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Iran’s Complicated Web of Terror
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Iran’s Complicated Web of Terror

As regional tensions escalate, Israel and the U.S. focus on Tehran.

Happy Friday! We can’t really blame the elephants and bison at the Berlin Zoo for getting a jump on clearing out holiday decorations by chowing down on some unused Christmas trees—it is the 12th Day of Christmas, after all.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Russia is planning to purchase short-range ballistic missiles from Iran, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal that was confirmed by U.S. officials on Thursday. The missiles could bolster the Russian military’s attacks on Ukraine, as missile and drone strikes targeting Kyiv and other population centers have escalated in recent days. Declassified U.S. intelligence suggests that Russian forces have deployed missiles secured from North Korea in at least two attacks in Ukraine. “Our information indicates that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently provided Russia with ballistic missile launchers and several ballistic missiles,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters yesterday. “Russia is relying upon its friends to replenish its military stockpiles and enable its war against Ukraine.” 
  • The Islamic State on Thursday claimed responsibility for the explosions the day prior at a ceremony in Kerman, Iran, commemorating the fourth anniversary of the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. The terror group said that two of its members detonated explosive belts in an attack that, according to Iranian officials, killed 84 people and wounded 220. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condemned the attack and said there would be a “harsh response.”
  • The U.S. military executed a drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, on Thursday, killing one of the leaders of an Iranian-backed terrorist militia group that has taken credit for multiple attacks on U.S. forces. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba acknowledged that one of its deputy commanders—Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, also known as Abu Taqwa—was killed yesterday. The Defense Department said Abu Taqwa was “actively involved in planning and carrying out” attacks on American forces, and Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the strike “was taken in self-defense.” The Iraqi government condemned the strike, and one spokesperson described it as “a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and security of Iraq.” The U.S. operation follows more than 100 attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months.
  • Democrats on the House Oversight Committee released a staff report and financial records on Thursday claiming that former President Donald Trump received at least $7.8 million from foreign governments while he was president, including $5.5 million from “the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises” through his businesses, primarily his real estate and hotel interests. “Each dollar former President Trump accepted violated the Constitution’s strict prohibition on payments from foreign governments,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking member on the Oversight Committee, alleged in a statement yesterday. The report also argued that Trump’s businesses expanded their trademark portfolio in China during his presidency and failed to disclose the trademarks during that time. The Trump Organization said that the profits made from foreign sources were donated to the U.S. Treasury.
  • A 17-year-old student shot six people Thursday morning at Perry High School in Perry, Iowa—a small town northwest of Des Moines—killing one sixth grader and wounding four other students and an administrator before he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. One of the five wounded victims remained in critical condition as of yesterday afternoon. 

Taking Tehran to Task  

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the grave of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani on January 05, 2024, days after two explosions ripped through a crowded area on the anniversary of Suleimani's death. (Photo by Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the grave of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani on January 05, 2024, days after two explosions ripped through a crowded area on the anniversary of Suleimani's death. (Photo by Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

They say history is cyclical—and once again, in the early days of 2024, world leaders are carefully navigating a tense situation fraught with the risk of unintended consequences. One false move, misinterpreted action, or instance of perceived weakness could result in a global conflict spiraling out of control. In fact, incoming Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz has already claimed Israel is “at the height of World War III.”

Hamas’ October 7 attack sparked a war between Israel and the terrorist group in Gaza, but increasing regional aggression led by Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” threatens to engulf the Middle East in a wider war. At the center of this conflict—as is often the case when discussing turmoil in the region—is Iran, which finds itself under the gun of an Israel with nothing to lose and a United States that, after months of provocations, seems to finally be running out of patience.

The first week of 2024 saw major escalations in the Middle East, as The Dispatch’s Charlotte Lawson explained on Wednesday:

In a Hezbollah-dominated suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri and at least six other members of the Palestinian terrorist organization were killed in an alleged Israeli drone strike. The region is now bracing for the prospect of a severe retaliation by Hezbollah from Lebanon, including the possible use of long-range missiles to target central Israel. But this latest escalation follows months of attacks on Israel, from multiple fronts.

“We are in a multi-arena war, we are being attacked from seven different sectors,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the country’s parliament last week, referring to military activity out of Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a press conference on Tuesday that Israel was “at a very high level of readiness, in all arenas, in defense and offense” in case of any retaliatory measures resulting from the strike. But while much of the attention remains on Gaza and the Israel-Lebanon border, Iran continues to operate in the background—sponsoring terrorism in the region and encouraging violence against its international enemies in Iraq, Syria, and the Red Sea.

