t respond. I think there are two big questions here. Should Israel respond? And if so, how should it respond? The Iranians essentially seem to want to say, “We’re even now, or tit or for tat.” And the president and the administration basically seem to be saying, “Okay, let’s not let things get out of hand.” So, as best I can tell, they are telling Israel at a minimum, “We won’t be with you if you do respond.”

“You got a win. Take the win,” is what Biden reportedly told [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in urging him not to counter-attack.

The only danger in that is whether deterrence has been weakened, because Iran crossed a significant threshold. The homeland-on-homeland attack was an unfortunate precedent. Which is not to say the right response would be to attack Iran’s homeland. There’s a case for Israel responding in some ways along the lines of the action that may appear to have precipitated this: going after Iranian proxies, or elements of the Iranian security establishment outside of Iran. But I believe they would be wise to avoid an attack on the Iranian homeland.

But realistically, don’t you think the Israelis, particularly a government as right-wing as this one, would view anything less than a response in kind — that is, a direct attack on Iran — as weak?

Certainly, there will be voices that will say that. Netanyahu will probably find himself caught, once again, between competing tendencies in his unwieldy coalition. I would argue for keeping the response very targeted. If Israel decides to act against Iran directly, I would suggest they target, for example, a factory where drones are being produced or a storage facility for drones. It ought not to be something that kills large numbers of Iranians.

One question is whether the Israelis may be thinking about attacking Iran’s nuclear program, which they have already targeted in various ways. Would that be appropriate?

The nuclear program in Iran is so distributed geographically and so protected that a response would have to be enormous. It still wouldn’t destroy a significant portion of the program, though it could well set it back by a factor of months or a year or two. But the danger is that, in addition to whatever immediate retaliation would come from Iran, such an attack would provide justification for Iran going for nuclear weapons at a pace and to a degree that is not yet the case. The Iranians could say to the world: “Look, Israel is a nuclear weapons country, and they attack us with impunity. We therefore need nuclear weapons to stop that.” Attacking Iran’s nuclear program would not meet the thresholds or the criteria of proportionality, in my view.

It’s not clear what Tehran was trying to achieve with this attack. Was this a huge mistake by Iran, because until it happened Israel and the U.S. were on the defensive over the humanitarian issue in Gaza?

Yes, so much of the last 48 hours has been many of us just head-scratching over this. Why would Iran do what it did? I like to quote Napoleon’s dictum: When your enemies are making a big, big mistake, don’t interrupt them. Iran interrupted a situation when Israel was increasingly isolated and on the defensive, both internationally and in its relationship with the U.S., which had reached something of a nadir. At the United Nations, too, the narrative was working in Iran’s favor. Iran had so many other ways to respond effectively — perhaps using Hezbollah to militarize the West Bank or to do things elsewhere in the region. That has been the essence of Iranian national security policy for decades. So this seems to be a major strategic error on the part of Iran.

Perhaps that is what Biden was referring to — the strategic victory as well as Israel’s success in knocking down the missiles and drones.

Yes, the Iranians have lost control of the narrative. And even worse, they’ve introduced a new narrative, which like Oct. 7 casts Israel as the offended party. What Iran has done is throw Bibi Netanyahu the lifeline of lifelines that allows him to change the narrative. Now it’s about Iran — and Iran is an issue that, unlike Gaza, unites Israelis.

There’s been a lot of self-congratulation in the last 48 hours about the effectiveness of Israel’s defense shield, with help from the U.S., and extraordinarily from Jordan as well, in shooting down 99 percent of the attack projectiles. But as I understand it, Iran deliberately did not fire off some of its best missiles. What do you make of that?

It was as if they were going through the motions of retaliation for what happened in [Damascus] Syria, rather than trying to really do something that would be militarily significant. I mean, it almost looks like a compromise. They didn’t throw everything they had at it. It looks almost as though it was designed to fail. And then they were so quick to have their mission at the U.N. declare that this concludes things. It’s almost as though, for whatever domestic reason, they had to be seen as responding, but it was more of a political response than a military one.

