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The long history between Israel and Iran

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Both Iran and Israel appear to be playing down the chances of any further escalation since Israel launched a missile strike into Iran on Friday. That attack was a response to Iran launching hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel last week. Nearly all of those were shot down by Israel, the U.S. and other countries. But that attack itself was a retaliation to Israel's suspected strike on Iran's consulate in Syria on April 1, which killed two top Iranian military commanders and at least 10 other people.

This back-and-forth is just the latest in a conflict that goes back decades, so let's take a step back. To help us understand what's going on now and how we got here with Israel and Iran is Suzanne Maloney. She's an expert on Iran and is the vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Hey, Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALONEY: Hey, Andrew.

LIMBONG: All right. So how would you characterize the situation right now in Israel and Iran?

MALONEY: I think we're still in a very precarious moment. The Iranian attack on April 13 was something on the order of magnitude that I think no one really imagined, and it was completely unprecedented. There was no damage or serious casualties, and the Israelis have responded in kind but in a much more calibrated and limited fashion. I don't think that's the end of the story from Israel. I think it will be important for Israel to ensure that Iran understands that it can't repeat the attack and that Israel's calibrated response is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength.

LIMBONG: When it comes to Israel and Iran's relationship, what are their objectives with each other? Let's start with Israel.

MALONEY: Well, Israel is especially concerned about Iran's long-standing efforts to try to develop nuclear weapons capability. This is something that Israel has been drawing attention to for decades and was a major factor in American diplomacy over the course of the past 20 years as well. Iran has also supported Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, which are Sunni rather than Shia groups, but which agree with Iran's hostility to the Jewish state.

LIMBONG: Yeah. And so what is Iran's goal here?

MALONEY: Iran has been hostile to Israel since the 1979 revolution, and their consistent rhetoric has been that they believe that Israel is an illegitimate state and should be expelled from the region. What they're trying to accomplish is to erode the legitimacy of Israel around the world. And so this has been a long-term strategy and one that I believe the Iranians think is succeeding, especially after October 7.

LIMBONG: Can you envision an all-out war erupting between the two countries? And if so, what would that look like?

MALONEY: I think we came closer to the possibility of a direct conflict between Israel and Iran over the course of the past two weeks than at any point in the past 45 years of hostility between the two countries. Iran's attack last weekend was unprecedented. It was a very sophisticated and massive attack that was intended to overwhelm Israel's air defenses. It's probably a preview of what a war might look like because, in effect, the Israelis can rely on the support of the United States, of regional partners, in some cases, to repel an Iranian attack. The Iranians, for their part, would almost certainly activate Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has a very significant arsenal, somewhat provided by Iran, of rockets and missiles, many of them precision guided. And so, I think, you know, this could easily implicate Israel's own nuclear capability, and one could find this getting extremely messy extremely quickly.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You've got an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs titled "Iran's Order Of Chaos: How The Islamic Republic Is Remaking The Middle East." And in it, you lay out the U.S.'s pretty tenuous role here. You write that President Biden urgently needs to, quote, "articulate and then implement a clear strategy to protect Palestinian civilians from bearing the brunt of Israel's military operations, counter Iran's corrosive war by proxy strategy and blunt the capabilities of Tehran's accomplices," which is - that's a lot to do, right? So can you explain the need for America's involvement in this conflict here?

MALONEY: The Biden administration has been very determined around a long-term strategy that would involve regional integration, normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a wider effort to ensure that there is - opportunities for economic growth and for political ties that transcend some of the old adversarial relationships. That's a great long-term goal, but it really isn't going to be able to be accomplished without some short-term steps that bring the very problematic war that we're seeing play out in Gaza to a close and enable a short-term process of governance and security for the people of Gaza that will enable them to rebuild, provide humanitarian assistance in very short order and then begin to build up the regional partnerships and alliances that can help us counter Iran.

At this point, the rest of the region doesn't believe that the United States is prepared to take the action that might be necessary to push back against Iran. And so unless there is a very clear American strategy that is determined to ensure that Iran can't continue to fund and coordinate and organize the kind of activities that we saw on October 7 that also make sure that Iran can't come closer to a nuclear weapon and that begins to put the pieces in place for Iran's people to have an opportunity to transition to a better regime, then we're going to be continuing to deal with the problem of the Islamic Republic that we've faced for the past 45 years.

LIMBONG: That's Suzanne Maloney, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Thanks, Suzanne.

MALONEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.