ANDREW NEIL: With Iran ever closer to getting the Bomb, Israel and its new Arab allies MUST unite to bring down the medieval mullahs before it’s too late

Israel listened to its allies. Yesterday’s retaliation for Iran’s mass missile and drone attack last weekend was limited and ­carefully calibrated, just as its friends had urged. Even Iran doesn’t regard it as a cause for further escalation.

This is all to the good but, it is far from the end of the ­matter, for Israel and its allies have much work to do if they are to build a united front which can thwart Iran’s ­determination to dominate the Middle East and bring about the speedy demise of the medieval mullahs who rule from Tehran and spread such misery and bloodshed.

This is a tall order but it is vital if there is ever to be a new Middle East of peace and prosperity.

The outline of the new anti-Iranian alliance was seen over the skies of Jordan last Saturday night when the military might and intelligence capabilities of Israel, America, ­Britain, France and several key Gulf Arab states combined to see off over 300 Iranian drones and missiles heading for Israel.

The extent of the damage done to Iran by yesterday’s retaliation has yet to be discerned. It is unlikely to be great. But it was far from a waste of time

Without this remarkable collective response, Israel could have suffered extensive death and destruction — and the whole region would likely be up in flames by now.

The challenge is to build on Saturday’s success to create a formidable and enduring alliance which will work together across multiple fronts to stop Iran’s long-­running bid for regional hegemony in its tracks.

Overly robust retaliation by Israel would have risked killing off this new common front at birth. Israel is so used to acting alone in the region to ensure its survival that advice has not always been ­welcomed, even from friends. But it learned a salutary ­lesson seven days ago: there is strength in numbers.

The extent of the damage done to Iran by yesterday’s retaliation has yet to be discerned. It is unlikely to be great. But it was far from a waste of time.

Israel concentrated its attack on Isfahan province, south of Tehran in central Iran. It is a centre of weapons production — including Iran’s Shahab medium-range missiles which can reach Israel — as well as home to four nuclear research facilities.

The province also hosts the Natanz uranium enrichment plant — a key facility should Iran decide to complete its development of nuclear weapons — and an airbase for Iran’s ageing jet fighter fleet.

All of this likely remains intact after the attack. But Israel sent a powerful message to Iran nevertheless: unlike your offensive capabilities, ours can get through, so do not underestimate the havoc we could wreak if we really tried.

Reports that some of the attack was organised by Israeli operatives inside Iran will have sent a shiver down the spine of the Tehran regime, too. Israel’s new Arab allies will have liked that.

It is now time to cement this new alliance by bringing Saudi Arabia fully on board. The Abraham Accords, the signal foreign policy achievement of Donald Trump’s time in the White House, created diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for the first time ever.

Saudi Arabia, the biggest catch of all, was meant to join them. But before that could happen, Joe Biden came to power muttering about making Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ and committed to resuming President Obama’s policy of appeasing Iran.

It was confirmation of what a former US defence secretary once said: when it comes to foreign policy you can usually count on Biden, at least initially, to make the wrong call.

Unsure if they could count on America, the Sunni Saudis started to make peace overtures to Shia Iran, the old enemy. They even reached out to China, which saw it could gain influence in the region as a go-between.

Sanctions against Iran were loosened, billions in finances unfrozen for Tehran’s use and Iranian oil exports flooded on to the global market once more. Iran currently exports almost 1.6 million barrels a day, mainly to China, an export trade that will generate it $35billion in revenues this year.

None of this new dosh flowing into Tehran’s coffers is used to further the cause of peace or give hard-pressed Iranians a semblance of prosperity. That chunk which does not end up in the pockets of the regime’s rulers is funnelled to Iran’s proxy militia across the region: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in south Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and various varieties of ­militia in Iraq and Syria.

Several billion dollars have been spent over the years on training, arming and financing terrorist operations to undermine Israel and destabilise Sunni Arab nations — all in furtherance of Iran’s bid for regional dominance.

It even helped finance an extensive Iranian export industry, which provides kamikaze drones for the Kremlin to attack Ukraine. Gradually it dawned on the Biden administration that it had made a disastrous wrong turn. The Abraham Accords were fired up again, the Saudis wooed once more. The Iranians were so alarmed that they gave Hamas the green light to attack Israel on October 7, knowing full well that the Israeli response in Gaza would make it harder for the Saudis to join the Accords.

Harder. But not impossible. Saudi support for the Accords has been delayed but not derailed. After last weekend’s successful show of unity, there is an increased appetite for Israel and its Sunni Arab allies to build a proper defensive alliance, under American auspices and with the support of Britain and France (Europe’s more robust military powers), to deter Iranian adventurism.

From left, Ebrahim Raisi and ex-president Hassan Rouhani greet Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

From left, Ebrahim Raisi and ex-president Hassan Rouhani greet Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

Special forces of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Special forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Do not underestimate the extent to which this is already under way. Arab and Israeli pilots had been flying together over the Red Sea in exercises which simulated the Iranian drone attack last Saturday.

Centcom, the US military HQ for the region in Qatar, is now the venue for military chiefs from Israel, Saudi ­Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt to share intelligence and plan the military cooperation to deter Iran.

