Iran has two purposes in mind with all these attacks: The first is pressuring the West to curtail Israel’s military campaign in Gaza in order to save Hamas — a valued member of Tehran’s so-called axis of resistance. The second is the longer-term aim of fatiguing the U.S. into giving up and largely withdrawing from the Middle East, amplifying Iran’s clout in the region.
And according to Atlantic Council analyst Qutaiba Idlibi, while the Islamic Resistance in Iraq “claimed the [Jordan] attack was a response to Israel’s war on Gaza,” “it is undeniably part of a larger escalation Iranian proxies have been leading against U.S. positions in Syria and Iraq since late 2022.”
So, if deterrence isn’t working, with escalatory jitters driving cautiously calibrated action — the same reason behind the tardiness in supplying Ukraine with advanced weaponry — the U.S. has two alternatives: It can cut and run, as it did in Afghanistan, or be much tougher in its response to reestablish deterrence.
“The United States could deliver a strategic blow to Iran’s capabilities in eastern Syria, upending the strategic Iraq-Syria-Lebanon land corridor,” Idlibi said — an approach that, he argued, “may prove beneficial to U.S. positioning in the region, to regional allies and to many of the region’s chronic conflicts in Syria and Lebanon.” But the U.S. reprisals conducted this weekend fall far short of that, leaving a big question mark as to whether Biden has yet reestablished deterrence.
Arguably, the U.S. has been caught betwixt and between for some time now. And this has unnerved its allies in the region, who have identified a persistent American reluctance to inflict a high price on Tehran for its actions and those of its proxies. But the consequence of this is that Iran is slowly but surely advancing toward its second goal of expanding its influence — hence the Saudi Arabia turning to Iran for assurances that the Houthis won’t attack them and negotiating with Tehran’s Yemeni client.
Over the summer, the Saudis suspended restrictions on ships entering the Houthi-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida and agreed to allow more flights between Yemeni capital Sana’a and Jordan’s Amman. Along similar lines, Egypt has asked the Houthis to restrict their Red Sea attacks to ships only connected to Israel, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani has been demanding the U.S. withdraw all 2,500 of its troops stationed in the country.
Part of the reason for all this sidling up to Iran from its Middle Eastern neighbors, as well as the Gulf’s pleas for the U.S. to show restraint, is recognition that Tehran is prepared for the long haul — and fear that the U.S. simply isn’t.
Of course, it’s possible that Biden is just limbering up — he has stated that Friday’s action was just the beginning of Washington’s response. And if he wants to stop Iran’s game of whack-a-mole, it will need to be.