At a Sapir event earlier this month, Editor-in-Chief Bret Stephens interviewed Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht about Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Gerecht began by analyzing Iran’s support for Hamas before more broadly addressing the Islamic Republic as an adversary of Israel and the United States. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Bret Stephens: This was not a regularly scheduled Sapir event. Like so many publications — and particularly publications in the Jewish world — we are responding to an emergency that is unlike anything any of us has seen in history, and that would include 1973. 

I just did the math: 1,400 Israeli deaths is the proportional equivalent of almost 49,000 American deaths. That is more than sixteen 9/11s. More than 200 hostages are the equivalent of almost 6,800 American hostages. There were 52 hostages during the Iran hostage crisis — we are in uncharted waters. 

One consolation is that we can start thinking deeply and seriously about them. I’m honored to welcome my friend and a Sapir contributor, Reuel Marc Gerecht, former CIA operations officer and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, to talk about where things stand, where they might go in the days ahead, and to specifically ask, How does Hamas’s attack connect with a broader picture of Israel’s almost 45-year confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran? 

Let me start with this: There was an early report in the Wall Street Journal, a day or so after the attacks, that this attack had been planned and, in fact, green-lighted by the Iranians. The Iranians later denied it. And the New York Times reported that American intelligence — I don’t know how much that’s worth — but American intelligence effectively confirmed that denial. There are rumors floating around that Persian or Farsi was heard among the Hamas attackers, suggesting that maybe the Quds Brigade, the international brigade of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was involved. But those also haven’t been confirmed. Reuel, based on what you know about the Iranian regime, what do you think is the likelihood of its involvement in, participation in, and green-lighting of this attack?

Reuel Marc Gerecht: Well, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the relationship between Hamas and the Islamic Republic has grown in recent years. I mean, even Ismail Haniyeh, who is the political head of Hamas, thanked them — thanked Iran’s Supreme Leader for the funding and improvement of Hamas’s missile program. The Wall Street Journal referenced a meeting last April in Beirut between Ismail Khan, who is the head of the Quds Force, members of Hezbollah, and members of Hamas — and there are resident commanders of Hamas who are in Beirut. They overlap philosophically, spiritually, operationally — in everything. So I have to assume that they had a pretty good idea of what was coming down the path. 

The Supreme Leader did say, before the operation, that bad things were coming Israel’s way. But he makes those remarks not infrequently. I don’t think it’s quite like the commentary that the Iranian president Akbar Rafsanjani made, which we didn’t see, before the attack on the American Embassy and soldiers in Beirut in 1983, in which he was actually bragging about it. He knew what was coming. So I think the odds of Iranian involvement are very high. I don’t know about American intelligence, of what they have seen. They could just be quite punctilious. They could also have fallen victim to a deceptive operation — and the Iranians do that. I must assume that they probably picked up this information, whatever they have, through intercept. I don’t think we have anyone in Iran’s inner circles, human sources. So I’m not sure I would give it a lot of credence yet — I think we’d have to see more, they’d have to tell us more. But I think it contradicts the vast circumstantial evidence we have — evidence that would lead you to believe that the Iranians were instrumental in this attack.

Stephens: If that is, in fact, the case — and given how successful the attack was, it would seem likely — is it not probable that the Iranians would have helped lay defenses in Gaza itself in the expectation of an Israeli incursion? There’s a really active debate, even among Israelis, about the military wisdom of going in full force, about the prospect that, just as October 7 was a nasty surprise, further nasty surprises are in store. My question is, Do you think that Israel is wise to conduct what seems like the frontal assault that is about to come? Or is it something that the Israelis simply have to do?

Gerecht: I think they probably just have to do it. And yes, I suspect, Hamas has booby-trapped every square inch of Gaza. I don’t know if they need Iranian assistance for that type of preparation. Certainly, the Iranians have learned a lot in Iraq. I would expect whatever they have learned, whatever matériel they developed, for use against the Americans in Iraq — they have shared that with Hamas. 

Stephens: And some of the things they might have learned would be, for instance, how to use those munitions that were so devastating to American armored personnel carriers that accounted for such a large fraction of American deaths — the shaped munitions. 

