May 23, 2024

How Iran plans to destroy Israel

The Israel-Hamas War is a prelude to future Iranian aggression in the Middle East. Iranian military leaders are explicitly drawing lessons from the war to develop concepts for fighting and destroying Israel. Senior Iranian officials are arguing that the war has revealed critical Israeli vulnerabilities that they can exploit. They are specifically examining ways to use proxy forces and terror to destabilize the Israeli state and Israeli society. Iran is sharpening these concepts because it is increasingly confident that its “Axis of Resistance”—the collection of Iranian-backed partners and proxies, including Hamas, across the region—is winning the current war against Israel and could fight and win a larger war too. Iran will not be able to fight a war at this scale for the foreseeable future, to be sure. But this Iranian thinking reflects Tehran’s regional aspirations and the current tenor of regime discourse. This thinking also underscores the importance of seeing the Israel-Hamas war within the context of the broader Iranian effort to dominate the Middle East. Narrowly focusing on the situation in the Gaza Strip ignores the war’s long-term implications and risks for the United States and its partners.

Senior Iranian military officials are developing concepts for destroying Israel without having to defeat the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Iran recognizes the technological superiority of the IDF and the risk that an overt war could draw in the United States, which Iranian leaders desire to avoid. Iranian strategists are thus exploring how to use proxy forces and terror to disrupt the Israeli political and social order without triggering a full-scale war between Iran and Israel. Their thinking proceeds from the theory that destabilizing Israel would cause Jewish citizens to flee Israel and end the long-term viability of a Jewish state in Israel. Senior Iranian officials have begun discussing these ideas with greater specificity than ever before, even though they are proceeding from flawed assumptions. That Iran is seriously considering concepts that it is unlikely to be able to execute for years it at all is unsurprising; Iran has a decades-old strategic culture of exploring and pursuing ambitious and ideological objectives that are not immediately feasible.

Surprise ground attacks into Israel are becoming a central idea in Iranian military leaders’ thinking. Iran is probably basing this idea on plans that Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah developed in the early 2010s for ground incursions into Israel and refining it based on Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attack.[i] The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Major General Hossein Salami, presented his own version of this idea for the first time publicly in an interview with the official website of the Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader in August 2022.[ii] Salami articulated a blueprint involving Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Palestinian militias launching protracted ground campaigns from multiple fronts into Israel. Salami explained that these ground forces are necessary to liberate territory and could advance through Israel gradually. Salami reasoned that such pressure would disrupt the Israeli political and social order and generate widespread civilian displacement—without needing to deal a decisive blow to the IDF. Salami did not explain why he thought that these forces could hold their ground against IDF counterattacks or why Israel would not escalate to major attacks into Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank or even against Iran itself.

Major General Gholam Ali Rashid—commander of the Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters, which is the highest Iranian operational command level and responsible for all joint operations— expanded on this concept in a May 2024 interview and demonstrated how Iran is continuing to learn from Hamas. Rashid argued that the Hamas attack into Israel in October 2023 highlighted how effective and valuable ground attacks could be.[iii] Hamas’ attack demonstrated, Rashid said, that the Axis of Resistance could destroy the Israeli state by launching surprise attacks from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank simultaneously—echoing Salami’s comments. Rashid stated that such an attack would need 10,000 fighters from Lebanon, 10,000 fighters from the Gaza Strip, and 2,000-3,000 from the West Bank. Rashid’s interview is particularly noteworthy given his importance in Iranian military decision-making and planning as Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters commander.

Another key concept that Iran is developing involves attacking Israeli commercial interests to disrupt the Israeli economy. Iran and its Axis of Resistance have tried to impose an unofficial economic blockade on Israel throughout the war to coerce Israel into accepting defeat in the Gaza Strip. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei first called for this blockade in November 2023 when he said that “the paths of oil and food exports to the Zionist regime should be closed.”[iv] The Axis of Resistance has since then attacked and threatened Israeli infrastructure and international trade. The most obvious example of this line of effort is the Houthis attacks on international shipping around the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.[v] Houthi analysts have compared their attacks to the Egyptian blockade of the Bab al Mandeb strait against Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.[vi] Houthi attacks have caused international shipping prices to increase and severely reduced commercial activity at the Israeli port of Eilat.[vii] Israel has tried to compensate for this reduced activity by increasing overland trade through Jordan to the Persian Gulf.[viii] The Axis of Resistance began focusing on disrupting these overland routes in April 2024. An Iranian-backed militia threatened at the time that it would create and arm a proxy militia in Jordan to cut Israeli access to the Gulf states.[ix] Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Bahrain began claiming drone strikes targeting businesses and sites connected to Israeli overland trade in the following days and weeks.[x] Senior Iranian officials began threatening the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates, as well for doing business with Israel.[xi]

