Updated Apr 13, 2023, 4:02pm EDT
securityMiddle East

The Middle East’s shadow war amps up

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

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The News

Iran’s long-simmering proxy war with the U.S. and Israel is quickly heating up, and it’s forcing the Pentagon to shift more naval and air assets to the Middle East as a deterrent.

Tehran-backed militias have launched a string of attacks on American bases in northern Syria since late March, killing one U.S. contractor and leaving at least six others with traumatic brain injuries. The Palestinian militant group Hamas and other Iranian proxies fired missiles into Israel this month in a coordinated strike from three separate borders — Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip.

U.S. and Middle Eastern officials who spoke with Semafor, as well as outside analysts, said they believed the stepped-up assaults were part of a new effort to test the willingness of American and Israeli forces to respond to acts of aggression.

Tehran’s growing military assertiveness, they said, was likely connected to its recent deal to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, which has given it more room to focus on American and Israeli targets away from the Persian Gulf. Fighting between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi forces in Yemen, for instance, has largely come to an end, and the two sides are close to signing a formal peace agreement soon.

“The Iranians calculate the advantage is theirs on regional issues,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They think they have split the Saudis and Emiratis from the U.S. and Israel. Iran can now work to widen that gap.”

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Know More

Iran has vowed to retaliate against Israel for its attacks on its military personnel and infrastructure inside Syria. Earlier this month, an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official outside Damascus. The IRGC said in a statement that the “Zionist regime will receive the answer for this crime."

However, recent internal strife within Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial court plan may also be a factor, sources told Semafor. As one Arab official put it, the Iranians “strike when they sense vulnerability.” Tehran has also urged its allies to confront Israeli forces who have clashed with Muslim worshippers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque this month.

The Pentagon announced in recent days that it’s moving the George H. W. Bush carrier group to the Mediterranean to better protect U.S. troops in Syria. The Navy has also dispatched a guided-missile submarine, the USS Florida, to the region to guard against Iranian attacks on American and Israeli shipping.

Tehran says it’s closely monitoring these deployments. "Washington had better come to grips with the new realities [on the ground] and refrain from any effort to intervene in the West Asia region and the Persian Gulf,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman on Monday.

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Jay's view

The wave of Tehran-backed attacks is raising some troubling questions about the U.S.’s ability to head off Iranian hostility. Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified before Congress that IRGC-affiliates in Iraq and Syria have struck American troops 83 times since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The Pentagon has launched just four major counterstrikes in response.

Republicans have criticized the administration’s response as too lax and are pressing the White House to more directly challenge the Iranian regime itself, rather than through its proxies. The last major U.S. operation against Tehran came in 2020 when the Trump administration assassinated the commander of the IRGC’s overseas Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, using a drone strike in Iraq.

“What kind of signal do we think this sends to Iran when they can attack us 83 times … and we only respond four?” Senator Tom Cotton asked Secretary Austin. “Maybe it's because they know that we will not retaliate until they kill an American, which emboldens them to keep launching these attacks.”

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Room for Disagreement

Biden administration officials say they need to strike a balance between protecting American forces and allies in the region while also guarding against stoking a much broader conflict with Iran and its proxies. This, they note, could play out everywhere from Syria to the Persian Gulf. These officials say the U.S. has taken steps to prevent a number of major Iranian attacks on allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, in recent months.

A U.S. official told Semafor that last November the Biden administration scrambled jets to warn Iran off against a suspected plan to launch missiles into Saudi Arabia. The deployment of the USS Florida this month, meanwhile, was tied to specific intelligence indicating Tehran was planning to launch drone strikes against Israeli ships.

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  • Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, led Iran’s operations against the U.S. and Israel until his assassination in 2020. He was known as the “Shadow Commander.”
  • Iran’s normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia could help end the war in Yemen, according to the Middle East Institute.

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