America and Iran step closer to the brink of war

America and Iran step closer to the brink of war

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  • January 21, 2024
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Iranian allies in Iraq and Syria have launched about 140 rocket and drone attacks against American troops since the start of the Gaza war. Perhaps the most severe came on January 20th, with a volley of “multiple ballistic missiles and rockets” fired at the Al Asad base in western Iraq, according to America’s Central Command. 

Reports say Patriot air-defence batteries intercepted most of them, but some hit the base, concussing or otherwise wounding an unknown number of Americans and Iraqis. Hitherto America has retaliated against local proxies. Mr Biden will now face growing pressure to take stronger action against Iran itself. It is a dilemma: do nothing and America looks weak; retaliate and the president risks a new war in an election year.

In Yemen, meanwhile, America launched its seventh raid on a different Iranian ally, the Houthi militia that runs much of the country, in an attempt to stem its missile shots at ships passing the Bab al-Mandab strait. 

The Houthis claim to be acting in support of Palestinians, against ships sailing to Israel or Western warships. But their targeting is haphazard, despite reports that it is receiving help from members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the clerical regime’s praetorian guard, to identify ships and operate weapons.

Mr Biden himself admits that America’s strikes will not stop the Houthis. Yet the Washington Post reports that the Biden administration is drafting plans for a “sustained military campaign” in Yemen despite the misgivings of some officials.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, Iran’s oldest and most powerful regional ally, Hizbullah, a Shia militia and political party, has regularly been exchanging fire with Israeli forces. It has expressed support for Hamas, but has not thrown itself into a war against Israel. 

The Biden administration helped dissuade Israel from launching a pre-emptive assault against Hizbullah immediately after the October 7th attacks. But Israel is threatening action in Lebanon if diplomacy fails to convince Hizbullah forces to stop shooting and move away from the border region.

America and Iran are thus playing a perilous balancing act. Iran has helped its allies in the “axis of resistance” to stage attacks intended to weaken Israel, displace America and discredit Arab states that have made peace (or seek to) with Israel. America, for its part, has engaged in limited retaliation. Both have avoided a direct clash. But the equilibrium may not hold.

For one thing, Israel is waging a not-so-secret war against Iran and its allies, alongside the overt confrontations with Hamas and Hizbullah. In late December an IRGC commander was killed in a suspected Israeli air strike in Damascus. A week later Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official, was assassinated in a strike on Hizbullah’s stronghold in southern Beirut. 

On January 20th another rocket attack in Damascus killed five IRGC members, including Hojatallah Omidvar, the head of intelligence in Syria for the Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign-operations arm. On January 4th America killed Mushtaq al-Jawari, a leader of Harakat al-Nujaba, a group involved in attacking American forces, with a drone strike against his headquarters in Baghdad.

At home, meanwhile, a series of terrorist attacks have rattled the Iranian regime. These include a double suicide-bombing, claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, that killed roughly 100 people at the graveside of Qassem Soleimani, a senior IRGC general assassinated by America in 2020; and the killing of at least 11 policemen in the tense eastern province of Baluchestan by a Pakistan-based Baluch group, Jaish al-Adl.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on Iranian forces to exercise “strategic patience”. But Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group argues that the Iranian regime now feels it needs to “restore deterrence”, and has taken matters into its own hands.

Last week it fired missiles at three neighbouring countries: against alleged terrorist targets in Syria and Pakistan, and at a supposed Israeli spy base in Iraqi Kurdistan. (The attack on Pakistan invited a retaliatory missile strike on Iran; both countries now seem to have stepped back from the brink.)

“The Iranians are still risk averse,” says Mr Vaez. “They want to change the perception that they are on the back foot. But simultaneously there is a perception that Israel has laid a trap for them—to either justify extending the war or to drag the US into it.”

As for the Biden administration, officials insist that they don’t want a regional war. In 2020 Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, ordered the killing of Soleimani in response to the attacks on American forces by pro-Iranian militias. That produced a hail of Iranian ballistic-missile fire at Al Asad akin to the recent volley (to which Mr Trump did not respond further).

Mr Biden has been cautious. He does not want to be drawn into a war in the Middle East at a time when America is already stretched thin by supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia and is trying to prevent another one against China over Taiwan. Mr Biden, moreover, is seeking re-election this year.

In Iraq and Syria, American forces respond far less often than they are attacked. Similarly in Yemen, America at first limited itself to shooting down missiles and drones that threatened Israel or passing ships, issued warnings and secured a supportive UN Security Council resolution before striking the Houthis directly.

“The administration knows it has a problem without a solution,” says Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank in Washington, DC. “It can only try to manage it.”

Mr Biden’s best hope is that Israel will soon win, or at least wind down its war in Gaza, and so reduce the fury across the region. But Israel has neither quelled Hamas nor recovered its hostages, and shows little sign of being ready to stop. The Palestinian death toll has passed 25,000. Some accuse Israel of genocide. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is flatly rejecting Mr Biden’s call for a future Palestinian state.

As Mr Biden struggles to hold the ring in the Middle East, Mr Miller says he may be one mishap or terrorist attack away from a regional war. “If this continues, and one of these strikes actually ends up killing a significant number of Americans, the administration is going to have no choice but to strike at the IRGC.”

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