What does that tell you? Was this about satisfying Iranian public opinion? Are the mullahs concerned about the domestic weakness of the regime?

It tells me that there may be differences between the IRGC and other factions. It’s quite possible the IRGC was demanding a [hard-line] response but others in Iran didn’t want it to lead to an all-out conflict. Sometimes compromises that make no sense are the result of competing factions. Because again, on its merits, it makes very little sense to me why Iran didn’t simply go with its normal playbook of indirect responses, perhaps targeting a Jewish or Israeli target halfway around the world. I was actually much more worried about them funneling more arms into the West Bank. That to me was a more frightening prospect.

Let’s talk about how Biden and his administration have been handling this crisis overall. With the election seven months away, Biden’s under an extraordinary amount of pressure on the Palestinian issue. Would you say this is unprecedented?

Heretofore, if presidents paid a political price, it was for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. What’s different now is that Biden is paying a political price for being “too pro-Israel.” So what’s unprecedented is that, given the views of younger Americans — Americans of color and larger numbers of Muslim and Arab Americans — the domestic politics of the Middle East have changed. It’s now become two-sided, not one-sided, which actually makes it harder for presidents. Biden is the first to learn this the hard way.

Before Oct. 7, the Biden administration was discussing normalization with Saudi Arabia but there wasn’t much attention to the Palestinians. In fact, Biden seemed to be going along with the approach of the previous administration, the so-called Abraham Accords, which basically sidelined the Palestinians. Then after Oct. 7, Biden and his team rediscovered the two-state solution, but they don’t seem to be pushing that very hard.

There are four issues of contention with Israel and [the Biden administration] has focused mainly on two. First, humanitarian aid flows. And second, the Israeli use of military force and the lack of sufficient effort to avoid civilian casualties. But missing has been the issue of settlements on the West Bank — either land expropriation or settlement activity — and the other is the political content of a peace process. I’m largely fine with the first two. … But the real oversight, it seems to me, has not been to confront Israel on settlements and to articulate in detail what the United States believes ought to be the parameters of a political process. Of course, right now, neither Israel nor the Palestinians are [ready to negotiate a state]. But sometimes in diplomacy, you put forward ideas not to negotiate but to stimulate a process that will lead to political changes that will allow negotiations to happen.

Do you think that if either this Israeli government or a successor government could address the Palestinian issue, there might be reason for hope in terms of a larger Middle East peace structure — especially with the prospect of Arab normalization and so forth?

It’s a long shot at best, but I refuse to give up on it. I’m a firm believer that it’s not just the Palestinians who need a Palestinian state, it’s Israel too. I have no illusions about the odds, and how long this could take and how difficult it would be and so forth. But I really do worry about the consequences of drift, about the idea of one-state “non-solution.” I really worry, not simply that you get a generation of even more radical Palestinians, but that it poses real challenges to Israel’s Jewishness or democratic status or both. I think that’s bad for Israel. I think it’s terrible for the U.S.-Israel relationship. I’m not naïve, but if I could paraphrase [Winston] Churchill, I think a two-state solution is the worst possible solution, except for all the others.

You worked for the administration of President George W. Bush, and you left not long after the Iraq invasion in 2003. How much would you say the United States is still paying for its own errors in the Middle East going back to the Iraq war?

That’s a good question. The principal strategic beneficiary of the Iraq war was none other than Iran. And one of the things that struck me the other day when the missiles and drones were being shot at Israel was, look where they were coming from. They were coming not just from Iran but also from Yemen and Iraq. This is the new Middle East. This is the Greater Iran. And to me, that was a reminder of how the Iraq war so imbalanced the region in Iran’s direction. So yes, we are and will continue to pay a real price for the strategic blunder that was the Iraq War.

Source: Politico

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