On the Limits of Iran’s Policy of “Maximum Tactical Flexibility”

Reflecting on Hamas’s October 7 assault across the border with Israel, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offered an incisive comment on Iran’s role, saying that “The Iranians and their Hamas allies play a more complicated game than some Israelis…might realize.” He also highlighted the possibility that Iran fears Saudi-Israeli normalization that may “neuter the Palestinian issue as Tehran’s trump card,” just as it was also “considering an opening to the United States, even as its allies were planning a vicious attack” (on Israel).

About a decade ago, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave this “complicated”—and often contradictory—game its own name: “heroic flexibility.” Rendered in more prosaic language, it is possible to call it “maximum tactical flexibility” (MTF). The basic idea is to sustain as wide a field of military, diplomatic, and economic maneuvers as possible. Still, the more numerous its regional and global engagements, the more likely it becomes that Iran could make its new friends very uneasy while provoking its enemies. At some point, the tactical balls Tehran has been juggling could fall to the ground with unpredictable or dangerous strategic results.

It is in the arena of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that the tensions in Iran’s MTF policy could exact their highest cost. While they have denied backing Hamas’s October 7 assault, Iranian leaders have celebrated a ferocious and bloody attack which, among other things, may compel Saudi Arabia to back away from normalizing relations with Israel. Yet even as he denounced the Biden administration’s efforts to secure an Israeli-Saudi agreement, Khamenei backed steps to reduce tensions with the United States, not least of which was a prisoner exchange deal. Speaking several weeks before the deal was announced, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian noted that indirect US-Iranian talks were ongoing, and even claimed that the Biden administration had sent secret messages that “we are ready to conclude” talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

While they have denied backing Hamas’s October 7 assault, Iranian leaders have celebrated a ferocious and bloody attack which, among other things, may compel Saudi Arabia to back away from normalizing relations with Israel.

While the United States and Iran both denied any such linkage, the Foreign Minister’s words underscored a basic fact: a collapse of talks on Iran’s nuclear program could lead to a military confrontation with the United States or Israel. Hamas’s assault has made just a scenario more likely, especially if Hezbollah opens up a second front along the Lebanese border. In the coming weeks Israel and the United States will have their hands full trying to deter this and other dangers. But unless a sustained if indirect road to diplomacy emerges for all the key antagonists (including Israel and Hamas), Iran could find itself on a perilous path that instead of creating maximum flexibility could invite maximum chaos.

Heroic Flexibility: From Idea to Doctrine

Khamenei used the “heroic flexibility” term in September 2013 in a bid to back the efforts of then President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to pursue direct talks with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program. Both men invoked the call for this flexibility, as did the Supreme Leader, who following the signing of the JCPOA in July 2015 repeated it to justify the compromises that Tehran had given to reach the deal. Although some experts interpreted the tough position that Khamenei set in 2019 for renewing the JCPOA as an abandonment of flexibility, over the last two years he and his allies expanded the concept to justify a growing range of regional and global engagements.

Iran’s ultra-hardliners have spearheaded this shift. Indeed, since his election in 2021, President Ebrahim Raisi has watched as security apparatchiks in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—with Khamenei’s support—have taken over Iranian foreign policy. Exploiting the opening created by President Donald Trump’s disastrous 2018 decision to repudiate the JCPOA, they have pushed to accelerate Iran’s nuclear enrichment program even as they have supported finding ways to de-escalate tensions with neighboring Gulf states and the Biden administration itself. These dual policies are a sign of their strength. It is precisely because the hardliners are now more powerful than ever that Tehran has the domestic room to maneuver on the regional and global front, thus establishing the doctrine of maximum tactical flexibility.

These dual policies are a sign of their strength. It is precisely because the hardliners are now more powerful than ever that Tehran has the domestic room to maneuver on the regional and global front, thus establishing the doctrine of maximum tactical flexibility.

As this process has unfolded, Khamenei has tried to clarify what he means by “flexibility.” Thus during a May 2023 meeting with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, he noted that while “being flexible” requires defending the concept of “expediency” or state interests, “[it] does not mean that you should ignore principles” of sacred importance to Iran. He added: “Of course, a few years ago, when I mentioned the term, ‘heroic flexibility’, it was misunderstood both inside and outside the country. Because expediency means finding a way to overcome difficult obstacles and to continue the path until you reach your goal.”  In short, he warned, keep an eye on the strategic prize, even while recognizing that “Today, the cooperation and alignment of some big and important countries of the world with…Iran…is an unprecedented phenomenon, and we should appreciate this opportunity and strengthen the relations with those countries.”

MTF in Action: Gains and Potential Headaches

The opportunities and risks that come with MTF are an occupational hazard for all rising and even great powers. At some point or another, trade-offs emerge that require difficult decisions. The more flexible the policy—i.e., the more it is stretched in multiple directions—the closer such moments will loom on the horizon. There is no gain without some pain.

Iran’s engagement with both China and Saudi Arabia illustrates the dilemmas that come with MTF. Tehran (and Beijing) scored a diplomatic and geo-strategic victory when China’s foreign minister mediated a revival of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023. The agreement not only created a potential for a wider process of de-escalation in the Gulf, but, for Tehran, it offered a way to counter efforts by the United States and Israel to entrench the “Abraham Accords” and even draw Riyadh into the process. China recognized that Washington would benefit from any bid to expand the accords. But it also saw them as an opportunity to advance its diplomatic, trade, and energy interests in the Gulf and wider Middle East, including with Israel. Thus Iran’s engagement with China and Saudi Arabia brought in dividends and potential headaches.

