In the second of its new Webinar series, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) hosted Dr Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President for Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in the USA. Dr Schanzer, who previously worked as a terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury and testifies often before Congress, spoke on the topic, “Iranian Imperialism under the cover of COVID-19”.
He explained that while the JCPOA nuclear deal had freed up around $150 billion for the Iranian regime, the money is being spent not for the benefit of the Iranian people, but on Iran’s terror proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two dozen Shi’ite militia groups across Syrian and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Iran’s aim, he explained, is to establish and consolidate a Shi’ite Crescent across the Middle East, using its proxies to bring weapons and fighters wherever it wants to establish its power.
Around the end of 2018, there was a change noticed, as there were explosions across areas of Iranian influence. Israel didn’t always take credit for these eruptions, but did start talking about the need to target “game-changing weapons”. Schanzer estimates that there have probably been 1,000 attacks on these weapons, which are largely and most importantly precision-guided munitions, or PGMs, and associated facilities.
In fact, according to Dr Schanzer, 2020 will be the year of the PGMs. Up to now, Iran has generally supplied its proxies with “dumb rockets” that generally miss their targets, or are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome or similar US technology. However, it is now trying to supply its proxies with extremely accurate PGMs, either by modifying existing rockets or building them from scratch in factories in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
These could be used to cause enormous damage or loss of life, by being fired at a chemical plant, a nuclear facility or a major military base or installation. An attack with PGMs could overwhelm an Iron Dome battery, especially if there are more PGMs than interceptor missiles in the battery.
Iran and its supporters claim that the sanctions against it are preventing it from tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, but, Dr Schanzer said that this is disproven by the fact that it still has the funds to send rockets and build factories across the Middle East, in its efforts to conclude the plans of the recently killed General Qassem Soleimani. The goal is to take over Lebanon and surround Israel and the US bases in Iraq with PGMs.
Therefore, sanctions relief should not be granted for as long as Iran is continuing this conduct, on which it is spending tens of millions of dollars.
In an interesting related development, Schanzer noted that Lebanon has just defaulted on a billion-dollar Euro Bond and has announced it will soon default on roughly $4 billion more, as it economy crashes due to the coronavirus. The Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut is crying out for relief, and Israel is suggesting that any such relief be tied to the removal of the PGMs on its territory, and attempts to remove Iran’s influence there.
Following these remarks, there was the opportunity for questions. His answers to these included the following:
• If Joe Biden was to become President, he might look for ways to ease the sanctions on Iran, but rather than completely remove them, would likely push for a new deal;
• The Iranian regime has suffered a huge loss of trust from its people due to the fact that it has been spending its money on its own survival and its foreign interests. This predates, but has been worsened by, the COVID-19 crisis.
• Countries experiencing civil wars, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, have no public health system to speak of, and are likely to see thousands upon thousands of coronavirus cases, which will move across borders with refugee flows, including into Europe, meaning the crisis will continue after the West feels it has dealt with it. This will be a ticking time bomb. These countries will likely represent the second wave of the health crisis. It could also result in both Russia and the US wanting to get their people out of the Middle East but, as such, may provide an opportunity for the US to begin to dislodge the Russian influence;
• There is a high degree of co-ordination between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza to fight the virus;
• There has been broad participation in protests in Iran against the regime for a number of years, and these will probably continue after the COVID-19 emergency has passed, because of the way the regime spends its money. In some cases, the spread of the virus through the Middle East has been through Iran, as regime agents such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps move weapons and personnel through the region;
• The Europeans are still wedded to the JCPOA nuclear deal, as they still see it as a way to get Iran to moderate its rogue state behaviour (Dr Schanzer disagrees), but they realise too much has changed since its inception, including revelations about Iran’s non-compliance from an Israeli raid on a warehouse in Teheran containing records of military-related activity, for the deal to remain in its current form;
• One danger of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are now not able to carry out inspections in Iran as required to monitor compliance with the JCPOA, so Iran may use this to illicitly advance its nuclear weapons program;
• Sanctions are working in term of damaging the Iranian economy, which is cratering, and putting pressure on the regime. The sanctions do not prevent Iran from getting all the humanitarian aid, medicines and medical supplies it needs to fight the pandemic, but now may be the time to highlight the regime’s inability to protect its people from the virus;
• The recent drop in the price of oil has damaged Iran. The attack upon the Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia was carried out using PGMs, and the US does fear this could happen again to other targets such as Saudi oil facilities or US bases;
• There should be international pressure including sanctions on all those involved in Iran’s PMG program – at the moment, few are talking about this, so Iran thinks it can continue to get away with it;
• It is important that Iran’s proxies such as Hezbollah are identified and proscribed as terrorist groups and treated accordingly, including by Australia. At the moment, the UN only lists Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS as terrorists, despite Shi’ite Iran and its proxies now being far more dangerous, and this is because countries such as Russia and China protect Iran at the UN;
• There has been a huge infiltration by Iran and Hezbollah into South America, where they are partnering with narcotics gangs, in promoting narco-terrorism;
• Syria has had practically no success in targeting Israeli planes, partly due to an understanding between Israel and Russia that they stay out of each other’s way. Russia is beginning to understand that Iran may be a liability in Syria, so there are tensions in that relationship, but Russia wants to continue to support the Assad regime, so it can demonstrate that it is loyal, stick a finger in the USA’s eye and sell its weapons across the Middle East;
• The IAEA has been blocked from seeing existing structures involved in Iran’s nuclear program, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the IAEA inspections, so Iran has the opportunity to push the envelope on its nuclear weapons program.
The next AIJAC webinar will be shortly after the Passover period, so keep a watch out for notification of the next high-calibre speaker.