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Source: The Hill

Dec 16, 2023

Biden under pressure as US clashes with Iranian proxies 


President Biden is facing mounting pressure from his right to hit back harder on the steady pace of attacks on U.S. forces across the Middle East, where American positions have been assaulted nearly 100 times and merchant ships harassed in the Red Sea. 

The spate of attacks from Iranian-backed groups across the region, which broke out nearly two months ago on Oct. 17 amid the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, are not letting up and have spurred growing anger on Capitol Hill.  

Republicans are pushing the Biden administration to project more strength against the Iranian-backed groups. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor Wednesday that Biden must focus on the “task at hand” — deterring Iran. 

These Iranian-backed groups “are not deterred, they believe they can try to kill Americans with impunity,” McConnell said, calling for Biden to “get serious about the threats we face.” 

Republican presidential candidates also called out Biden on the debate stage. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Navy veteran, has said American troops are “sitting ducks” in the Middle East. And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, has accused Biden of appeasing Iran.

“They only respond to strength,” Haley said of Iran. “You’ve got to punch them, you’ve got to punch them hard and let them know that.” 

Since Oct. 17, Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have attacked U.S. bases and troops 92 times, according to the Pentagon’s latest estimate. 

The U.S. has also engaged the Houthi rebels in Yemen several times. The Houthis, who are also backed by Iran, have shot drones at American ships and attacked merchant vessels, including the successful hijacking of one commercial boat last month.  

Those attacks are in the Red Sea, where about 10 percent of the world’s commerce flows through every year. 

With the attacks stacking up and stirring criticism, defense officials argue the main objective is to contain the Israel-Hamas war and prevent a wider regional conflict, with Washington taking proportional measures against Iranian-backed militias. 

The dangerous tit for tat is spurring concerns the U.S. is playing with fire — and creating fears that a misstep could spark an even greater surge of violence. 

“We’re in a really terrible, unstable and vulnerable condition,” said Thanassis Cambanis, the director of Century International, a progressive think tank. “Even if Iran and the U.S. don’t want a wider war, it’s easy for miscalculation to produce one.” 

The militants waging war in the Middle East against the U.S. have been doing so for years — there were some 70 attacks on U.S. forces between 2021 and early 2023, many by Iran-backed groups in Iraq and elsewhere.

But the breakout of the Israel-Hamas war sparked an unprecedented number of attacks in a short time frame.

Analysts say the militia groups — and Iran — want to send a message of solidarity with the Palestinian people, while they are also bristling against increased U.S. military presence, including American aircraft carrier ships and nuclear-powered submarines in the region.

Iran and its proxies need to show they are acting against the U.S. amid the devastating war in Gaza, but Tehran, like Washington, doesn’t want to take things too far, according to analysts.

The U.S. is struggling with two major wars in Gaza and Ukraine. With those hot conflicts stretching Washington thin, the Biden administration’s main goal is to ensure there is not a wider regional war in the Middle East. 

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday the U.S. is succeeding in deterring Iranian-backed militia groups.  

“That’s not to say that the challenges associated with Iranian proxies attacking U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria or the rebels firing missiles at international shipping are not something we shouldn’t take serious,” Ryder said.

“But we will address those problems in the way that we’ve been doing. And we will continue to stay very focused on not only deterring, but also protecting our force.” 

Michael Knights, an expert in Iraq and Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the U.S. has managed to keep the fighting at a proportional level, and while that “doesn’t look good in a headline,” in reality there is no real threat. 

Knights noted that no American service members have died in the recent attacks, and the militia groups appear to be designing the rocket and drone attacks to avoid fatalities.  

“They have a pretty limited chance of hitting Americans, and sometimes [the strikes] are quite aimed off, because large salvos haven’t even landed within the bases,” Knights said.

“There’s been a lot of bangs, but they’ve all fallen into what we call the polite category, which means we’re largely looking at single drone attacks that the U.S. can just eat for breakfast.” 

But Knights said the deterrence of the Houthis near Yemen has failed, and the U.S. may deliberately be holding back from carrying out more destructive strikes. One reason for the restraint could be to prevent the unraveling of peace talks in a years-long war between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, both of which are in a fragile cease-fire, he added. 

“The U.S. doesn’t want to disrupt that peace process … and the Houthis are taking full advantage of that because they know right now they can do whatever they want,” Knights said. “They are the part of the deterrence puzzles where the U.S. is doing the least well.” 

The Houthis, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, are a prominent Iranian-backed faction and have earned their stripes in the war with Yemen’s government. That has molded them into a more formidable fighting force compared with other militia groups in Iran’s sphere. 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed Biden for failing to stop the Houthi attacks and urged greater action against the group, including a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation.  

“By prioritizing politics over security, this administration emboldened the Houthis, enabling them to develop more advanced weapons, deepen ties with Iran, and further entrench their control over millions of innocent Yemenis,” McCaul said in a statement.

“It is clear that the Houthis are a threat to Yemen, our partners across the Middle East, U.S. servicemembers and citizens in the region, and freedom of navigation and global commerce.” 

An FTO designation could open up new paths to deter the Houthis, including curbing financing for the group. 

Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said the FTO designation would help the U.S. and likely would not endanger Houthi-Yemen peace talks. 

“It would be a signal of U.S. displeasure with Iranian action,” he said. “There needs to be a response to the Houthis because of their untoward activities. They’ve become increasingly belligerent. That can’t be ignored.” 

The U.S. is also considering a maritime task force, which would be made up of attack ships from several countries, to defend ships against Houthi threats in the Red Sea.

Tensions are likely to remain high as long as Israel’s war to defeat Hamas rages in Gaza, with devastating consequences for civilians there. On Thursday, Israel’s defense minister said the war in Gaza could last “months.”  

Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. colonel who previously served under former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said Biden should bring the war in Gaza to a resolution if he wants to stop the Middle East conflict from ballooning out of control. 

“Until we decide to essentially cut down our power a bit and let things settle,” he said, “they aren’t going to.” 

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