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Source: Washington Post

Jan 12, 2024

Biden’s response to the Houthis must not spiral into a wider war with Iran

By Jason Rezaian

The Middle East is as tense as it has been in recent memory, with the Gaza conflict threatening to spawn a wider regional conflict.

The Biden administration and its European allies have launched strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen in retaliation for continued attacks against shipping in the Red Sea.

The strikes might include an Iranian spy ship, operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the Times of London said has been providing targeting assistance to the Houthis.

Thus far, the Biden administration’s restraint in reacting to Iran’s provocations has been a sign of wisdom and strength, not weakness. A carefully modulated reply to Houthi aggression is justified at this point. But President Biden should ensure that this response does not spiral out of control. A wider war would be calamitous.

Despite the widespread belief that Iran is the Middle East’s dominant and most disruptive actor, the theocratic state is perhaps at its weakest point in its 45-year history.

Domestically, any popular support for the Iranian government has long vanished. In recent weeks, authorities have been stepping up arrests of dissidents and religious minorities, and have carried out executions of supposed regime opponents — a sign that regional instability and domestic volatility have the regime nervous.

The recent Islamic State terrorist attacks at a memorial service for Qasem Soleimani, the powerful Revolutionary Guard general assassinated by the Trump administration, have highlighted the regime’s inability to keep internal order, and further rattled the ruling elite.

Abroad, Iran is no powerhouse. While its population of more than 87 million dwarfs Israel’s 9 million, the Islamic republic’s military budget is less than one-third that of the Israel Defense Forces. In a conventional war, Iran simply can’t compete with the military might of Israel, the United States and their allies.

Nevertheless, the regime will not stand down. To do so would be to undermine one of its principal claims to legitimacy: that it is standing up to the United States and its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Israel, in Iran’s worldview, is the only enemy more sinister than America.

Iran’s self-proclaimed support for Palestinians is perhaps its greatest source of strength. Especially since the war in Gaza began, support for Palestine has given Tehran some credit with the Arab street, if not with leaders of its Persian Gulf neighbors, many of which are still looking to normalize relations with Israel.

Until now, Iran has pursued a relatively low-cost strategy on this issue. It has helped bankroll Hamas and has come to consider it an asset. Hamas has long served as a symbol of Palestinians’ tireless resistance, and also as a check on Israel’s hostility toward Tehran. If Israel were to consider striking Iran, Hamas could be counted on to cause trouble for Israel. For similar deterrence purposes, Iran has also supported Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But after Hamas went rogue on Oct. 7 and massacred Israeli civilians, Iran took a step back. It signaled continued support for the Palestinian cause, but it has ruled out widening the war on Hamas’s behalf. Hezbollah largely did the same, though it has exchanged fire with Israel at a level that has, thus far, not precipitated a larger clash. The Houthis, Iran’s third major regional proxy force, have lobbed missiles at Israel and have started to harass shipping in the Red Sea, declaring that they are doing so to pressure Israel to stop its campaign in Gaza.

The Biden administration obviously sees the situation for what it is. It understands that the Iranian regime is stoking a combustible situation with limited means — but also with limited goals. Iran is trying to maintain its regional position, not upend the existing balance.

While some hawks in Washington are encouraging military escalation, the Biden administration has understood that doing so could help entrench Iran’s brittle leadership. While Iran could not easily weather a full assault from the United States and its allies, it stands a better chance of surviving a wider proxy war, even profiting from it.

For the United States, to decisively win such a war would come at tremendous military, diplomatic and economic cost, and the Biden administration has no intention of getting the country involved in yet another conflict in the Middle East. Indeed, avoiding a wider war has been perhaps the most successful aspect of America’s initial response to the conflict in Gaza.

Avoiding such a war does not mean endlessly suffering Iranian provocations. But it does mean staying focused. After a series of strikes against the Houthis, the Biden administration should think about ways to exploit Tehran’s obvious weaknesses and undermine its limited strengths.

Targeted financial punishment of select Iranian officials, especially the most militant actors in the Revolutionary Guard, would be a good first step. Just as Tehran has for decades relied on proxy forces to fight its battles abroad, its leadership has also used proxy stakeholders to shepherd its ill-gotten riches held in the West.

Homing in on these individuals is the appropriate next response in a confrontation that neither side wants to see become any bloodier. The struggle with Iran will be won with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016. Twitter

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