Is Iran’s ‘Ring of Fire’ Strategy Heating Up?

CIPHER BRIEF REPORTING – A second aid convoy arrived in Gaza as Israel continued striking targets in the region ahead of an expected ground operation in response to Hamas’s October 7 attacks that killed more than 1,200 people inside Israel with more than 200 people believed to have been taken hostage.

President Joe Biden is urging Israel to delay ground operations as diplomatic efforts continue in a push to allow aid to reach those who need it inside Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated his calls for the release of all hostages on NBC’s Meet the Press. Hamas released two U.S. hostages on Sunday and said they are prepared to release two more. Blinken thanked the Government of Qatar for their help in securing the hostage’s release as 10 Americans remain missing.

Blinken himself has visited Qatar as well as Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Jordon and Saudi Arabia on a whirlwind tour to try and urge calm and secure the release of the remaining hostages.

Iranian officials have publicly celebrated the attack on Israel but have denied any direct planning. And while Washington hasn’t disclosed direct intelligence linking Tehran to the deadly assault on October 7, analysts say that Iran is broadly considered the Gaza-based terrorist group’s biggest benefactor of financial and military aid, to the tune of more than $100 million annually.

“To counter Israel’s ability to threaten Iran, isolate Israel and, ultimately, help wipe it off the map, Tehran encircles it with a ‘ring of fire’ (as Israelis call it) by funding and arming its terrorist proxies with improved rockets, missiles, drones, and ground forces,” said Jonathan Ruhe, Director of Foreign Policy at the JINSA Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy. “Tehran intends for the Hamas attack to bog Israel down on a secondary front in Gaza, distract it from Iran’s nuclear program, and damage Israel’s international standing and growing acceptance among Arab states by compelling a response in Gaza that inevitably is misportrayed as illegal and disproportionate.

“Iran’s supreme leader has a long-standing strategy to surround Israel on every border with massive weapons and fighters,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “He (Iran’s Supreme Leader) aims to use terror to make Israel un-livable. He hopes to kill as many Israelis as possible while driving out those afraid to remain,” he said. “What will defeat Khamenei’s strangulation strategy is an Israeli public that values life. In contrast, its enemies in Tehran, Gaza City, Beirut, and throughout the Iranian regime axis only value death.”

Tehran has allied with at least nineteen armed militant groups on Israel’s Lebanese, Syrian, Gaza and West Bank borders where it has actively ramped up training, weapons and funding.

Nodin Muzee, a U.K.-based Senior Counter Terrorism Analyst for Global Risk International, said Hamas used to be amateurish in its planning and level of execution of terror attacks against Israel, but with mentoring from countries like Iran, its counterintelligence capabilities have improved dramatically.

“A case in point is the use of counter-surveillance measures such as using hand-to­ hand couriers rather than using mobile phones that can be electronically intercepted,” he continued. “Hamas was also able to fool Israel’s human and technical gathering capabilities by making it believe it was not planning an imminent attack; previous terror plots would have been detected quickly; therefore, this shows a high level of operational security was maintained to keep this attack secret.

Analysts say these groups have become Tehran’s street fighters – or proxies – in the country’s long-running shadow war with Israel. Prominent armed groups aligned with Iran inside Iraq and Yemen have also threatened to go after U.S. interests should Washington intercede in Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip.

“Hamas’s most recent terror attack is a worrying sign of hyper-confidence felt by Iran and its proxies. Beyond the parallels to 1973, that involve both a strategic surprise of this scale as well as having taken place around the 50th anniversary of that war, the latest attack is to me, a sign of Iran intensifying its death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy against Israel, as well the proof of the evolution of its proxies’ capabilities,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), focused on Iranian security and political issues. “It’s unclear what the strategic surprise resulted from, aka a technical, political, operational, bureaucratic, or other oversight, but one current vector of debate is how well Israel can monitor the multi-front and multi-domain State and non-state threats it faces. Namely, was there an overfocus on Syria vs Gaza?”

Analysts believe that Iran’s leaders have deployed a strategy to expand Tehran’s regional power and influence while driving out U.S. presence in the region.

Earlier this year, Tehran turned to Beijing for mediation to restore diplomatic relations with its Riyadh adversaries after ten years of severed ties. At the same time, Israel and Riyadh announced a much-anticipated agreement to normalize relations – an agreement now in at risk of being off-the-table, much to Tehran’s relief, in the wake of the recent Hamas incursion and Israel’s deadly response to the terrorist presence in neighboring Gaza.

“The position of the Islamic Republic is that countries that make the gamble of normalization with Israel will lose. They are betting on a losing horse,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated, according to Iranian state media, just days before the Hamas attack, adding that “today, the Palestinian movement is more active than ever.”

