Since the brutal October 7 attack on Israeli civilians, many pundits have worried that Israel would widen the conflict by dragging the United States into a war with Iran. In fact, America is already at war with Iran’s proxies, and has been for some time.
Nevertheless, Iran is unlikely to go to war with the U.S. for one simple reason: Despite the mullahs’ incendiary rhetoric against both the American “Great Satan” and the Israeli “Little Satan,” Iran’s rulers dare not attack American forces directly.
Since Hezbollah’s bombing of the Marine barracks on October 23, 1983, Iran has consistently employed its proxies to attack American forces. But neither Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) nor any other Iranian force has attacked American forces directly.
The closest Tehran has come to confronting American units directly has been in the Arabian Gulf; even then, the incidents have not led to direct clashes. For example, on June 4, three IRGC fast attack boats carrying armed men approached a commercial ship; presumably the men were preparing to board the ship. The attack craft retreated when U.S. and British warships came to the commercial ship’s aid. On September 27, the IRGC shined a laser at a Marine AH-1Z attack helicopter, but without inflicting any damage.
On the other hand, IRGC proxies have attacked American forces incessantly over the past several years — which, until recently, prompted only a feeble American response. Whereas Iranian proxies carried out drone or rocket attacks against U.S. troops in the Middle East approximately 80 times from the beginning of 2021 to mid-2023, American forces retaliated not more than a half-dozen times during that same period. No doubt one reason for the muted American reaction was Washington’s desire not to ratchet up a confrontation with Tehran while there was a prospect for renewing the nuclear arms deal (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that President Trump terminated in 2018.
With the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, IRGC-backed proxies stepped up their attacks on American forces in Syria and Iraq. As the Department of Defense announced earlier this week, proxies in the two countries attacked American forces with drones and rockets 56 times since mid-October, including eight in the past 10 days. 59 American personnel suffered a variety of injuries as a result. In addition, in mid-October the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthis fired three cruise missiles and several drones at an American guided-missile destroyer in the Red Sea.
The dramatic increase in attacks on American forces, coupled with the certain collapse of any chance of a nuclear deal taking place before the next presidential election, has finally led the Biden administration to retaliate more often and more quickly against the militias and their sponsors; it has done so three times since October 27. The most recent such operation, which took place on November 12, was a set of strikes in eastern Syria against a training, logistics and storage facilities in Abu Kamal and a command headquarters in Mayadin.
Tehran has denounced the attacks, of course, but, as with its vitriolic attacks on what it calls the “Zionist entity,” Iran will not go beyond verbal attacks; put simply, it cannot afford to go to war. Given seething discontent among large swathes of the Iranian populace, a war that provokes American retaliation, or even an Israeli attack, could result in the mullahs finally losing their grip on the power that they have monopolized for four decades.
Tehran will continue to push its proxies to do its dirty work, however, and therein lies the real danger of a wider war. Hezbollah, the most powerful of Iran’s proxies, has yet to show its hand in a major way against Israel. It has not gone much beyond launching a number of strikes against Israeli targets near the Lebanese border, which nevertheless have prompted intense Israeli retaliation.
Like his Iranian sponsors, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has voiced his full-throated support for Hamas while being exceedingly cagey about whether his forces would launch an all-out attack on Israel. Should he order such an attack, the U.S. would be hard pressed to stand aloof while Israel fought what it would increasingly view as war for its very survival.
With its warships and other forces now on station in the Eastern Mediterranean, Washington should make it clear to both Nasrallah and his Iranian masters that America will not tolerate stepped up attacks on Israeli targets. At the same time, the military should continue to respond with force to every IRGC-sponsored attack on American units. Tehran must at last be forced to recognize that the United States will no longer remain passive in the face of its provocations, and that it will continue to pay an ever-increasing price for any harm that its proxies seek to inflict on America’s fighting men and women.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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Author: Dov S. Zakheim, opinion contributor