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Iran’s hiding behind deadly friends should have a price

Growing tensions between Iran, its neighbors, Israel and the U.S. are causing heightened concern in Tehran, after deadly use of force by the regime and its allies. Consequently, Tehran reached out to its allies, resulting in an Iraqi militia announcing a suspension of attacks against the U.S. forces.

If, instead of reacting retroactively, the regime had proactively demanded its allies to reduce attacks a while ago, three American lives might have been spared. 

To reduce the potential for future escalation, it is crucial to hold Iran accountable and convey the cost associated with arming, training, financing and promoting violence through proxies.

The killing of three American soldiers in northern Jordan by an Iraqi pro-Iranian militia and the following unusual U.S. attack is causing heightened concern in Tehran. Additionally, aggressive and simultaneous Iranian use of force in the territories of neighboring countries has led to decisive reactions and border tension. Furthermore, the increasing frequency of Israeli attacks against Iranian forces in Syria has become another significant challenge for decisionmakers in Tehran.

The primary apprehension of the Iranian regime revolves around the risk of uncontrollable escalation, the proximity of conflict to Iran’s borders and potential cracks in the proxy strategy and Iranian deterrence. Another concern is the long-term outcome of the current escalation, including the possibility of a shift in the perceived continuous U.S. withdrawal from the region.

In response to the current tension, the Iranian regime has taken specific actions to de-escalate. Tehran has denied any connection to the attack in northern Jordan, and the Quds Force commander has engaged in meetings with militias in Iraq, resulting in Kata’ib Hezbollah announcing a suspension of attacks against the U.S. forces. Simultaneously, reports suggest that Iran has reduced the scope of its operatives in Syria, implicitly aiming to limit Israel’s opportunities for attacks.

Addressing the recent events, intelligence officials estimated that Iran does not exercise full control over its allies and their attacks. 

It is indeed true that Iran’s allies maintain their own interests and possess a degree of autonomy in dealing with Iranian demands. This is particularly evident when Iran’s inclination towards the use of force might jeopardize its allies. In such cases, these allies may refuse or conditionally implement directives based on the character of their relations with Tehran. When it comes to the independent will of allies to employ force, Iran typically supports and benefits from it even if not directly involved. It allows general power projection and the complementary use of diplomacy, positioning Iran as the holder of a potential key for de-escalation. 

Nevertheless, at times the Iranian regime is motivated and inclined to halt attacks, it exhibits proficiency in influencing its allies. Such conduct was just exemplified by the recent visit of the Quds commander to Iraq followed by a de-escalation announcement by the militia. Similar influence has been demonstrated, for instance, in November 2020, when Iran demanded militias in Iraq cease attacks on U.S. forces to prevent then-President Trump from launching an escalatory move.

The Iranian regime was well aware that the escalation of militia attacks against U.S. forces in recent months could lead to fatal consequences, even if that wasn’t the explicit intention. 

Although assertions claiming Iran doesn’t have full control over its allies are correct, they are not nuanced enough and enable Tehran to maintain plausible deniability. These assertions also provide cautious players a justification to refrain from increasing direct pressure or taking more aggressive measures toward Iran.

The recent joint campaign by the United States and Britain to counter Houthi aggression marks an important change in the West’s approach following disruptions to global maritime traffic. It underscores the assertiveness and commitment to the international order. 

Nevertheless, the attacks, primarily targeting operational assets, are unlikely to halt the Houthis’ aggression, given their demonstrated resilience against Saudi forces over years of conflict. 

Moreover, it appears that Iran has not been deterred by the attacks in Yemen, with the supreme leader even encouraging the Houthis to persist in their activities against ships in the Red Sea.

Demonstrating a willingness to increase the risk to Iranian interests, while considering Tehran’s concerns and preventing it from using its allies as a shield, has the potential of recalculating the regime’s course. Such an approach might have a more significant impact on the primary instigator within the “axis of resistance” without necessarily provoking an escalatory response. The Israeli attacks against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers in Syria showcases this risk management approach, and may signal initial positive results, affecting decisionmaking in Tehran.  

If Iran does not face a substantial price for supporting destabilizing measures and continues receiving advance alerts before facing attacks, the regime may perceive its hiding strategy as effective and continue supporting violence. 

To reduce the potential for future escalation and the concerns of significant miscalculation, it is crucial to hold Iran accountable. Tehran must know there is a cost associated with arming, training, providing intelligence, financing and promoting violence through proxies. 

Assaf Zoran is research fellow on the Project on Managing at the Atom Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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