Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 2 February 2024


Bret Stephens
Feb. 2, 2024

Opinion Columnist

Attacking Iran’s Proxies Won’t Do the Job

Now that the Pentagon has launched strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, much of the news media will be sure to describe it as retaliation for a Jan. 28 drone attack on a remote U.S. military base in Jordan, which killed three American service members and injured another 34.

True — but not the whole truth.

The whole truth is that, since October alone, there have been some 160 attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria, forces that are in the region principally to fight ISIS, one enemy that Iran and the U.S. have in common. In October, a drone loaded with explosives hit a U.S. barracks in Iraq. Major casualties were averted only because the explosives failed to detonate. On Christmas, another drone strike left a piece of shrapnel lodged in the head of the chief warrant officer Garrett Illerbrunn. He is recovering in the United States after spending days in a coma.

This is to say nothing of direct attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen on U.S. Navy ships protecting sea lanes in the Red Sea. Already, two members of the Navy SEAL team died there in January during an effort to seize a ship suspected of ferrying Iranian weapons to the Houthis.

The Biden administration has responded to some of these previous attacks with precision strikes — attempting to send a message to Tehran while hoping to avoid escalation. It hasn’t worked. To adapt an adage attributed to Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in making war on Iran, but Iran is interested in making war on us.

What could get Tehran to stand down, at least for a time? Not attacking their proxies, which are now surely dispersing their forces in anticipation of U.S. strikes. A better model was 1988’s Operation Praying Mantis, a military operation launched in retaliation for an Iranian mine that nearly sank an American frigate during a period when Tehran was constantly attacking oil shipping in the Persian Gulf.

In that daylong engagement, the U.S. Navy sank six Iranian ships and destroyed two Iranian intelligence facilities on old oil platforms. Tehran got the point. Praying Mantis helped end Iran’s attacks on international shipping, and it was one of the factors that finally persuaded Iran’s leaders to agree to an end to the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran has used its proxies to start fires across the Middle East. They won’t be put out until the arsonist is taken down.

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