1 Attack Too Many?

Iran does not want a war in the Middle East — it has too much to lose. Instead, it is waging a shadow war against the United States and Israel through pro-Iranian militias. However, President Joe Biden will certainly respond decisively to the deaths of three American soldiers.

This is how wars start, even if nobody wants them. One attack too many that leaves the other side no choice. Pro-Iranian militias have attacked American military bases in Iraq and Syria more than 170 times since October, as counted by the Institute for the Study of War. It is the shadow war that the Iranian regime is allowing its allies to wage. In solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, it claims.

One hundred seventy times and no American soldiers were killed in the attacks. That changed on Sunday. The U.S. Army reported that three soldiers were killed and more than 30 injured when a small outpost on the Jordan-Syria border was attacked with drones. At first, it was said the attack took place on the Jordanian side. The Jordanian government later denied this and declared that the attacks occurred on Syrian soil.

The President Has So Far Reacted Very Cautiously to the Constant Provocations

The U.S. Army is, in fact, present on both sides of the border, which runs through the desert here. Iranian state media reported that the “Iraqi resistance” had attacked the United States in Syria, namely the Al-Tanf base, which had repeatedly become a target in recent weeks.

Tehran distanced itself from the attack as usual, claiming the Iraqis acted independently. There was no basis to claims that Iran was responsible. Iranian news agencies even claimed to have heard that anonymous American sources doubted Iran was to blame.

That has been the messaging from Tehran for months. The mullahs praise the attacks by their allies — Hezbollah on Israel, the Houthis on ships in the Red Sea, the Iraqi militias on American facilities — but they want nothing to do with them. They will not allow themselves to be provoked into a war by Israel and the United States; that is the official account. All this while the regime has again ramped up uranium enrichment. And with a rocket strike on northwest Syria, it demonstrated only recently what it is capable of militarily.

It’s believable that the Iranians do not want a large war in the Middle East. They have more to lose than gain in that situation. On the other hand, they are getting dangerously close to this war. With the death of three American soldiers, President Joe Biden finds himself under intense pressure. Until now, Biden has responded cautiously to the constant provocations. Now Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is influential when it comes to foreign policy, is calling for retaliatory strikes against Iran. Graham says the oil infrastructure must be attacked.

It Is a Presidential Campaign — Biden Cannot Afford To Appear Weak

On Sunday, the president said only that “we will hold all those responsible to account.” We don’t know all the details yet, but it’s certain that “radical Iran-backed militant groups” were behind the attack. It is the greatest loss for the United States since the summer of 2021 when the Islamic State killed 13 soldiers at the Kabul airport.

The president will have to respond to this and in a way that placates the countries in the Middle East that host American bases, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. He also cannot afford to appear weak domestically given the presidential campaign that is just beginning. On the topic of Iran in particular, Republicans continue to accuse him of exactly that. On the other hand, Biden also intends to signal to the Iranians that he has no interest in an escalation. Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby said in Washington on Monday, “We are not looking for a war with Iran. We are not seeking a conflict with the regime in a military way.” He says no one wants more war or an escalation. “But we will absolutely do what is required to protect ourselves, to continue that mission, and to respond appropriately to these attacks.”

Several Iranian buildings in Syria are fitting targets for an American retaliatory strike, including the Glass House, a command center of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard near the Damascus airport. Israel has already flown attacks on the complex. Other bases of the guard also came under consideration as well as pro-Iranian militia targets. Tehran considers American attacks on Iraqi soil as a fundamentally greater escalation than in Syria.

Until the War in Gaza Ends, the Shadow War Will Presumably Continue

Until now, it was not the case in this shadow war that Iran would immediately retaliate against American air strikes. In November, for example, Biden ordered the bombing of multiple Revolutionary Guard targets in Syria in response to the constant attacks by militias loyal to Iran. Tehran swore vengeance, but that threat remained ambiguous. Tehran responded to a targeted killing of a commander of the Revolutionary Guard in Damascus, presumably by Israel, with a rocket attack on the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Erbil. The target was allegedly an Israeli espionage center; however, it only killed Iraqi civilians.

None of these are signals that Iran is looking for a big war. It issues threats and wants to prove its might; the rest it leaves to its militias. The danger of war is nevertheless high, especially now, after the deaths of three American soldiers. The atmosphere is tense, no one knows where the next attack will lead— or whether the parties to the conflict will succeed in maintaining control to some extent.

Until the war in the Gaza Strip ends, the shadow war will presumably continue as well. For the time being, people in the region are waiting for Biden’s response to the Iranian regime.

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About Michael Stehle 103 Articles
I am a graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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