Gerecht: Yes, all the types of penetrating weapons. I think they would also teach them how to put them down, how to remotely detonate them in ways that the Israelis may not be prepared for, that they haven’t seen before in their battles with Hezbollah and Lebanon. I’m sure the Israelis are cognizant of all this, and their hesitation is entirely understandable. I think it’s going to be a bloody slugfest, it’s going to redound to Iran’s advantage, it’s going to reanimate the division between Muslims and non-Muslims, and particularly between Muslims and Jews. That’s all going to play to Iran’s advantage.

Realistically, if the Israelis had the means, I think they would be better off going after everybody — to go on offense in Gaza, to go on offense in Lebanon, and, most important, to go on offense directly against the Islamic Republic. But they simply don’t have the means to do that. So, operationally, I think they are in a bit of a pickle. There obviously isn’t any legitimate Palestinian force that Israel would accept as Hamas’s replacement in Gaza. I think Israel can badly damage Hamas. They can kill the leadership if they can get their hands on all of them. That is certainly worthwhile. It can fracture the organization, but I’m not sure it can kill it. Fatah is completely incapable, and I do fear that this fight is going to further weaken Fatah’s already pathetic grasp of power in the Palestinian community.

Stephens: Let me stay with the Gaza angle. Given everything you have just described, would the Israelis be wiser to say, “We’re going to negotiate the release of the hostages. You won this round, it won’t be forgotten,” and walk away from it? That seems politically impossible at a moment like this, but in five years, will Israelis say that that would have been the wiser option?

Gerecht: I don’t think so. Because I think it’s just going to whet the appetite of the “Axis of Resistance,” to use the Iranian phrase, against Israel. So it would be a huge victory for Hamas. I don’t think the Israelis have any way out of this slugfest. I think Hamas was fully prepared for the Israelis to go in. I think they would prefer that the Israelis look at what’s before them and back down. I think that’s a larger victory for them. But I don’t see how the Israelis avoid this. Now they can have arguments, once they go in, about how far they have to go.

Obviously, Hamas’s missile factories have gotten a lot better. That, all by itself, is terrifying. The capacity for Hamas and Hezbollah to make their own missiles, the type of engineering knowledge that Iran has relayed to them, has significantly improved. It’s only going to get worse. So this is a taste of the future for Israel. And occasionally the Iranians let loose their grand strategy here, and part of that is that they want to see Israel die through slow reverse immigration. The new age is, I think, going to test the Israelis like they’ve never been tested before, particularly those who are well-educated and mobile and who can go anywhere in the world they want.

Stephens: What a cheering thought. Let me ask you about the possibility that this goes beyond Gaza. Yesterday, there was a moment — you might have experienced it — of what turned out to be a false alarm when it seemed that there was some kind of aerial invasion from the north. But it’s clear that Hezbollah is testing the Israelis in the north. There is a vivid possibility of Hamas activating cells that either infiltrated Israel from Gaza or that are active in the West Bank. How do you assess the prospects of this expanding very rapidly to a multifront war? And is that in Iran’s interests? Would they want that to happen? Or would they rather just allow this to remain contained in Gaza?

Gerecht: First, I suspect that for the Iranians, watching Arabs die for Iran’s cause all day is something that they can endure for quite some time. The question is, does 2006 still have an effect on Hezbollah? Contrary to what a lot of folks thought at the time, 2006 — the battle that the Israelis and Hezbollah had at that time — was a devastating defeat for Hezbollah. It had, I think, a very cautionary effect on the leader of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah. Do they remember that, the pain of that experience? For the campaign in Gaza, that’s probably the best that you can hope for. Something like that — an effect upon Hamas and militant Palestinians who simply do not want to give up this fight.

Iran is obviously putting those missiles into Lebanon with Hezbollah for a cause — they are to be used.  They’re there to intimidate, but I suspect that they are also to be used. The question is timing. Does Iran feel that this is the right moment to let loose against Israel? That’s an excellent question. And I suspect the answer to that is no, it’s not essential now, that Hezbollah might not engage with full force. It’s a fluid situation. Obviously, Hezbollah exists, spiritually and philosophically, for the fight against Israel. It’s quite clear in all their commentary, so I think we have to be very careful about downplaying that philosophical motive. We make mistakes all the time when we don’t take folks in the Middle East, the radical set, at face value. It’s a serious error on our part, which we repeat over and over and over again.

