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Israel-Hamas war aggravates an already bad relationship between the U.S. and Iran

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The war between Israel and Hamas is aggravating an already pretty bad relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Yesterday, President Biden ordered retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian-backed militants just hours after the militia Kataib Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a drone attack that wounded three U.S. service members in Iraq. Iranian-backed militias have carried out more than a hundred similar attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria since the start of the war in Gaza. And to discuss what's at stake here, I'm joined now by Paul Salem. He's president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. Paul, good morning.

PAUL SALEM: Good morning, Leila. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So, Paul, let's start with what Iran wants out of this moment.

SALEM: Well, when the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October 7 and afterwards, Iran vowed that it would up the ante and raise the pressure from all of its sort of battlefields in the region. That includes proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. It vowed to increase pressure on Israel as well as increase pressure on the U.S., which is backing this current war. So that's the overall context.

FADEL: And the pressure, the overall goal of increasing that pressure is what? I mean, does the U.S. or Iran really want this to become a regional war?

SALEM: No, I think both sides do not want it to escalate into a major conflict. But there are a number of things that I think Iran and its proxies want to do. One, certainly they - in their attacks on Israel, at least, they want to keep the pressure on the Israeli Defense Forces, distract them. Particularly you see the back-and-forth between Hezbollah and Lebanon and the IDF. In Israel that keeps part of Israeli forces pinned down in northern Israel. But Iran also wants to raise the pressure on the U.S. Part of Iran's long-term strategy is to make life miserable for U.S. forces in the region to eventually convince U.S. presidents to withdraw more forces from the region.

FADEL: On that, I mean, there's a lot of anger in the Arab world right now over the ballooning death toll in Gaza, where people are also starving. And so the actions of Iran's proxies, Hezbollah, the Houthis, are actually popular among many Arabs because they're seen as, quote, unquote, "resistance" against Israel and its U.S. backers. Does this moment empower Iran and its proxies among Arab citizens and weaken Arab leaders seen as too cozy with Washington?

SALEM: Yes. To some degree it does. As you said, the - you know, the large counterattack of Israel on Gaza has garnered a lot of anger and sympathy for Palestinians in the region in general. Definitely, Iran and its proxies want to benefit from that shift in public opinion. But it's also the case that Iran is trying to recoup some PR points given that, in effect, they have not stepped in in a major way to stand with Hamas like they did when President Assad in Syria was under attack. They effectively joined that conflict to save their ally there. So given that they really haven't done what Hamas wanted them to do and what many Palestinians want them to do, this is a fallback PR action.

FADEL: Now, you say that Iran and the U.S. really don't want this to become a larger regional war, but how great is the danger that this spirals into that anyways?

SALEM: Well, I think both sides have long experience with this type of, let's call it, limited escalation. This is not new to the post October 7 period. It's been going on effectively for years. Of course, the risk is always there, particularly if you know any U.S., you know, location is attacked with larger losses than we saw. But I do think President Biden and this administration are not unpredictable. Let's call it that way. And hence, I don't think either side will, you know, by mistake, stumble into a major escalation there. They have long experience in this.

FADEL: Now, the U.N. has been warning that Iran is rapidly building up stockpiles of enriched uranium. Are Israeli and U.S. actions giving Iran additional incentives to speed up its nuclear development programs? How much of this is about the Israel-Hamas war?

SALEM: Well, I mean, from the Iranian point of view, they've built up a very effective set of proxy forces. The attacks of Hamas on October 7, I think, prove for the Iranians their model of asymmetric warfare. In effect, Israel could not effectively defend against that Hamas attack. Iran - you know, it's noteworthy that Iran did not, let's call it, deploy Hezbollah on the northern front in a major way. So I think Iran feels that, strategically, Israel is extremely vulnerable while they are not under attack or vulnerable. So I think they feel fairly satisfied. They already have a lot of incentives to, you know, consider about their nuclear program. I don't think this changes the calculus dramatically.

FADEL: Paul Salem is the president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

SALEM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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