Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (File)

Iran’s regime, the self-proclaimed head of the “Axis of Resistance”, needed to look tough. Israel had assassinated its top commander in Syria. The Islamic State had killed at least 91 civilians during a march commemorating the late head of the elite Qods Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

So on 15 January, the Revolutionary Guards fired missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan on the pretext of wiping out an Israeli intelligence cell. They killed a multi-millionaire businessman, members of his family, and other civilians including a Dutch infant less than a year old.

Just over 24 hours later, the target was the Baluchestan region in Pakistan. Regime media proclaimed a Guards missile and drone strike on a camp of the Baluch separatist group Jaish ul-Adl, which has fought security forces in southeast Iran for more than a decade. In fact, those who perished included two children.

See also Iran’s Missiles Kill Multi-Millionaire Businessman in Iraq and 2 Children in Pakistan

The regime had thumped its chest, telling Iranians that they were eliminating the threat of “terrorism”. But it was soon punched in the mouth.

Needing to make its own statement over the violation of sovereignty, Pakistan’s armed forces carried out cross-border attacks for the first time, proclaiming “precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province. They said a “terrorists” were killed; local media in Iran said at least three women and four children, all “non-Iranian nationals”, were slain in a border village.

See also Pakistan Retaliates v. Tehran With Strikes on Southeast Iran

The regime stepped back. Officials insisted that they only wanted to ensure the protection of the populations in both countries. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reportedly told the Pakistani Prime Minister Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar — with whom he had spoken on Tuesday, hours before the Iranian strikes — that he had no advance knowledge.

Far from displaying strength, the regime had only highlighted its vulnerabilities at home and in the region.

On 20 January, Iran’s intelligence command in Syria met in southern Damascus to consider the situation. They never completed the discussion: Israeli missiles destroyed the three-story building, killing the Iranian head of intelligence, his deputy, and three other Revolutionary Guards.

See also Israel Strike Kills 5 Iran Revolutionary Guards Near Damascus

A Regime Caught In A Vise

The latest problems for the regime began on Christmas Day, when Israel hit the Iranian military compound in southern Damascus and killed Sayyed Reza Mousavi.

Mousavi had been in Syria for more than 30 years. He was the right-hand man of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards branch for operations outside Iran. Following Soleimani’s assassination in US drone attack, Mousavi oversaw the Quds Force operations across the country.

Israel had attacked Iranian positions ever since Tehran propped up Bashar al-Assad against Syria’s mass protests from March 2011. But amid its war in Gaza, the Israelis were now targeting individuals in a message to the Iranian regime: no one is safe.

Nine days later, the Islamic State sent its own message. It detonated two bombs in a crowd marching, on the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, to his grave in Kerman in south-central Iran.

For the regime, Soleimani was the iconic commander who had defeated ISIS. But far from being vanquished, the Islamic State was able to decimate his memorial, with the regime apparently powerless to stop it.

Israel had dented Iran’s self-constructed image of the “Axis of Resistance”, as well as damaging the regime’s military in Syria. But the most significant strike of the Israelis and ISIS was on Iran’s homefront.

While mounting a PR campaign for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the regime has officially kept its distance from those groups’ operations. And the public have shown little enthusiasm for Tehran’s campaign over Gaza — the absence of large rallies since October 7 has been marked.

But Soleimani has been a figure admired by many Iranians for his record in Syria and Iraq and his anti-ISIS legend, burnished and manipulated by the regime. And the killings from Damascus to Kerman come only weeks before Parliamentary elections on 1 March.

The regime is desperate to prevent a further display of lack of support, following historic lows of 42.6% in the 2020 Parliamentary vote and 48.8% — a drop from 72% in 2017 — in the 2021 Presidential ballot.

The political path to instilling confidence in most of the Iranian population has been closed off by the regime’s repression after the disputed 2009 Presidential election, and by its ongoing crackdown amid the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests since September 2022. The Guardian Council will again exclude thousands of qualified candidates to ensure Parliament remains in the hands of hardliners.

The economic path is not viable amid US-led sanctions and ongoing issues of mismanagement and corruption. Inflation is officially about 40% and far higher in reality for food and other essential items. Discontent over wages and working conditions is widespread. The currency, which had stabilized after all-time lows in 2022, has lost 8% since the latest Israeli and ISIS attacks.

So Iran’s leadership embarked on its deadly adventures in northern Iraq and Pakistan — but the Pakistanis and then the Israelis ensured that the regime’s projection of “security” would only highlight its insecurity.

“Neither Gaza nor Lebanon. My Life for Iran”

The regime is persisting with its tough talk. While scuttling into proclamations of “friendship” with Pakistan, it is threatening more attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan and doubling down on the pretext of Israeli intelligence networks.

President Ebrahim Raisi declared that Israel’s strikes “will not go unanswered”. The regime’s de facto English-language spokesman, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of Tehran University, rivalled Baghdad Bob in his portrayal of Tehran’s “triumphs”.

Mossad bases and assets in northern Iraq were completely destroyed. Their proxies in Baluchestan Pakistan took heavy losses. Their ISIS-affiliated allies in northern Syria took a heavy beating.

A response from a desperate Netanyahu regime was expected.

However, the regime’s immediate response was limited to Iran-backed militias firing rockets and ballistic missiles on US personnel on a base in western Iraq, inflicting “traumatic brain injuries” — usually a reference to concussions — on several.

Tehran’s Houthi allies in Yemen are damaging international shipping in the Red Sea, site of 12% of global trade, with their attacks. Hezbollah is in daily skirmishes with Israel, which is now targeting the Lebanese group’s officials as well as those of Hamas.

But Iran’s leadership is in a vise. If it pulls back from direct operations, while insisting on the “independence” of its allies, it risks the appearance of all bark and no bite across the region. If the Revolutionary Guards try another missile strike, they risk further retaliation and even defeat — be it from Pakistan or Israel.

The Supreme Leader proclaimed on January 16, “There is no one in the world today who believes that the evil, usurping Zionist regime has won the war in Gaza.”

But the final word may come from Iranians. Amid the mass protests after the disputed — possibly rigged — 2009 Presidential election, they chanted, “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon. My Life for Iran.”

Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle are gambling that they can bury that message.