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We Need to Talk about Iran

We need to talk about Iran, and whether the war many of us have feared for the past two decades is at almost our doorstep. 
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January 10, 2024
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In previous years, friends would often ask me whether I had any New Year’s resolutions. This year, it seemed that the only question anyone asked me on New Year’s Eve was, “Do you think there will be war between Israel and Iran?”

The question is a sign of the times, and it is one I have been asked nearly each day since Oct. 7. 

But I have another question: We are processing Oct. 7 as the worst catastrophe in modern Jewish history since the Holocaust, but will this horrible date ultimately be remembered as a warning — a modern-day Kristallnacht — in the bigger, looming picture of what might happen if war breaks out between Israel and Iran?

It’s a sobering thought, yet my lived experience as an Iranian Jew has taught me to never stop asking this question, and today, the looming signs that warn of war can no longer be ignored.

We need to talk about Iran, and whether the war many of us have feared for the past two decades is at almost our doorstep. 

Some days, it seems that there are so many combustible players in the boiling pot of Iranian affairs that it would be naive if one didn’t ask when one (or all) of them is going to explode. 

There are the Israelis, who, at this point, seem ready for anything. In late December, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel is facing a war on seven fronts. The Israeli military, according to Gallant, has responded to six of these fronts. Can you guess the seventh?

“We are in a multi-front war,” Gallant told Israeli lawmakers. “We are being attacked from seven different arenas: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, [the West Bank], Iraq, Yemen, and Iran.” Then, he added, “We have already responded and acted in six of these areas, and I say here in the clearest way: Anyone who acts against us is a potential target, there is no immunity for anyone,” he adds.

Last week, Hamas’s second-in-command, Saleh al-Arouri, and other Hamas members were killed in an explosion in Beirut. Though Israel has not claimed responsibility for the assassination, Hamas and Hezbollah have declared they will respond. The Wall Street Journal described  al-Arouri as the “linchpin of relations” with Iran and Hezbollah. In Beirut, al-Arouri must have thought he was untouchable. But that’s the crux of the many battles that, historically, lead to all-out war: The once-untouchable are killed and the once-unthinkable occurs.

There is Hezbollah, which poses an even bigger threat to Israel than Hamas. Last week, Israel killed Wissam Tawil, a senior Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon, prompting fears of an even wider escalation in the months since Israel and Hezbollah began trading fire after October 7. But Dr. David Menashri, founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told me “Neither Iran and Israel nor Hezbollah seem to engage in a larger war. However, wars sometimes break out unintendedly or out of miscalculation of the other side’s intentions.”    

There is America, which has recently been forced to retaliate more against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq (in the last few months, two dozen American service members have suffered traumatic brain injuries from these attacks). And according to the Pentagon, the United States recently sunk three Houthi boats after an onslaught of Iran-backed Houthi rampages against American and Israeli ships in the Red Sea. In response, the Iranians, who support the Houthis, deployed a warship named Alborz, prompting many to ask whether a path to new war in the Middle East crosses through the Red Sea. 

As for Iran, the country is such a mess that in addition to an inflation level of nearly 50% and its nefarious entanglement with terrorist proxies, the Islamic Republic just sustained what some have described as the worst terrorist attack in its history. 

On January 3, two explosions killed nearly 100 people in the city of Kerman during a ceremony that commemorated the four-year anniversary of the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRCG) leader Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by an American drone attack in Iraq in January 2020. 

Yes, it’s been four years since Soleimani was assassinated. I can’t believe it, either. 

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the regime had planned last week’s attack itself, because even Soleimani’s family members didn’t attend the ceremony, though the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the blasts at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Kerman. If you’re surprised that some believe ISIL/ISIS is attacking Iran, don’t be. It’s just another day in the Middle East. 

I asked Pooya Dayanim, a Los Angeles-based Iran policy watcher and former principal liaison between various Iranian pro-democracy groups and the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, whether signs point to war between Iran and Israel (and possibly America and other states). Dayanim knows that since 1979, Iran has declared Israel its sworn enemy and continues to fund billions of dollars to terrorists worldwide. Like Menashri, he doesn’t believe all-out war will erupt in the next few months, but he told me if war does break out, it will be due to Iran prodding Israel.

“For 45 years now, the Iranians have been advertising the destruction of Israel as one of the major pillars of their revolution, and have been investing in it, including funding the Palestinians, Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Iraq and Houthis in Yemen,” he said. “They have what they think are all the elements that are necessary to carry out major jihad against the ‘Zionists’. It’s Iran that’s angling for an all-out war with Israel, and it now essentially has a nuclear weapon.”

Iran, said Dayanim, is within weeks of nuclear enrichment. “They bought themselves immunity, and now, impunity. Iran now believes it can do whatever it wants, and [helping Hamas plan] Oct. 7 is evidence of that.”

The aggression that Iran is carrying out against U.S. forces in the Middle East, including in Iraq, are also part of that deadly impunity. “Attacking U.S. troops are also challenges to the world order,” said Dayanim, who believes Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is “still angling for a better deal from the West and using all of these skirmishes to say, ‘Look, I can do major damage to Western interests around the world.’” 

Still, Dayanim is no alarmist. In 2008, he participated in war games hosted by the Herzliya Conference, and in 2009/2010, in war games coordinated by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The takeaway from those war games were clear: If war broke out between Iran and Israel, Iran would win. 

Despite this, Dayanim views the threat of war today with a degree of sober calmness that I found reassuring, until he made a final observation: “There is a potential for a mistake,” he admitted. “Maybe it will be a false flag operation, where you intentionally attack someone else, or yourself, to start a war. Those are elements that are not controllable.” 

Writers dream of expressing timeless words, but it is my hope that in the future, this column will be regarded with something that is anathema to all writers: Irrelevance. Simply put, whether in one, five or 10 years, I hope this column will be completely irrelevant because war will never break out between Iran and Israel.

Though I ask myself about the nightmarish possibility of war each day, I can’t stomach the answer. There is too much at stake, and that includes the fate of the Jews of Iran, the beloved community my family left behind to find refuge in the U.S. 

But here’s my secret: Though I ask myself about the nightmarish possibility of war each day, I can’t stomach the answer. There is too much at stake, and that includes the fate of the Jews of Iran, the beloved community my family left behind to find refuge in the U.S. Their future is also unknown, and their modern story deserves much more attention. But that will have to wait until next week’s column. For now, I’m still listening closely to the whispering drumbeats of war.


Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X/Twitter and Instagram @TabbyRefael

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