It’s a rudimentary alliance and even as it develops might never have the sophistication or coherence of NATO. But it is remarkable nevertheless, a game-changer in the fraught geopolitics of the Middle East which marks the beginning of the end for Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

There is now a determination to turn the screws on Iran. The military wing of the Tehran regime is not the regular army but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a separate force of over 150,000 which acts as enforcer for the mullahs at home and abroad.

Its Quds Force is its foreign legion, which deals directly with Iran’s proxy militias. Israel has all but wiped out the IRGC leadership in Syria, killing 18 senior commanders, including — on April 1 in Damascus — the general who gave Hamas the go-ahead for October 7.

Israel’s Arab allies see Iran’s proxies as a threat to their security and stability. As military and intelligence cooperation grows within the new Israeli-Arab alliance, IRGC commanders will be able to sleep even less soundly. This is as it should be.

As well as spreading terror abroad, the IRGC is the regime’s main instrument of oppression at home. It was in the forefront of dealing with the mass protests of 2009, 2019 and 2022: shooting, torturing and jailing those who dared defy the mullahs.

Over 500 were killed in the 2022 protests and thousands jailed in appalling conditions. The hated Basij, a 90,000-strong paramilitary force whose main purpose is to crack demonstrators’ skulls, is affiliated to the IRGC.

Yet, for all that and more, Britain refuses to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organisation even though that is how we regard Hamas and Hezbollah, who are creations and creatures of the IRGC.

The fact it has also mounted illegal operations against Iranian dissidents on British soil doesn’t seem to matter to the Foreign Office either, which worries Iran might cut off diplomatic relations if we outlaw the IRGC.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron goes along with this typical Foreign Office nonsense even though there have been 15 plots by the IRGC and its associates to kidnap or kill Iranians based in Britain (some British citizens) as ‘enemies of the regime’.

A TV presenter for an Iranian opposition channel was recently stabbed outside his London home. The IRGC has even used gullible and greedy British banks to launder money around the world as part of a sanctions-evading scheme it devised.

The Foreign Office should realise that sometimes doing the right thing is more important than diplomatic manoeuvring.

After all, appeasement, yet again, has not worked. With Iran belligerent but also weak, it’s time to play hardball. Biden’s friendly overtures certainly didn’t provoke any softening on Tehran’s part. Far from it. The country’s rulers are increasingly in the grip of ideological hardliners known as the Paydari Front, irreconcilable Shia supremacists who see compromise as weakness and smear critics as atheists.

Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric who became president in 2021, has given them government posts. A low turnout in March’s parliamentary elections allowed them to tighten their grip in the legislature.

The civil service is being purged of pragmatists. They are infiltrating the ranks of the IRGC with a new cadre of young zealots even more extreme than those currently in charge.

New chastity laws are being prepared. The morality police are back on the streets after a year-long hiatus, determined to reimpose the mandatory wearing of the hijab for women, a move to be enforced again with whippings.

These are the same morality police who arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for failing to cover every single strand of her hair. She died in custody. Iran’s jails are bywords for the abuse, rape and death of women.

As the Paydari Front grows in power and influence, the repression can only get worse. So can the economy, which is already a basket case. Inflation has exceeded 30 per cent a year for the last five years. The country’s currency is shot to hell: you’ll need 42,000 rial to buy one US dollar. Unemployment, especially among the young, is endemic.

The rulers, however, continue to do very nicely and the IRGC’s leading lights have their fingers in so many money-making pies, from concrete to telecoms, that they’re involved in 60 per cent of the economy.

Containment of Iran requires Israel and the Sunni Arabs, with American and European help, to confront Iran with a defensive alliance. That is now under way. But peace and progress will only come when the current theocratic regime is swept away.

That could be hastened by a tightening of the sanctions screw to deny it the revenues it requires to keep it in power.

America and Britain announced new sanctions this week but they were paltry. Sanctions which cut off major revenue streams and technology that boosts its defence industries are required. The new Israel-Arab alliance should push for them.

Of course, Iran will rattle the threat of a nuclear bomb in the face of such hostility. It has stockpiled enough enriched uranium to create three bombs and is probably closer to one than it ever has been. But it is still up to a year away, given the time it takes to create weapons-grade uranium.

Israel and America need to be explicit: if there is any sign Iran is on the brink of a bomb then its nuclear facilities will be attacked. That will be controversial, though not among the Arab allies, but the idea of the Paydari Front — who explicitly believe in conflagration and the End Of Days — having a nuke is unconscionable. It simply cannot be allowed to happen.

The regime is vulnerable. Ali Khamenei, 84, Supreme Leader since 1989, is on his last legs and consumed with installing his ­lacklustre son as his successor (fascinating how republican ­dictatorships tend to descend into absolute monarchies).

People are furious that there’s always plenty of money to send to foreign militias or develop nuclear weapons but barely enough to put food on the table.

It explains Iranians’ bitter sense of humour. In the aftermath of last week’s failed attack on Israel, graffiti appeared in Tehran ­saying: ‘A lot of Israelis died — laughing’ and ‘Hit them Israel. Iranians are behind you.’

As always, it is vital to distinguish between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people. The regime is evil and despotic. The people are wonderful: educated, dynamic, diligent, cultured, ­successful — when circumstances allow. They deserve much better.

Shorn of the mullahs and with a democratic market economy, Iran would quickly become one of the most prosperous countries in the region, if not the world. Hasten that happy day.

For when it comes Israel and the Arabs won’t even need their defensive alliance.

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