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What Iran's military strategy can tell us about the war


Israel conducted missile strikes in Iran this week. Neither Iranian or Israeli officials have commented on the strikes, which appear to be in response to an Iranian attack last weekend when more than 300 missiles and drones were fired at Israel. And that attack was in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian embassy in Damascus nearly three weeks ago. Iran claims it gave a 72-hour warning before its attack. Israel and allies managed to shoot down the missiles and drones, and Iranian media say that Israel's strikes were largely intercepted and did little damage. Where does that leave us now? Masoud Mostajabi is deputy director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. Mr. Mostajabi, thanks for joining us.

MASOUD MOSTAJABI: Sincere thanks.

SIMON: The strikes in Iran were reportedly over near the city of Isfahan, targeting an air base and perhaps nearby nuclear enrichment site. Was the intent more to send a message than cause destruction?

MOSTAJABI: Thank you. I believe, yes. I think the Israelis wanted to communicate and signal to the Iranians, similarly as, I think, the Iranians had communicated the week prior with their set of attacks, that were carefully coordinated with both the United States in the weeks leading up to and the regional Arab countries - that we have the ability to follow through on an expanded set of attacks, if the escalation continues, if the need arises, that we have the ability to strike you. And I think similarly, the Israelis felt that this would signal to the Iranians, without necessarily increasing escalation, that they have the abilities to follow through on a bigger set of attacks inside Iran, are willing to hit inside the country, if the need arises.

SIMON: What has the response to the attack been among many Iranians?

MOSTAJABI: The Iranians, I think, in Tehran - their calculus has been that they would - you know, this is a set of deterrents. And so they feel like they would be able to establish a deterrence and have done so. The consideration in Tehran right now, I think, is whether they believe that this will be the full response from the Israelis or if there is more on the horizon.

I think what is really important here to mention is that we are all really hoping that cooler heads will prevail, as they have in the past. But given that Israel - Israeli entanglement in Gaza and in the north and Iran's, you know, new equation that the IRGC commander Hossein Salami defined, as well as the reality that both the Israeli and Iranian governments today have moved significantly more to the right, you know, I think is primarily an issue of concern. And the longer I think that this conflict continues to play out, the increased risk we have that a certain flashpoint may consume the broader region. And really, for Iran, they do not want to expand this conflict. Similarly, I think they've communicated this throughout the past six months, in particular with the United States.

SIMON: Iran reportedly deployed ballistic and cruise missiles as well as self-detonating drones. What does this say about and what do we know about Iran's military capabilities right now?

MOSTAJABI: Sure. I think at the heart of Iran's strategic deterrence and its set of capabilities are a number of items. Foremost is the ballistic missiles that we saw, the drones and cruise missiles that has developed in particular since 2017. These have been developed domestically over the past, as I mentioned, decade in particular.

SIMON: Meaning sanctions haven't prevented them from developing them.

MOSTAJABI: No. I think sanctions have actually reinforced the idea that they would have to be built domestically. And they've been very successful in, you know, creating these systems. They have a number of ballistic missiles, in particular, as I mentioned, and drones. And so this is one of the first and primary set of items that I think provide Iran a set of power projection.

And I think I should add, the other side of this - maybe less so sanctions related - is the military power of its partners across the region. Obviously we have Hezbollah, but all of these groups are very useful as a deterrent and arguably as a way to project this unconventional power that the - that is cultivated over the last decades through Tehran's supported largesse and influence across the region.

SIMON: Well, and we know that Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia have a close relationship. To what extent does Iran's Revolutionary Guard - what control do they have over proxies in Iraq and Syria, where we should also note there were reports of strikes on Thursday?

MOSTAJABI: Right. So I think I'd like to mention that each group is actually quite unique in their relationship with their counterparts in Tehran. And I'd suggest it is much too oversimplified to claim that any one of them is a branch of the IRGC or the Houth force, its foreign expeditionary. Each has its own unique agenda, its own decision-making calculus, and really maintains an independence, despite obviously the influence and the support that it receives from Tehran.

The primary issue here is that much of this - there's a lot of strategic alignment between these groups and Tehran. And so they often find themselves to be, you know, in parallel in terms of their decision-making and what they are going to move ahead to do.

SIMON: Masoud Mostajabi is deputy director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. Thanks so much for speaking with us today, sir.

MOSTAJABI: Thank you very much.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.