Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP. In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, visits an exhibition of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace achievements as he is accompanied by the armed forces commanders, in Iran, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Many believe Iran started the Israel-Hamas war to blow up the Israeli-Saudi normalization process. But there is an equally plausible reason Iran may have done this, which is even more consequential.

The Iranians knew that encouraging a war in Gaza would divert Western attention from their nuclear program, allowing them to accelerate their enrichment of uranium unchallenged.

Wanting at nearly any cost to avoid a regional war, the Biden administration stopped Israel from preemptively striking Israel’s more dangerous adversary on its northern border, Iran’s most vital proxy Hezbollah. Worse, President Biden chose to slow-walk the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation of Iran’s growing nuclear program.

Iran is not only on the cusp of 90 percent nuclear weapons-grade uranium, but it has the means to deliver a weapon anywhere in the region. That was why the Saudis wanted an American defense pact.

According to the IAEA, Iran’s “stonewalling” of nuclear inspectors in Iran is an “extreme and unjustified” act. Yet, incomprehensibly, despite Iran showing no restraint or willingness to cooperate and having misled the IAEA for years, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi merely expressed “his hope that this matter will be resolved promptly.”

Reuters reported that Iran is enriching “more uranium as (the) the Gaza war rages. The United States and its allies have few routes left to rein in Iran’s nuclear work, with…tougher actions against Tehran running the risk of stoking tensions in a region already inflamed by the Gaza war. Iran now has enough uranium enriched…to make three bombs. The stockpile continues to grow.”

Forgotten in the fog of the Israeli war against terror in Gaza is that just two months ago, Biden hailed the release of $6 billion of funds to Iran that had been frozen by sanctions — in essence, a hostage payment for five Americans unlawfully imprisoned by Iran.

Worse, the Biden administration is not only ignoring Iran’s nuclear program but allowing our soldiers to be targeted by Iranian-controlled militias without a significant response to create deterrence. This encourages Iran to take further risks to advance its nuclear program.

The administration has minimized the traumatic brain injuries our soldiers have sustained at the hands of Iran as “minor injuries.” But the long-term effects of such injuries consist of depression, fatigue, visual and hearing disturbance, sleep disorders, chronic dizziness, cognitive impairments and memory problems. Dismissing the significance of such injuries dishonors our men and women in uniform while telling our adversaries they can attack with impunity. According to the Army Times, “U.S. military response to the attacks on its forces has been minimal.”

The Pentagon said that at least 62 U.S. service personnel — 29 in Iraq and 33 in Syria — have been injured. There should be no differentiation between the actions of Iranian-directed militias and the Iranian regime.

We may be ignoring Iran, but Iran is proceeding at full speed to protect its regime, chase America out of the region and destroy our primary ally in the Middle East, Israel.

As the Hudson Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East’s senior fellow Jonathan Schachter has noted, “The not-so-hidden hand of Iran is behind the fighting in Gaza, the exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and (the) Houthi hijacking of a civilian cargo ship in the Red Sea. What comes next is as clear as what Washington needs to do. The regime in Tehran will continue to sow violence and instability, target American personnel, and drive a nuclear arms race in the Middle East unless the United States begins to exact a cost from Iran for its support for terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis; its attacks on American bases; and its grievous nuclear violations.”

Iran has just completed a deal to acquire one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets from Russia, the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter, in addition to new MI-28 attack helicopters. This is a direct threat to U.S. national security, as it increases the risks if America chooses to target Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

If Biden continues to downplay Iran’s complicity and growing risk to the region, he will only invite subsequent attacks against Israel and move the Saudis away from normalization. We will wake up one day soon to an Iranian nuclear bomb that will irreversibly change the region for the worse. The regional war that Biden dreads and is desperate to avoid will arrive on our doorstep sooner than later, and in a much more ominous form.

Iran knows it has free rein for the next year as America enters the presidential election season. Biden not only is moving away from supporting Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas’s stronghold in southern Gaza, but is unwilling to confront Iran’s malign activities against our soldiers or constrain their nuclear program.

If Israel does not destroy Hamas, then the upshot of recent events is that Iran will win this time, and a nuclear Iran will be emboldened to become more aggressive in the next round.

This article originally appeared in The Hill on Dec. 1, 2023

Eric Mandel is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network and senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report.

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