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Source: Politico

Feb 5, 2024

Iran: Here we go with another game of whack-a-mole

Deterrence isn’t working, and if allowed to by the U.S., Tehran can play a taunting game in the Middle East forever.


U.S. President Joe Biden is getting drawn into a game of whack-a-mole eagerly engineered by Iran.

Up pop the Tehran-backed Houthis, threatening maritime traffic in the Red Sea. And the U.S. whacks ’em down. Next, it’s the Iran-sponsored, Iraq-based Shiite militias’ turn to target American forces in Jordan or Syria. And the U.S. whacks ’em down again.

What’s next? A repeat of the 1980s tanker war between Iran and Iraq against merchant vessels in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz? Tehran can play this game forever.

And, of course, all this is unfolding at the worst possible time for Biden — namely, as he prepares for the electoral tussle of his life with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who will enjoy the great luxury of any presidential challenger and harrumph that he could do better. And maybe he could.

Trump’s unpredictability scares not only foes but friends — even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently. The hawkish Israeli leader had balked at joining the U.S. in the 2020 killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. “We had everything all set to go, and the night before it happened, I got a call that Israel will not be participating in this attack,” Trump claimed last October. “We were disappointed by that. Very disappointed . . . But we did the job ourselves, with absolute precision . . . and then Bibi tried to take credit for it,” he said.

Not that unpredictability is vice free.

As noted by scholars Daniel Nexon and Dani Nedal, it can be “a recipe for instability, confusion, and self-inflicted harm to U.S. interests abroad.” It undermines rules-based long-term relationships, puts allies on edge and can be an easy substitute for disciplined joined-up thinking. Plus, with Trump, unpredictability can all too often just be visceral caprice.

It does have some virtues, however, as Trump himself noted in a 2016 speech: “We are totally predictable,” he’d grumbled. “We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly embraces unpredictability as a strategy, keeping opponents wrong-footed and therefore hesitant, reducing their agency. The Russian leader is, of course, following in the footsteps of his Soviet predecessors here, as they had adeptly turned unpredictability into a strategic virtue. Would Iran be so eager, say, to poke Russia?

And as expected, in the run-up to the initial airstrikes on the Houthis undertaken by Britain and the U.S., Washington had signaled its likely action. The United Kingdom’s Secretary of Defence Grant Shapps and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had both warned of potential strikes days before. And on the day, a British Cabinet leak had indicated strikes were just hours away. All this gave the Iranian-backed Houthis ample opportunity to reposition weaponry and other equipment, as it wasn’t an arduous task to anticipate where the strikes might hit.

Indeed, according to reports, the strikes largely left the Iran-backed group’s ability to target maritime traffic in the Red Sea intact, degrading some 20–30 percent of the Houthis’ offensive capabilities at best, with much of the rest remaining hidden. And Iran can easily make up the losses.

Moreover, with this latest episode of reprisals, the U.S. has signaled ahead of time the limits of its retaliation for the deaths of three U.S. servicemen in a drone strike on a base in Jordan. Before leaving the White House for a campaign event last week, Biden said he’d decided how he’ll respond, before crucially adding: “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for.”

In Iran, this was no doubt taken to mean it wouldn’t be directly targeted. And in the long run-up before the U.S. reprisal, the Iranian military reportedly withdrew some forces from Iraq and Syria, figuring correctly that American strikes would be reserved for Iranian-backed militias there, or for bases where Iranians are known to be stationed too. A senior Iraqi official told NBC News that militants had evacuated some bases and moved weapons in anticipation of the American strikes.

This fear of escalation from the U.S. indicates both nervousness and caution — but deterrence only works if it prevents the Houthis and Iran-aligned militias in Syria and Iraq from continuing their agitation. The more than 150 attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria since October are ample evidence of the Biden administration’s failure to deter so far.

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.

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