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Iran's overarching strategy in attacking targets in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan


The U.S. and its ally Israel are fighting Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. All three of those groups have backing from Iran. Meanwhile, Iran itself has recently attacked targets in Iraq, Syria and even Pakistan. To talk about Iran's overarching strategy here, we've reached Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks for joining us.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It's great to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the groups that Iran has been supporting in Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon. What interest does the country have in providing weapons and training to the Houthis or Hezbollah or Hamas?

SADJADPOUR: In Iran's 1979 Revolution, essentially, you had a U.S.-allied monarchy, the shah of Iran, that was replaced almost overnight with a viscerally anti-American theocracy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. And from 1979 to the present, the last 45 years, there's essentially been three pillars to Iran's grand strategy. And the first is to try to evict America from the Middle East. The second is to try to replace Israel with Palestine. And the third is to try to bring down the U.S.-led world order.

And what Iran has done very effectively in the Middle East is to fill power vacuums. So the countries where Iran wields influence, you mentioned three of them, but there's really five of them. There's Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza in the Palestinian territories. These are essentially all failing or failed states. And Iran, with its proxies, its militias, has filled these power vacuums in order to try to advance those goals I mentioned earlier, to try to kick out America from the Middle East and replace Israel with Palestine. And obviously Iran's proxies, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, Lebanese Hezbollah share these same goals.

SHAPIRO: If Iran can outsource the fight, then why would it engage in the direct strikes that we've seen in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan recently? And, of course, Pakistan is kind of different from the others. It's the only country that is to the east of Iran. So maybe let's put a pin in that. Why is Iran engaging in these fights directly?

SADJADPOUR: It's an important question, Ari, and it really goes to the challenge and dilemma that the Biden administration has vis-a-vis Iran, because the Biden administration clearly does not want to be involved in another conflict in the Middle East. It's clear that the American public, after two decades of failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, don't want to be involved in another conflict in the Middle East. And so, on one hand, we're constantly signaling to the Iranian government that we want to de-escalate. We don't want to fight.

But the challenge is, if you're only signaling to them de-escalation, that inadvertently embolds (ph) an adversary like Iran and then you don't end up deterring them. And so the fact that Iran has actually publicly come out and claimed credit for the recent attacks in Syria and Iraq means that we're not doing a good job of deterring Iran right now. They don't obviously feel that concerned about the costs of this escalation campaign against U.S. forces in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: And then can you help us understand how Pakistan is involved? It's not immediately clear whether and how that relates to the war in Gaza.

SADJADPOUR: The recent skirmish with Pakistan was more of an outlier. You know, on one hand, I understand when two large countries, one of which is a nuclear power, are launching strikes on each other's territory, people get very alarmed. But the reality was that Iran went after an opposition group on Pakistani territory. Pakistan responded by going after the same group of ethnic minorities in Iran, the Baloches. And the sad thing was - it was essentially just civilians that were killed. And I think there's very little likelihood that Iran in Pakistan - it's going to further deteriorate into a larger conflict.

SHAPIRO: Do you see all of this as just collectively increasing the risk of a direct, hot war between the U.S. and Iran, or are groups like Hamas and Hezbollah serving as proxies that allow the two sides to avoid a direct confrontation?

SADJADPOUR: The danger here is if and when either a strike from Iran or one of its proxies actually kills numerous U.S. soldiers or civilians in one of these countries in the Middle East. It's going to be very difficult for the Biden administration to look the other way. Now, the Israeli government in the past has had something called the octopus doctrine, which says we're no longer going to respond to Iran's tentacles in the region. So if Iran's proxies attack us from Lebanon, Syria or Gaza, we're no longer going to simply respond to those areas, but we're going to go after the head of the octopus in Iran. That's also a danger, that if there's a conflict or skirmish between Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israelis, that the Israelis will choose to take the fight to Iran.

And so, you know, Iran's technical capacities has improved quite considerably over the last decade. Their drones, rockets and missiles are much more precise. But, you know, in the fog of war, it's certainly a possibility that they could either deliberately or inadvertently kill U.S. soldiers. And I think that's the danger that the Biden administration faces.

SHAPIRO: Some of these groups, like the Houthis, have said they'll stop when there's a cease-fire in Gaza. Is that true for Iran itself? Would it de-escalate if the war ends or is there a different calculus here?

SADJADPOUR: I actually don't think that's true for either Iran or its proxies. These groups, their strategy is not merely defensive. It's also offensive. They genuinely want to - they don't believe Israel should exist. They want to replace Israel with Palestine. They don't believe there should be U.S. forces in the Middle East. So despite our efforts to - U.S. efforts to try to de-escalate, I think they're going to continue to try to carry out their strategy, their ideology.

And I should note, Ari, that there's a distinction between being pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. You know, these groups, Iran and these proxies, are definitely anti-Israel. But I wouldn't argue that they're pro-Palestinian in that they are not really doing anything to advance the cause of security and prosperity for Palestinians. And in general, Iran and these five proxies I talked about, you know, they are essentially presiding over enormous misery in their own populations. So in some ways, they're purporting to care more about, you know, justice and prosperity for Palestinians than certainly they've provided their own populations.

SHAPIRO: Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you for speaking with us.

SADJADPOUR: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.