What Game is Iran Playing?

By Timothy Furnish Published on January 22, 2024

Last fall, Iran’s leaders let slip the dogs of war. (Ironic, considering how much Islam’s founder hated canines.) Was their purpose merely to wreak havoc? To just watch the world, or at least their part of it, burn? Or are the ayatollahs playing 4-D chess?

The Road to Middle East War(s)

On October 7, 2023, Hamas attacked Israel. Its militants killed at least 1400 Israelis. Israel counterattacked, and the Gaza Strip Palestinian death toll is now perhaps 25,000. At the same time, Hizbullah opened a second, northern front against the Jewish state. While far less bloody than the southern one, HB is “the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor.” And thus potentially even more deadly to Israel than Hamas. Meanwhile, 1200 miles to the south, Ansarallah (“partisans of Allah”), the terrorist wing of the Zaydi Houthis in Yemen, threatens not just Israel but all Red Sea shipping.

Why Iran Supports and Spurs These Groups

What do these three groups have in common? They’re all armed, funded, and to some degree controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hamas is the tip of Iran’s spear, however. Despite being the only one of the terrorist trifecta that’s Sunni, not Shi`i. Why would the ayatollahs coordinate attacks on Israel from their three proxies over the last three months? As I’ve noted before, for (at least) five reasons:

  • Embarrassing the Biden Administration after releasing billions in funds to Tehran.
  • Sabotaging Saudi-Israeli establishment of diplomatic relations (which succeeded brilliantly).
  • Helping Iran’s partner Russia by getting Ukraine off the front pages.
  • Scuttling Turkey’s normalization of ties with Israel. And
  • For the true eschatological believers in Tehran and Qom — like President Ibrahim Raisi — taking on the “Zionist entity” might be enough to hot-wire the apocalypse, and move Allah to return the 12th Imam as the militant Mahdi.

Iran’s Proxies Have Also Targeted Americans

These Arsonist ayatollahs have set other fires, however. Much as been made in the media of the 100+ attacks on US installations and forces in Iraq and Syria since October 7. (Causing “traumatic brain injuries” to an unspecified number of Americans.)

But there had been nearly as many before then, since Biden took office. These despite the Biden Administration kissing up to Tehran by issuing waivers on sanctions and releasing funds. (His State Department’s attempt to revive the “Iran nuclear deal” created by Obama and canceled by Trump.) The result of all this diplomatic love? Iran has enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon within a week, if it so chooses.

Tehran Is Feeling Its Oats

But wait, there are more Twelver Shi`i shenanigans coming out of Tehran. Last week the IRGC (Iranian Republican Guards Corps), the clerics’ Praetorian Guard and special forces, launched missiles into Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. Their targets? Alleged Mossad bases there.

Then the IRI regime struck out in an entirely new, and unexpected, direction. It launched missiles and drones into its eastern neighbor, Pakistan. Why? To hit members of Jaysh al-Adl (“Army of Justice”), a Baluch militant group opposed to the Tehran government. Shortly thereafter Pakistan responded in kind, with missiles strikes on an anti-Pakistan terrorist group inside Iran, the Baluch Liberation Front.

Who Iran and Pakistan are Bombing 

What is going on? The Baluch are a distinct ethnolinguistic group, whose territory straddles Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For that reason, and because they’re Sunni, many oppose Iran’s strict Shi`i regime. The JA was created to fight Iran. The BLF, which detests Islamabad’s Sunni government, aims for Baluch independence via Marxism-Leninism. (Here’s a handy analogy. Hamas is Palestinian Muslim separatism, while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which still exists, is Palestinian Marxist separatism. Same goal, different methods.)

Why Would Iran Risk Wider War?

Why would Iran risk antagonizing its much larger, and nuclear-armed, Muslim neighbor? Tactically, Tehran probably blames JA for the attacks on its officials at the Soleimani memorial service. (Although ISIS claimed responsibility.) Politically, Supreme Leader Khameini is 84 and increasingly unhealthy.

Please Support The Stream: Equipping Christians to Think Clearly About the Political, Economic, and Moral Issues of Our Day.

His likely successor is President Raisi, who is if anything more convinced of the Islamic Republic’s need to prepare the way for the Mahdi. By any means necessary, perhaps short of getting Iran incinerated by the Israelis or Americans. Thus the unleashing of Hamas, Hizbullah and the Houthis. Missiles strikes on neighbors, both east and west.

After all, Iran has been pouring gasoline into the region for decades, with very few repercussions. Indeed, it’s been rewarded by Democrat administrations. Why not go ahead and strike matches at key points, and see what happens? Some men do just want to watch the world burn. Especially if the smoke might attract their messiah.

Chess, Backgammon — or Poker?

The turbans-and-beard crowd running Iran might think they’re playing chess. And beating everyone at it. But a better analogy is takteh, or backgammon. Unlike chess, which is entirely skill-based, backgammon uses dice. And thus chance rears its sometimes ugly head.

While Iran might be close to a nuclear weapon, the Israelis already have dozens, and the Pakistanis hundreds. Also, the odds are that by next year the United States will have back as its leader a certain fellow who doesn’t play chess. He plays poker. And his hand will include thousands of nukes.

I doubt even the Mahdi would take those odds.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like the article? Share it with your friends! And use our social media pages to join or start the conversation! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MeWe and Gab.

The Habit of Nearness
Robert J. Morgan
More from The Stream
Connect with Us