Jason Brodsky, Policy Director at United Against Nuclear Iran and Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, noted, “Iran shares a strategic interest with Hamas in rupturing the Abraham Accords.”

“It is also seeking to escalate in theaters uncovered by de-escalatory understandings with the U.S. Israel is one of those theaters,” he said.

Iran has reinstituted diplomacy efforts with the UAE and is believed to have propelled the Emirates to pull out of a U.S.-led naval affiliation in the Persian Gulf in favor of opting into a conflicting one helmed by Tehran. The Islamic Republic has also reopened talks with Turkey- regarding shared quagmires in the Middle East and cemented a new oil deal with Iraq without Washington’s involvement.

Beyond the region, Tehran’s tentacles continue to expand deeper into Russia and much of Latin America, namely Venezuela. Ultimately, wherever the U.S. has a rival, Iran is there to offer a helping hand in a bid to expand its network of allies.

“Iran has made its ambitions in the region clear through its state sponsorship of terrorism that has resulted in the deaths of countless innocents in Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, said Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Executive Director David Ibsen. “Tehran wants to dominate the region, undermine or displace moderate states allied with America, and encircle Israel in a ring of fire from its terror proxies.”

So, what should the United States be doing in response to Tehran’s strategic and tactical actions in the Middle East? First and foremost, experts caution that any effort to return to the JCPOA would be a mistake.

“Iran had every reason to hope for an even better deal if it just kept holding out and advancing its nuclear program,” stressed Ruhe. “The important thing now is for the White House to say unequivocally that there’s no sitting down to talk with an Iranian regime that supports terrorism like we’ve just seen, and that Tehran’s intransigence killed the deal long ago, despite good-faith U.S. efforts over and over again. America gave diplomacy more than a fair shot; now we need to make the case publicly and explicitly that Tehran, and Tehran alone, has left absolutely no more room for diplomacy.”

Multiple U.S. administrations have struggled with a policy for handling Iran, and the crisis in Israel presents new difficulties for the Biden team in both supporting its ally and deflecting further tensions. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony

Blinken pledged to defend Israel “as long as America exists” while dually calling for Israel to “take every possible precaution to prevent harming civilians.”

That same day, Washington made the controversial move of prompting Qatar to re­ freeze the $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian funds after Tehran released five American hostages last month. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has also said that current sanctions against Iran are under review – and did not rule out the possibility of more.

“The United States needs to rally the world and build a coalition to employ sanctions against Iran, with aggressive enforcement,” Brodsky emphasized. “The United States and its allies also need to hold Tehran responsible for the atrocities its partner committed and enabled through arms and financing. That must include a kinetic response to reinforce deterrence.”

Whether the economic iron fist is largely effective remains a heated debate. While Iran’s GDP is estimated to have diminished by 44 percent since 2012, the Islamic leadership and IRGC appear to have only gone from strength to strength.

According to Muzee, sanctions against Iran can only work if they are part of a well­ coordinated strategy using the various levers – diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence – at the disposal of the U.S. government, stressing that the U.S. needs to be very meticulous about avoiding mixed messaging.

“Iran’s foreign policy has always been to export terrorism worldwide to help it achieve its objectives,” said Muzee. “That meant creating proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Gaza over a long period. Iran has always been afraid to start a direct military confrontation with Israel since it has nuclear weapons, hence the need for proxies which it will hide behind and issue public denials regarding any involvement in funding terrorist groups. The point of the most recent attack was to kill as many people as possible. Iran was hoping to provoke an extreme overreaction from the Israeli military. The Israeli public revenge, and its politicians and military leadership had no choice but to give them what they wanted; their careers depended on it, and this would be justification for Iran’s proxies to enter the conflict on multiple fronts, keep in mind Hezbollah is based in Lebanon and are well trained and armed.”

Defense experts are urging the Pentagon not to be afraid of taking a more prominent role in the escalating crisis. The Biden administration has taken swift steps to send Israel weapons, which include air and defense munitions. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group and the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group have arrived in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which is expected to bolster U.S. air capabilities in the area – including the possible deployment of F-15, F-16 and A-10 aircraft, which would be critical in the case of Lebanese Hezbollah opening a new front in the war, or at minimum, would act as a strong deterrent.

“While the depth of Iran’s involvement in planning and carrying out the attack remains unclear, what is clear is that the Iranian leadership has expressed a devastating lack of humanity by providing, at the very least, approval of what can only be referred to as war crimes,” said Ibsen. “As such, the United States has to recognize that this regime is beyond negotiation. The U.S. should reinstate full sanctions on Iran. The U.S. should also provide full support to Israel in its efforts to combat Hamas, which has shown itself to be unreformable and a major instigator of regional conflict while utterly failing the people of Gaza.”

Originally Published in The Cipher Brief.