Stephens: Another aspect of this fight is its effects on the Arab world. And what up until six days ago, seven days ago, appeared to be an impending agreement between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There’s a sense that this operation was specifically timed to destroy the possibility of that agreement by rousing the Arab Street in Hamas’s defense, by provoking an Israeli response that makes for a lot of bad imagery, a lot of civilian casualties. Is the timing fortuitous? Or not? And what is the right Israeli response that will impress the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Is it restraint? Or is it destroying Hamas?

Gerecht: That’s an excellent question. I think you have to say that there’s probably a division in Saudi Arabia on that question. First, it wasn’t clear to me at all that we had an imminent normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. I was actually quite skeptical, and I still am, that that’s ever going to occur. Whether the Iranians had that level of skepticism is a different issue. I’m sure that was a factor. Their green-lighting of Hamas’s actions was a factor, too. They clearly let everyone know that they have a vote, if not a veto, in this process.

And I think there was enormous naïveté on the part of the Americans and the Israelis about these negotiations taking place among the Israelis, the Saudis, and the Americans. We sort of forgot that Iran gets to participate in this process. This is going to be very, very difficult for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He does have to take into consideration the views of your average Saudi, which I think remain fairly hostile to Israel. This is going to make it much worse. There’s no way around the video images that are going to come out of Gaza as the Israelis go in. It’s going to be ugly.

At a minimum, I suspect the diplomatic process is going to be suspended; this could actually kill it. So in that sense, it’s probably going to be a pretty clear victory for Iran. And I would just say in general that the Israelis make a serious mistake by viewing the sentiments of the rulers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world as being the sentiments of the citizenry below them. I think you have to be very careful about doing that. In that sense, the Iranians might actually have a better grasp on this. They know there’s room to maneuver, room to play with the sentiments throughout the region. And I think it’s probably too much to say now that most Arabs have accepted the idea of Israel. I suspect that’s not true. Whether most Arabs want to participate in any type of fight with Israel, that’s a different question.

But the real question the Israelis always have to answer themselves is, “Where are the young men?” Because in the end, that’s who decides these things, particularly among Palestinians. Do you have enough young men who are willing to die and who want to continue the fight? And if the answer to that is yes, then this is simply going to go on. And the Israelis aren’t going to get any type of satisfying solution to their problems with the Palestinians or elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Stephens: Game this out in five years. Say Israel has a tepid response, and Hamas remains in power in Gaza. And to Mohammed bin Salman the Israelis look to be not quite the strong horse that they looked like just a few days ago. Devastating to Israel, or it doesn’t matter?

Gerecht: I don’t think it really matters. I think for Israel, the big question before them is when the Islamic Republic goes nuclear. In some ways that doesn’t change their confrontation with Iran. It certainly makes it a gutsier process, and an edgier one. It’s pretty clear now that Iran is a nuclear-threshold state. It’s pretty clear that the Israelis have had numerous opportunities to attack, and they’ve chosen not to. It’s clear the Americans have had numerous opportunities to attack, and they have chosen not to. So really it is an issue of, When does the Supreme Leader choose to actually test a nuclear device?

It’s going to set off a lot of different other forces in the Middle East. I would expect the Turks to go nuclear. The Saudis obviously want to go nuclear, but they’re so far behind. That process is going to take a very long time; they simply don’t have the industrial base. I don’t think they can buy the talent very rapidly. The Pakistanis have already pretty clearly said they’re not going to rent the Saudis a nuclear weapon. So the Saudis, I think, are out of it. The Saudis, religiously, just aren’t that important in the Muslim world anymore. That’s another big mistake. Israelis sort of look at the Saudis as if they still had the religious authority they did when they were funding Wahhabis. They don’t.

They’re not funding Wahhabis. That’s a good thing. But they don’t have the religious stature that they did, say, in 1973. So the effect of any type of normalization with Saudi Arabia, which I don’t think is likely, overestimates its impact in the Arab world, in the Muslim world. 

Stephens: You seem to be giving the impression that Iranian nuclearization is a matter of when and not if, is that right?

Gerecht: That’s correct.

Stephens: And that there is absolutely nothing that the State of Israel can do to stop it?

Gerecht: They could try to throw the dice. But the IDF, obviously, did not want to do it in 2012. I don’t know what Bibi Netanyahu wanted to do then. I think Ehud Barak, when he was defense minister under Bibi, wanted to attack — I think, I mean, but even there —

Stephens: I think that’s right. They were stopped by their own —

Gerecht: They were stopped by their own people. Now, the Americans obviously did a very forceful play at that time to discourage them. So you probably have to credit the Americans there, for doing their part to stop the Israelis from throwing the dice. The situation is much worse now. The Iranians have a much more advanced program, it’s better-buried, and the Israelis again have a problem of means. They don’t have a lot of throw weight. So I think — and the Israelis can always surprise you — but I suspect they waited far too long.