This would be especially true if and when Riyadh played its own “regional balancing” game by signaling a readiness to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US security guarantees. China might live with such an outcome and even see certain advantages in it. But Iran would suffer a huge strategic setback that could never be mitigated by whatever gains it may secure from Beijing. Tehran’s courtship of Beijing enhanced the former’s “flexibility” but provided no promise of a fruitful partnership that would give the Islamic Republic the regional clout that Khamenei and his hardline allies believe must be the ultimate strategic goal of Iranian foreign policy.

The Saudi-US-Iran Dance

Such uncertainties have also encumbered Iran’s outreach to Saudi Arabia. Brokered by China, Tehran’s renewal of diplomatic relations with Riyadh posed a test for both Israel and the United States. This challenge was underscored by the fact that on the previous day, Saudi Arabia reportedly relayed to the White House its conditions for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, including US assistance in developing a Saudi civilian nuclear power program. By playing the US-Israel card, Riyadh tested the nimbleness of Iran’s MTF strategy. In effect, Iran found itself in a race with the United States and Israel to shape the direction of Saudi Arabia’s regional engagements, and by implication, the wider balance of power in the Middle East.

The outcome of this race has depended on two parallel dynamics. The first is Washington’s ability to secure a Saudi-Israeli agreement that would not be seen on the Arab street—and in the kingdom—as a betrayal of the Palestinians. And the second is the ongoing Iranian-American effort to dial down tensions and thus avoid sliding into an unwanted military confrontation.

US-Iran Diplomacy: Starts and Stops

On August 10, the Biden administration announced that it had reached an agreement with Iran for a prisoners’ exchange that provided for the release of five Iranian Americans in return for the freeing up of Americans and around $6 billion of Iranian assets owed by South Korea to the Islamic Republic. The money would be released through an arrangement that stipulates that the fund would be used to pay for humanitarian purposes, such as the purchase of food and medicine. Five US prisoners left Iran on September 18. Two weeks later, the London based Amwaj Media outlet released a report claiming not only that Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Baqeri-Kani, is “ready to meet with” White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk, but that Supreme Leader Khamenei had greenlighted such a meeting. The very next day US and Iranian officials emphatically denied that their governments had planned or approved any such talks. (Following the Hamas operation against Israel, the United States and Qatar agreed to suspend the delivery of the $6 billion sum to Iran.)

Hamas’s attack might end the efforts to forge Saudi-Israeli normalization, and might even compel Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to scale back their relations with Israel.

These reports unfolded along with demands from Republican leaders in the United States that the White House clarify the status of an ongoing investigation of Robert Malley, the State Department’s lead Iran negotiator who had been temporarily suspended following reports of a possible mishandling of classified information. Along with a group of Iranian American scholars, Malley had been the target of reports by two global news outlets—Semafor and Iran International—which alleged that he and his colleagues had been compromised by, if not complicit in, a Tehran-directed influence operation. But the veracity of these claims, repeated by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, was placed in doubt not only by their misrepresentation of the facts, but also by long-standing press reports that Iran International was funded by a Saudi businessman with close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That the Saudis may have helped instigate the smear campaign against Malley and colleagues was something that Stephens didn’t mention. Still, his column echoed efforts in Congress to discredit US-Iran diplomacy. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) boosted these efforts when his office issued a press statement insisting that “The Biden administration should…cease its secret diplomacy with Iran and its dismantling of sanctions.” Whether such statements influenced the administration is not clear. But by the end of September, prospects for using the prisoner deal to advance indirect US-Iran talks had evaporated.

It is unlikely that this development worried Iran’s hardliners. Indeed, it appears that they played a role in leaking documents that were then used against Malley. Thus, while they had not opposed efforts to reduce tensions with the United States, they were deeply ambivalent about where such efforts might lead. The multiple signals coming from Tehran regarding further talks suggested as much, as did a dangerous mid-September incident in the Gulf, when according to the US Navy, IRGC forces pointed a laser at a US Marine helicopter, exposing its crew to danger. Coming days after Bahraini troops were killed in a drone assault that was very likely undertaken by Houthi forces, the Gulf incident underscored the risks that come with a policy of “flexibility.”

Feting Hamas’s Assault, Iranian (and Chinese) Leaders May Have Second Thoughts

Those risks have been laid bare by Hamas’s ferocious October 7 attack across the Gaza-Israeli border. While it may not have played a direct role in the attack itself, it is likely that Iran’s provision of financial, military, and technological support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad helped make it possible. Iranian leaders have not only feted the attacks: only a week before, Supreme Leader Khamenei repeated Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s assertion that the “Zionist regime is a cancer” that must be removed. For Khamenei and his hardline allies, the struggle with Israel is an existential battle that cannot be resolved by any diplomatic compromise. This position echoes the views of the hardest of hardliners in Israel’s own government, whose assertion that there are “no Palestinians” has its mirror image in the statements by Khamenei and his allies in Gaza who deny the reality of Israel’s national identity.

But Iran may soon pay a very high price for such irredentism. To the sure delight of its hardliners, Hamas’s attack might end the efforts to forge Saudi-Israeli normalization, and might even compel Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to scale back their relations with Israel. But if Hamas’s allies in Lebanon and the West Bank join the fight, as now seems possible, a wider regional war could follow. This is precisely what Iran has tried to avoid using its policy of maximum tactical flexibility. This policy could now blow up in its face. The prospect of a wider conflict deeply worries Tehran’s Chinese friends, not to mention many world leaders, who have backed the Palestinians but are sickened by Hamas’s massacre of hundreds of Israeli civilians. For the moment—and that is what counts—the fact that Israel is retaliating with unprecedented lethal force and thus killing thousands of Palestinian civilians may not be sufficient to generate a sustained international effort to address the conflict that matters most and that now seems as far away from resolution as ever.

Featured image credit: Khamenei.ir