In five days of fighting that ended with a Saturday night ceasefire, terrorists in Gaza fired more than a thousand rockets into Israel—1,468 rockets to be precise. Thanks to bomb shelters and the Iron Dome missile defense system, the barrage only claimed the lives of two victims inside Israel, one of them a Palestinian construction worker from Gaza. Four Palestinians also died when rockets fell short of the border, hitting homes in Gaza, according to Israel’s military.
This latest round of hostilities is at odds with what Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, described last week as the “fundamental direction and trend of de-escalation that we have supported and encouraged” throughout the Middle East. Before a gathering of experts on regional affairs, Sullivan explained that the positive developments of the past two years were no accident, but “the result of what we have tried to lay down as a comprehensive policy framework.”
By itself, a single flare-up in Gaza does not discredit Sullivan’s broader point. He stressed he was “not pulling out the victory flag” and warned that conflict can resume at any time. Yet a closer look at the violence in Gaza shows that the events of the past few days are part of a trend that runs counter to the White House’s claim that regional tensions have diminished since Biden took office. Specifically, Sullivan underplayed the role of Iran’s clerical dictatorship in stoking conflict across the region and in Gaza in particular.
Israel’s adversary in the latest round of fighting was not Hamas, but the lesser-known and smaller Islamic Jihad. The latter is also a U.S.-designated terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state. What makes Islamic Jihad different is the exceptional degree of its subordination to the regime in Tehran. The group is an instrument Iran employs to escalate tensions with Israel on demand.
Tehran does not rely on a single proxy, however. Rather, it seeks to surround Israel with Iranian confederates. There is Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza. They often refer to themselves the “axis of resistance.” Last month, during the final days of Ramadan, Israel had to contend with near-simultaneous attacks from Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. The scale of the attacks was limited, but they underscored that Iran and its proxies can press Israel on four different fronts at once. Tehran calls this “the unification of the arenas.”
Sullivan’s address skirted this dynamic entirely. In his view, one of the administration’s three most important achievements in the region entailed “Ending a war in Gaza in eleven days [in May 2021], then working to keep the peace even as it’s punctuated by periods of heightened tension.”
First of all, Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did most of the heavy lifting that led to the May 2021 ceasefire—a role that Cairo played again in this round of fighting.
More importantly, the peace is not being kept. Violence in the West Bank and Gaza has been growing since Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a wave of attacks on Israeli civilians in March. Iran continues its efforts to arm Hezbollah with precision-guided munitions that can target Israeli infrastructure and population centers more effectively.
The threat that looms larger than proxy wars is Iran’s rapid advance toward a nuclear weapons capability. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress in March that “Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.” The White House’s response to this problem is to say that it’s all the fault of the previous administration. As Sullivan explained, the administration is “engaging Iran diplomatically regarding its nuclear program, and we continue to believe that it was a tragic mistake to leave the [2015 nuclear] deal with nothing at all to replace it.”
This diplomatic engagement has not reined in the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, Iran took its most provocative steps toward a nuclear weapons capability—such as enriching uranium to 83 percent purity—after Biden took office and made clear he would offer extensive sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran returning to the 2015 agreement.
The clerical regime is also displaying unusual audacity outside the region. Its agents sought to kidnap Iranian-American dissident Masih Alinejad on American soil and assassinate senior officials who served in the Trump administration. British intelligence likewise reported multiple Iranian plots to kidnap or kill enemies of the regime on British soil. Iran also continues to hold both U.S. and British hostages. And it is arming Russia with weapons, including attack drones, that help to devastate Ukrainian infrastructure.
There is one adversary, however, with whom the Iranian regime is now on better terms: Saudi Arabia. In March, China stunned foreign observers by brokering a deal for Tehran and Riyadh to restore diplomatic relations and reduce regional tensions. The Biden administration sought to play down concerns that Beijing had stolen a march on Washington. If the deal promotes de-escalation then it is a good thing, officials argued—a point that Sullivan echoed in his remarks.
In the short term, there may be some actual reduction in tensions, especially in Yemen, where Riyadh and Tehran have been fighting a proxy war since 2015. But their newfound comity is better understood as an expression of the Saudis’ realization that they cannot hold the line against Iranian destabilization of the region if the United States does not engage the threat seriously.
There are good things the Biden administration wants to accomplish in the Middle East. It seeks to “strengthen and expand the Abraham Accords” to include normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Sullivan said. In contrast to his predecessor, Biden has not wavered on the importance of maintaining a small contingent of U.S. troops in northeast Syria to prevent both the resurgence of the Islamic State and, to some extent, the expansion of Iranian power.
Yet if the White House persuades itself that tensions are truly subsiding across the Middle East, it may find itself unprepared for the significant escalation the Iranian regime is planning against America’s allies across the region.