Iranian leaders have expressed a desire in recent months to extend their military reach to the Mediterranean Sea likely to complement their attempted blockade of Israel. A senior IRGC officer, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, first expressed this desire in December 2023, saying that the Axis of Resistance could someday target maritime traffic around the Mediterranean Sea and Strait of Gibraltar.[xii] Naghdi is the IRGC coordination deputy, which is the third highest IRGC officer. Former IRGC commander and now military adviser to the supreme leader Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi expanded on this idea in March 2024, arguing that the IRGC Navy and Aerospace Force should “focus on” the Mediterranean Sea.[xiii] Safavi also said that Iran should “increase [its] strategic depth [by] 5,000 kilometers,” which would extend to the Strait of Gibraltar. These remarks by Naghdi and Safavi are vague and provide little specific information about Iranian intentions. But their comments reflect a growing Iranian interest in the Mediterranean Sea while Tehran is leading an effort to isolate Israel economically. The Wall Street Journal highlighted Iran’s seriousness about extending its reach into the Mediterranean Sea in March 2024, reporting that Iran tried to secure a permanent naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.[xiv] The request, which Sudan rejected, demonstrates an Iranian desire to project force further westward likely in part to support attacks targeting international shipping around Israel.

The Iranian ideas of using ground attacks and blockades to destroy Israel will inform Iranian strategy in the coming years, regardless of Tehran’s ability to execute its concepts at a meaningful scale. Iranian officials at multiple echelons envision using this combination of ground campaigns and economic pressure to collapse Israel—possibly over many years rather than suddenly. Iran and its partner and proxy forces currently do not have all the capabilities or forces needed for an such an offensive, nor will they have those means any time soon. But wholly ignoring Iran’s stated ambitions because they are not immediately feasible risks another strategic surprise possibly more significant than the one that Hamas achieved in October 2023.

Iran’s new concepts will shape how Tehran expands and strengthens its Axis of Resistance throughout the Middle East and beyond. This effort will probably involve Iran trying to further entrench itself militarily around the Israeli periphery in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as well as the Gaza Strip and West Bank while giving Iranian partners and proxies more advanced drone and missile systems to threaten Israeli commercial interests. Iran could also further explore ways to project force into the Mediterranean Sea through Africa. Iran has tried in recent months to expand nascent security partnerships with several African countries, such as Niger and Sudan, both of which could facilitate Iranian access to the Mediterranean Sea by agreeing to host Iranian troops and/or weapons.[xv] Iranian attack drones based in northern Niger, for example, could range the entire western Mediterranean Sea if Niger agreed to host them.

The concepts that Iran is developing present serious challenges not just to Israel but also to the United States. This new Iranian thinking, on one hand, reflects a bolder Tehran that is increasingly aggressive and prepared to confront its principal adversaries in the region (the United States and Israel). This thinking, on the other hand, involves strengthening the Axis of Resistance, which will worsen the threat that Iran and its partner and proxy forces already pose to US interests in the Middle East. Senior Iranian officials remain just as committed to expelling American influence from the region as they are to destroying Israel. Tehran will inevitably turn its attention and resources back to the United States at some point even though Iranian strategists appear focused primarily on Israel for the moment.

The United States must be prepared to meet this increasingly complex Iranian challenge. Doing so should involve working proactively to counter Iran’s ambitions across the Middle East and beyond before Iran instigates future crises. Ignoring this challenge or viewing it only through the prism of the current war will cede the initiative to Iran and its Axis of Resistance.

[i] https://www.idf dot il/en/mini-sites/hamas-israel-war-24/all-articles/suicide-bombings-and-underground-attack-tunnels-who-is-mohammed-deif ; ; ; ; ;,7340,L-5420403,00.html ;

[ii] www.farsi.khamenei dot ir/others-dialog?id=50786

[iii] www.newspaper.irandaily dot ir/7549/2/8619

[iv] www.farsi.khamenei dot ir/speech-content?id=54271


[vi] https://saba dot ye/ar/publication34.htm

[vii] ;



[x] ;

[xi] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1403/01/21/3066174

[xii] https://www.entekhab dot ir/fa/news/752387

[xiii] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/12/16/3050867


[xv] ;