Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 April 2024



Opinion | The Middle East is on the precipice of the wider war no one wants

An excavator clears rubble after an Israeli strike this week on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, Syria. (Firas Makdesi/Reuters)

Call it “the guns of April.” Though this is hardly a conflagration on the order of World War I, it’s a moment that eerily evokes the dynamics of summer 1914, when a war that every power sought to avoid suddenly appeared inevitable, with consequences that no one could predict. Officials hope that any exchange between Iran and Israel will be short and contained — and won’t draw in other powers. But they truly don’t know what’s ahead.

President Biden said on Friday that he expects that Iran will strike Israel “sooner [rather] than later” in retaliation for an April 1 attack that killed seven Quds Force operatives in Damascus, Syria. U.S. intelligence has observed signs of Iranian preparation for attack, sources said, and the expectation on Friday was that the strike could happen within 24 to 48 hours. Biden’s message to Tehran was: “Don’t.”

The United States is moving on two tracks to steer this crisis away from what could be a devastating cycle of escalation. On the military front, the United States and Israel are both stressing defenses that could neuter an Iranian attack. But if Iran or its proxies succeed in a major strike, Israeli and U.S. officials have warned that it could trigger an offensive spiral that might eventually involve the United States.

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Israel has the best air-defense system in the world, and U.S. officials hope the Israelis could shoot down Iranian drones, cruise missiles or ballistic missiles — the three most likely forms of attack. Israel’s defense will be supplemented by antimissile systems on U.S. destroyers that have been rushed to the region, as well as an aircraft carrier and other forces that are already there.

The Biden team warned Iran this week about the danger of overreaching, in messages sent through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Administration officials also asked diplomats from China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iraq to pass the same signal to Iranian leaders.

The Iranians have responded through the Swiss, as recently as Wednesday, that they don’t want a confrontation with the United States. Tehran has sent the same message through China and other nations that have been passing messages.

“Iran has to respond, but it will be contained,” is how one source described the Iranian messages that have been sent through diplomatic channels. But U.S. officials worry that these reassurances might not be reliable — and that once direct conflict begins, it could move in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

The tension within the administration was palpable Friday as the window opened for expected Iranian action. The wider war that the White House has sought to avoid since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack and Israel’s devastating response seemed possible within hours. “Praying that things stay calm,” one Israeli official messaged me.

Israel lives under the constant threat of missile attack, so this isn’t a unique threat. And Israel and Iran have been waging a covert war of assassinations and sabotage for years. But for Israelis, it’s an ominous moment.

The Biden administration has assumed since the Damascus attack that some form of Iranian retaliation was inevitable — but it has hoped that Tehran would limit its response because of fears that direct Israeli or U.S. attacks could destabilize the regime.

As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains, Iranian leaders know they have a dilemma in weighing retaliation: “If they do too little, they lose face. But if they do too much, they could lose their heads.”

To underline the military risks that Iran could face if it mounts a major attack, Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, visited Israel this week. Centcom stages regular exercises with Israel Defense Forces to demonstrate how U.S. military power could backstop Israel in the event of a regional conflict.

Though a show of military muscle has been part of the U.S. messaging strategy, there has also been intense use of behind-the-scenes diplomatic channels. After Damascus, Iran messaged through the Swiss channel that the United States was responsible for the attack, according to knowledgeable sources. The administration promptly responded through the Swiss denying any U.S. role and saying that Washington hadn’t been aware of Israeli plans.

U.S. diplomatic contact with Iran to contain the war in Gaza has included face-to-face meetings. In January, Brett McGurk, the Middle East director for the National Security Council, met in Oman with Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister. The meeting was suggested by Oman, which has often acted as an intermediary between the two countries.

Opinions on the Israel-Gaza war
The Middle East is on the precipice of the wider war no one wants

McGurk warned his Iranian counterpart at that meeting that if Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen continued their attacks against shipping in the Red Sea, the U.S. Navy would retaliate. Another Houthi attack came the night after their meeting, and the United States delivered on its warning with a military campaign that has continued with almost daily Centcom strikes.

The Biden administration believes it has restored deterrence by attacking Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria that had been targeting U.S. forces. Officials say these proxy attacks against American targets stopped after a February missile strike on Baghdad that killed a commander of Kataib Hezbollah who had planned attacks against U.S. troops.

Administration officials keep preaching the gospel of de-escalation of the war in Gaza and other regional violence. The White House hopes in this latest crisis, too, that once Iran has punched back, the tide of violence will ebb. But on Friday, no one appeared to be heeding that message, and a dangerous new round seemed set to begin.

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