Multiple international shipping companies have halted travel through the Red Sea in response to attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen—which, though ostensibly acting in response to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, have targeted ships with multinational owners, crews, and flags. “In the last six days, the attacks that I’ve been tracking, the Houthis have actually gotten quite careful at indicating why they’re attacking the ships that they are attacking,” Greg Brew, an Iran analyst at Eurasia Group, told TMD. “They do seem to be indicating in their rhetoric, ‘We are only going after ships bound for Israel.’ Obviously nobody believes that anymore, but it’s still a factor in how they’re approaching this.”

The Houthi attacks, however, are about more than just the war in Gaza. The actions, Brew believes, are intended to boost Houthi “prestige, showing off their capabilities, proving to the world that the Houthis—and by sort of extension, Iran—[have] the ability to disrupt traffic through the Red Sea and potentially even close the waterway.” 

The U.S. launched a multinational naval task force in December, dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian, to defend cargo ships traversing the Red Sea, but the Houthis—and Iran, for that matter—remain undeterred. Iran even moved a warship into the Red Sea—though this seems to be much more of a symbolic gesture than a military flex. “What I think the Iranians are doing with the frigate is indicating their support for the Houthis without really doing so publicly,” Brew said, describing the Iranian ship as a museum piece. “It poses no threat to the U.S. task force, the U.S. could sink this ship in a matter of minutes.”

Still, the move indicates a sense of confidence, on Iran’s part, that there’s no real threat of retaliation. “They wouldn’t send a 50-year-old warship into a live fire zone if they thought it would actually get shot,” said Brew. “They’re confident the U.S. won’t escalate against them directly. I think the Iranians are pretty confident that the situation in the Red Sea is working to their advantage, going in the direction that they want, and that the risks of escalation to them are actually fairly small.” Meanwhile, shipping through the typically busy waterway has dropped off dramatically.

More than a dozen nations, including the U.S. and the U.K., issued a joint statement Wednesday billed as a final warning to the Houthis to cease their aggression in the region—yet just yesterday the Houthis detonated another drone boat in the Red Sea. Although the attack didn’t result in any casualties, according to the U.S. Navy, the incident underscores the need, in some analysts’ opinion, for the White House to show more resolve. “This administration is inexplicably allowing the Houthis and other Iranian proxies to take more than 100 potshots (and counting) at American barracks, embassies, and ships in the region, blithely confident that U.S. air defenses will intercept all incoming fire,” Kevin Carroll, a former Homeland Security official, wrote for The Dispatch this week. “President Biden understandably does not want any wider war in the Middle East than is already taking place in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. But he and his staff are not adequately weighing the consequences of an unlucky enemy hit on a U.S. target, especially on a warship tightly packed with a large crew.”

U.S. Navy helicopters finally sank a few Houthi boats over the weekend while responding to a ship’s distress call, and on Thursday, an American drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, also known as Abu Taqwa, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader U.S. officials blamed for attacking American troops in the country. Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in the Middle East, described the assassination as the most significant action in Iraq since former President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike to take out Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. 

“Too often, both in the Trump administration and the Biden administration, many of the strikes targeting Iranian militias in Iraq were virtue signaling, and by that I mean they strike some people in the dusty outposts out of sight of anybody,” Rubin told TMD. “But in this case, striking in Baghdad shows that the United States is losing its patience.”

The news of Abu Taqwa’s death struck a Tehran still reeling from what may be the deadliest attack on its soil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. At least 84 people were killed and 284 were injured when two bombs detonated at a memorial service in Kerman, Iran, on Wednesday commemorating the fourth anniversary Suleimani’s death. The Islamic State—a Sunni extremist group and enemy of the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran—claimed responsibility for the blasts on Thursday. Iranian officials have vowed to retaliate for the terrorist attacks, but for many Iranians, revenge might not be enough. “Ordinary Iranians know that this is a result of Iran’s own incompetence,” Rubin argued, “that the reason we have so many dead Iranians is not only because of the Islamic State, but because the Iranian security forces dropped the ball.”

Facing this legitimacy crisis with its own people—we’re only a few months removed from massive, sustained protests in the country over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody—Rubin believes Iran could look to stoke tensions in an attempt to provoke an attack and rally its citizens around the flag. Yesterday, Iranian state media seemingly took a step in this direction, making claims that the Islamic State had attacked Iran under the direction of Israel. “The regime is so unpopular that they can’t simply up the rhetoric and have that be enough,” said Rubin. “They need someone to punch Iran, so that they could say that the national honor is at stake.”