Stephens: Speaking of the Israelis surprising you. I think one of the long-term effects of this attack is that it has punctured not only Israeli hearts, but a kind of aura, of not just invincibility, but of basic competence. Given how much you know about Israel’s security establishment and its intelligence apparatus, did this attack cause you fundamentally to reassess your sense of Israel’s strengths and capabilities?

Gerecht: No, not really. I mean, everybody can get sloppy. The question is not whether you can get sloppy — that’s just part of human nature. The question is how you recover from it. If, during or after this conflict, we see a lot of heads roll in the Israeli military and security and intelligence establishments, then it will tell you that the Israelis are grown-ups and that they are holding people accountable, and they will go back and they will review their mistakes, and they will learn from them. So I think that’s the critical issue.

If you don’t see that happen, then you have to begin to worry whether the rot is deep. And Israel no longer has the political capacity to do the unpleasant things to keep its edge. Obviously — and this is another reason why I think the Iranians were involved in this — the operational security on this was pretty bloody good. And the Iranians have gotten a lot better with operational security. They’ve learned through their own mistakes, and they’re much better, I think, at assessing the capacities of both the United States and Israel. They’ve practiced on it. The magnitude of this strike, its sophistication, strongly suggests the Iranians were involved and that they were good teachers.

Stephens: Let’s look at the lessons for the United States here. One senses a kind of a parallel — you had almost a full year of intense Israeli political division that led to readiness issues. This was widely discussed, long before the October 7 attacks. Political dysfunction, bureaucratic sclerosis, eye off the ball, and complacency. All of this seems to apply to the United States right now. And so, talking to American policymakers, what is the big lesson that they should be drawing from what just happened to the Israelis? Because it feels like “If this could happen to the SEAL Team Six of the West — Israel — well we’re like the police of Uvalde, Texas.” So it seems to me. Are you apprehensive that something similar, albeit in a very different way, could happen quickly in the United States?

Gerecht: The United States has a large philosophical question to answer, and that is, Does it want to even pretend to maintain a form of American hegemony? And so far, I think the answer to that is “No, not really.” Obviously, we have a growing opposition to American interventionism in the Republican Party. The Republican Party is becoming very unreliable. In the Democratic Party, the strand of liberal internationalism is not the strongest strand. It has done decently on the issue of the war on Ukraine. But it’s certainly not what I would describe as a muscular party comfortable with intervention. The White House’s response on the issue of Iran after the attack from Gaza has not been encouraging. 

Stephens: Can you say another word about that — it has not been encouraging. Specifically, why?

Gerecht: They should have come out and said clearly, loudly, that the ties between Hamas and the Islamic Republic are damning. They could take a much more aggressive posture toward Iran. I don’t think they’ve given up the hope — that I would describe as an illusion, if not a delusion — that something will break their way on the nuclear question, and that maybe, just possibly, they can continue to try to buy off the Supreme Leader’s nuclear ambitions, that they won’t get to a nuclear detonation test, at least before the presidential elections. So I don’t think fundamentally their attitude toward the Islamic Republic has changed because of this conflict. That might change. But I think it’s extremely difficult for them to go there.

I don’t think you get anywhere until the Americans say to themselves, “We are not going to stop the Iranian nuclear program,” and then try to build a new policy around that. My preference would be for the United States to actually preempt. But I’ve been arguing the case for American preemption against the Iranian nuclear program since 2002. Obviously, with no success. So I think it’s pretty clear the Americans just don’t want to do it. It’s a bipartisan reflex.

I don’t think you’re going to get a coherent American Iran policy until you can make it a bipartisan Iran policy. Now, I would prefer that that bipartisan policy not be a policy of appeasement. But this is an open question. I don’t think the Americans have a greater desire yet to go back into the Middle East seriously. Now, the good news is, the American position in the Middle East is actually decent. And the question for the Americans is, Do we want to apply a bit more muscle? But obviously the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan hangs over everything that we do. I don’t yet detect a really serious desire for the United States to get serious about cornering the Islamic Republic, punishing it for its misdeeds.

This article was published on October 25, 2023.