Iran: No war with the US for now, but no peace, either
The US has launched retaliatory strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. However, neither Iran nor the US has any stated interest in starting another war in the region.
The US claims to have found the instigator of a drone attack on a US base in Jordan near the Iraqi border that claimed the lives of three soldiers at the end of January.
Speaking to the press ahead of the recent US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on Iranian-backed militias, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington believed the drone attack was "planned, resourced and facilitated by an umbrella group called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq" — a group of several Iraqi armed groups that are backed by Iran.
The military action took place amid extreme tensions in the Middle East as a result of the war between Israel and the Islamist militant organization Hamas. There are fears that it could lead to a direct confrontation between the US and Iran.
Iran denies accusations, issues threats
According to the Iranian state news agency IRNA, Iran has denied any involvement in the Jordan attack. "We are not looking for a war but are not afraid of it either," the agency quoted General Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, as saying last week. "We are not warmongers, but we defend ourselves and our glory."
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also urged the US to refrain from making threats and accusations and focus on a political solution. Iran's response to threats would be swift and decisive, he said.
Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said on Friday that ascribing every move made by a militia associated with Iran to decisions made by Iran's leadership was overly simplistic. Iran, he said, supported many armed groups abroad, including the Houthi militia in Yemen, the Kataib-Hezbollah in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"Together, they form an 'axis of resistance' against Israel and the US," he said.
This support encompasses the provision of weapons as well as logistical and economic assistance, he said. "Based on this, one can indeed conclude that the collective decision to escalate against the US and Israel in response to the war in Gaza was taken by all these groups in coordination with and with the support of Iran," said Azizi, who conducted research on regional security at Iranian universities before moving to Germany in 2020.
However, Azizi noted that the individual groups had significant autonomy at the tactical and operational levels, especially when selecting the targets for attacks. "It is therefore difficult to assess the extent of Iran's involvement," Azizi said.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad, the founder of the Center for Middle East and Global Order in Berlin, also thinks it unlikely that Iran knew nothing about the attacks. After all, as he pointed out on the Swiss television channel SRF, the situation in the Middle East is extremely dangerous for the Islamic Republic.
It has taken care to avoid a direct conflict with the US or Israel, because any war resulting from this would endanger the security of the regime in Tehran. "The leaders in Tehran are well aware of this," Fathollah-Nejad said.
Struggling for influence in border regions
The drone attack on the American al-Tanf military base at the end of January took place in a region that was controlled by the jihadi terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS) up until 2015.
In recent years, IS has largely been defeated. Foreign players have now taken control of the area. The Jordanian government has given permission for the US presence there: The American forces are supposed to contain the remaining IS militias as much as possible.
According to the most recent study by the International Crisis Group, Iran is also heavily represented in this area. However, the ICG says it is difficult to assess the size of the Iranian forces. There is concern in Washington that Iran is trying to establish an east-west land corridor through Iraq and Syria to complement the existing air corridor. This would enable Iran to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the Mediterranean.
For its part, the ICG analysis concludes, Iran wants to prevent the US from controlling the north-south route from the Turkish border to the border with Jordan. That would cut off Iran from its allies and proxies in the region.
Further provocation not ruled out
Ideally, Iran would like to "expel" the US from the region, as its spiritual and political leader Ali Khamenei has declared. Hamidreza Azizi commented that Tehran therefore sees the war in Gaza as a suitable opportunity for increasing pressure on the US. Repeated attacks on American targets in the region might induce Washington to pressure Israel to put a swift end to the war with Hamas, he said.
"As a result, there has been a division of labor among the groups allied with Iran," Azizi said. "The Houthi militias took on the task of creating tension in the Red Sea while the Iraqi militias exert pressure on the US in Iraq and eastern Syria."
However, Azizi said that, in any actions they take, they will seek to avoid American casualties. "Iran and its allies knew that American fatalities would trigger a more determined response from Washington," he explained. "And Tehran does not want a war with Washington."
Published: 08 Feb 2024, 8:23 AM