As the conflict expands and Israel readies for a seemingly impending multifront war, all eyes are on Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah has continuously fired rockets into Israel since the start of the war in October, though reports Thursday suggested that the terrorist organization had retreated slightly from its shared border with Israel. Israel’s reported killing of Hamas commander Saleh al-Arouri on Lebanese soil Tuesday has raised the prospect of Hezbollah retaliation, but some analysts think the group might have reasons to exercise restraint. “The reason why Hezbollah at this point in time is not going to go to war with Israel, a full-scale war like in 2006, is because of Iran,” Rubin argued. “Iran, ironically, is restraining Hezbollah.” 

By giving Hezbollah the green light for a full-fledged attack, Rubin continued, Iran would risk inviting Israel to shift its focus to Tehran. “If Hezbollah goes ahead and launches a missile barrage on Israel, what’s the drawback from Israel attacking Iran?” he said. “If you’re already suffering the retaliation for an attack on Iran, you might as well get the benefit from attacking Iran.”

And ultimately, inviting the direct ire of the Israeli—or American—military is something Iran likely wants to avoid. “Iranians are perfectly happy to fight the Americans to the last Arab or the last Afghan,” said Rubin. “They just don’t want to fight the Americans for the last Iranian.”

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for Bloomberg, Amanda Little made the case that college reporters deserve more credit and support for their investigative journalism. “Student journalists exposed misconduct, divulged fraudulent research and revealed toxic leadership practices at the Universities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina and at Stanford, Columbia, Northwestern, Harvard and beyond,” she wrote. “Their dogged investigations led to the removal of an eminent university president and an iconic football coach. They chronicled the traumas of a campus shooting, disclosed dubious funding streams, and repeatedly scooped local and national news. All while attending classes and knocking out their homework. As an undergraduate journalism professor, I’ve interviewed many of these young reporters and know not only how valuable their work is, but also how difficult and jeopardized it is. … ‘Students have access to more and bigger stories and audiences than we ever have, but we’re also facing more difficulties,’ Stanford sophomore Theo Baker told me. Baker, 18, examined the manipulated scientific research of the university’s former president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, revealing evidence that led to his resignation. Baker received a prestigious Polk Award but also said he was harassed, shunned by professors, threatened with lawsuits, and smeared on social media.” 
  • In his Substack, Noahpinion, Noah Smith argued against what he described as a romanticist view of the idea that “hard times create strong men, who create good times, which creates weak men, who create hard times.” “One of my grandfathers was a bombardier in the European theater of World War 2,” he wrote. “He came back uninjured, but the stress of so many near-death experiences, and so many dead friends, drove him to lifelong alcoholism. Once, in the 1990s, I heard a conservative pundit claim that young Americans had become soft and weak because they had never had to face adversity like the World War 2 generation did. I asked my grandfather what he thought of that. After uttering something unprintable, he said: ‘I did that [stuff] so you wouldn’t have to.’ … Some romanticists feel the urge to knock over the edifice of industrial society intentionally, in order to kick against the seeming shallowness of modern life—to return humanity to a world of toil and struggle, in order to ennoble us. But these dark romantics are rightfully recognized in fiction and public discourse as villains.”

Presented Without Comment  

The Hill: [House GOP Conference Chair Rep. Elise] Stefanik Withdraws Support from GOP Candidate Who Criticized Trump 

“[Craig] Riedel, who is running for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District seat in the House, served three terms as an Ohio state representative.

He came under fire last month after audio leaked that featured him calling Trump “arrogant” and saying he didn’t want the former president’s endorsement.”

Also Presented Without Comment   

Wall Street Journal: New York City Sues Bus Companies for $700 Million Over Migrants Sent From Texas

Also Also Presented Without Comment   

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “This idea that, like, all these conservative radio guys and Fox News people, like, you know, they will, like, never criticize [Trump] because they’re so concerned that someone may yell at them.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Scott argued against (🔒) protectionist objections to the Nippon Steel acquisition of U.S. Steel, Mike and Sarah unpacked the enforcement questions regarding Colorado and Maine’s attempts to remove Trump from the primary ballot, and Nick assessed (🔒) Ron DeSantis’ complaint that right-wing media didn’t do enough to help his candidacy.
  • On the podcasts: David and Sarah discussed judicial salaries, Maine’s efforts to exclude Trump from the ballot, and more on Advisory Opinions, while Jonah was joined by Yuval Levin on The Remnant to discuss the uses and misuses of political theory. Plus, Sarah, Steve, and Jonah reviewed the ‘high steaks’ bet, gave campaign advice for GOP candidates, and weighed in on Claudine Gay’s plagiarism on The Dispatch Podcast
  • On the site today: Charlotte reports on the significance of the Saleh al-Arouri strike and looks at how Hamas’ regional allies might retaliate. 

Let Us Know

Do you believe recent Israeli and American actions against specific terrorist leaders represent a turning point in the war in the Middle East?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.