The Iranian regime’s challenges are rising both domestically and globally. And as the Islamic Republic is attempting to expand its regional meddling, it is escalating tensions with its chief rival, Israel.
The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security last week announced that it had arrested three individuals on charges of spying for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. Their identity and the evidence that led to the allegations against them were not revealed.
It is worth noting that the Iranian regime has a long history of using charges such as espionage and “collaborating with hostile states” to justify harsh sentences for political detainees. This impulse has accelerated in recent weeks, as Tehran has been trying to expand its regional meddling as a hedge against the likely collapse of talks to renegotiate its 2015 nuclear agreement with the P5+1 world powers. Opposition to Israel’s very existence has always been a central focus of the clerical regime, but this has faced new-found challenges since 2020, when a number of the region’s countries moved to normalize relations with Tel Aviv. Tehran has repeatedly condemned such agreements.
The regime has always tried to exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for its own ends. Some people have dismissed Tehran’s self-serving attempts as a major obstacle to realizing its legitimate demands. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian this month talked to an official from Hamas, implying imminent support for new attacks. In that conversation, he reportedly described Israel as “too weak” to resist attacks. Other components of that movement include Iran’s foremost regional militant proxy, Hezbollah, which is headquartered in Lebanon but has joined the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in conflicts in Syria and elsewhere.
Tehran this month celebrated its National Army Day, featuring military parades that showed off a range of missiles and drones, many of which are reportedly capable of reaching Israel. To mark the occasion, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivered a televised speech in which he declared that Iranian forces would strike at the “heart” of Israel if it made “the slightest move” against the theocracy.
The regime lacks an agenda for prosperity and development, which is why it has always invoked foreign boogeymen as they are useful to blame for its own failures
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
The IRGC last month fired a volley of missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan and later claimed to have been targeting a compound used for Mossad training. The strike was initially reported to be an act of revenge for an Israeli operation in Syria that killed two IRGC officers. However, subsequent reports stated it was more closely linked to Iranian outrage over a proposed Israel-backed pipeline that would allow energy products from the Kurdish region to more effectively compete against Iranian alternatives. No evidence was ever presented to substantiate the claims of substantial Mossad influence in that region and the Kurdish authorities fiercely denied the implication that any such presence had been permitted.
Persistent questions over the March missile strike are likely to influence similar questions regarding Iran’s narrative about recent arrests. Until more is known about the supposed Mossad agents whose arrests were announced last week, the regime’s critics are sure to presume that they were politically motivated and the resulting allegations little more than a stunt aimed at promoting unity among fundamentalist extremists. Since not even the nationality of the detainees has been publicly revealed, there is also a possibility this will turn out to be another instance of regime authorities taking foreign citizens and dual nationals hostage and charging them with national security crimes as part of an effort to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with Western governments.
For example, although two British nationals were released last month in exchange for the repayment of a decades-old debt, at least a dozen other Europeans and Americans remain in detention or unable to leave Iran. One permanent resident of the US, Shahab Dalali, only had his case revealed publicly this month after his wife gave an interview in which she emphasized the need for “all the hostages” to be released. Nahid Dalali noted that her husband had been accused of “aiding and abetting” the US after relocating to that country and then returning to Iran in order to attend his father’s funeral.
The threat of arrest frequently looms over such family trips when the visitor holds citizenship or permanent residency in the US, Britain or any other Western country. The recently released Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had taken her two-year-old daughter to visit her Iranian parents before she was arrested, accused of being “one of the leaders” of an amorphous “infiltration network” and sentenced to five years in Evin Prison.
The Iranian regime lacks an agenda for prosperity and development, which is why it has always invoked foreign boogeymen as they are useful to blame for its own failures. For example, in 1980, the Islamic Republic provoked Iraq into war and used “the divine blessing”— as former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini put it — to wipe out domestic opposition. Domestic oppositional groups, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the People’s Fedayeen Organization and any progressive movement that dared to speak out for democracy or women’s rights, faced a brutal crackdown.
It is time for the Iranian regime to chart a clear path for prosperity and development instead of blaming others for its own failures.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh