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Source: Washington Post

Apr 8, 2024

In the shadow war with Iran, Biden just scored an unheralded victory

By Max Boot

Iran and its proxy groups did not launch an all-out assault against Israel and its allies, as Hamas leaders might have hoped, following Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 incursion into Israel. But Hezbollah, which is trained and armed in Lebanon by Iran, did intensify its rocket attacks on northern Israel; the Houthis in Yemen did begin attacking shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden with drones and missiles; and other Iranian-backed proxy groups targeted U.S. military outposts in Iraq and Syria with a barrage of missile and drone strikes.

That semi-covert Iranian campaign reached a dangerous turning point on Jan. 28, when a drone launched by a Tehran-backed militia struck a small U.S. base in Jordan, known as Tower 22, killing three U.S. service members and wounding dozens more. Iran had crossed a U.S. red line. How would Washington respond?

Republican hawks came out in full-throated cry demanding that the U.S. military “strike targets of significance inside Iran” (Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina) or even “Target Tehran” (Sen. John Cornyn of Texas). We don’t know what would have happened if President Biden had taken the senators’ rash advice, but it might have led to a larger war between the United States and Iran.

Luckily, Biden, with his decades of foreign policy experience, chose a more prudent path — but one that still represented a considerable escalation beyond ineffectual U.S. responses to earlier strikes against American bases that had not produced any fatalities.

On Feb. 2, U.S. forces dropped more than 125 precision munitions on 85 targets in Iraq and Syria belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and its affiliated militia groups. The U.S. Air Force even deployed giant B-1 bombers that flew all the way from the continental United States. According to U.S. Central Command: “The facilities that were struck included command and control operations centers, intelligence centers, rockets, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicle storage, and logistics and munition supply chain facilities of militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces.”

Five days later, on Feb. 7, a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad killed a senior commander of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most dangerous Iranian-backed terrorist groups. This demonstrated not only how precise U.S. weapons systems are but also how successful U.S. intelligence was in tracking the movements of senior Iranian operatives.

The clear message was that other Iranian commanders would be next if they didn’t knock off their attacks against U.S. troops. And guess what? Iran did stop. Things could change at any moment, but a senior U.S. defense official told me last week that there hasn’t been an Iranian-directed attack against a U.S. military base in either Syria or Iraq since Feb. 4. By contrast, there were at least 170 such attacks between Oct. 7 and Feb. 4.

This is an important and unheralded — if likely transitory — victory in the long-running shadow war between the United States and Iran, which stretches all the way back to 1979. “It’s by far the longest pause in such attacks since the start of the Israel-Hamas war,” the U.S. official told me, “and we believe it reflects a deliberate decision by Iran to rein in attacks by its forces in order to avoid escalation with the United States.”

If this had been the Trump administration, the president would probably be taking victory laps in crude, all-caps social media posts. Biden is more cautious, probably because he knows the attacks could resume at any time. “We’re not under any illusions,” the defense official told me. “Iran continues to pose a serious threat to the United States and our interests in the region. Under certain circumstances, attacks could restart, but we demonstrated that we’re willing and able to defend our forces.”

In the meantime, the Iranians and their proxies continue to test the United States in other ways. The Houthis, in particular, continue their strikes against shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, forcing U.S. naval forces to regularly shoot down their drones and missiles and to bomb their launch sites — although a U.S. commander told reporters on Wednesday that the Houthis appear to be running low on munitions.

Administration officials say the Houthis are not as responsive to Iranian directions to stand down as other militia groups are, but a former senior U.S. intelligence officer suggested to me that the Iranians are simply up to their old tricks. “Imagine a four-burner stove, and one burner has become very hot,” this savvy ex-spook said, referring to attacks against U.S. bases. “Iran knows not to put its hand on that burner but to move to other burners — they could be other geographies or other tools. Eventually, the first burner cools down and they return to that location, and the process continues.”

There is no lasting solution to the Iranian problem as long as that country continues to have a fundamentalist regime hostile to the United States and its allies — and there is no way for Washington to overthrow the Iranian regime without risking becoming embroiled in another Iraq- or Afghanistan-style quagmire. Indeed, in many ways, Iran is becoming more dangerous: It is ramping up its nuclear program to near weapons-grade levels of enrichment, and it is supplying Russia with drones, artillery shells and missiles for its war against Ukraine.

But recent events make clear that the mullahs are too cautious to be drawn into a direct war with the United States or even with Israel. Iran prefers to keep hostilities at a low simmer. Even after an Israeli airstrike last week demolished the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, killing two Iranian generals and five other officers, Iran has not ordered Hezbollah to mount an all-out assault on Israel with its estimated arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles. One senior U.S. official suggested to me that Iran was actually surprised that the attack on Tower 22 killed any U.S. personnel, and it wants to avoid such mishaps in the future.

But while the United States has convinced Iran to back off, at least a bit, in Syria and Iraq, it hasn’t had any such success with the Houthis. As retired Gen. Joseph Votel, a former head of U.S. Central Command, told me, “We have not imposed sufficient costs on either the Houthis or Iran, and until the costs associated with perpetrating these attacks outweigh the benefits, we will continue to be mostly defensive in the Red Sea/Bab al Mandab Strait.”

It’s high time for the United States and its coalition partners undertake a more sustained air campaign against Houthi military installations — and even Houthi leaders — to persuade the militia group to finally end its attacks on shipping. Those strikes have led to an 80 percent decline in the volume of freight passing through the Red Sea since November.

It’s not a question of “winning” the shadow war with Iran. It’s simply a matter of convincing Iran to decrease its attacks across the board, not just in Iraq and Syria. This is one of those international problems so difficult that it cannot be solved, at least not in the foreseeable future. It can only be managed, which is why I’m relieved to have a prudent and experienced president in the White House, surrounded by prudent and experienced advisers. That might not be true next year.

Opinion by Max Boot

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, he is the author of the forthcoming “Reagan: His Life and Legend.”Twitter

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