08.02.2024 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Washington inching closer to a war with Iran

Washington inching closer to a war with Iran

An Iran-US war would be an ideal scenario for Israel. On the one hand, Israel is systematically killing and driving the Palestinians out of their homes, which is allowing it to impose the so-called one-state solution. In this context, if the US plunges into a war with Iran and can inflict a lot of military and economic damage on Israel’s biggest enemy state in the region, that is the best possible scenario for Israel’s future standing in this region. On the one hand, US military engagement in the ongoing war will increase, and on the other hand, a US war on Iran might limit the extent to which Tehran can provide support to Hamas against Israel. This war is no longer a distant possibility, especially after the recent strike in Jordan that killed three US soldiers and wounded at least 34 others. Biden, who immediately accused the Iran-backed militia known as The Islamic Resistance based in Syria and Iraq, has vowed to retaliate. The target is Iran, even though Iran has officially denied supporting this group for striking the US. Nonetheless, US counterstrikes are going to happen, especially because Washington is already striking the Houthis in Yemen to control the Red Sea.

With these upcoming strikes, the US will be involved in at least three fronts, i.e., against Hamas, against the Houthis, and the Islamic Resistance. (This is in addition to the US involvement in Ukraine against Russia.) With deepening US involvement in the Middle East and against Iran, Washington is directly stepping into a sort of quagmire that it took 20 years to get out of in Afghanistan.

A war in the Middle East will not be too much different from the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although a direct war with Iran would also mean going against a force that is much more organized, better equipped, and bigger than Saddam Hussian’s Iraqi army or the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are more than 45,000 US troops on the ground throughout the Middle East. There are another 15,000 personnel on board two aircraft carrier groups. If the US starts a war, Iran does have the capability to hit these targets, or the so-called Iran-backed groups can do the same.

The recent attack in Jordan has after all shown that the US air defense is far from impenetrable. This war, in this sense, could inflict a lot more damage to the US military forces than did the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Still, many people in the US want Washington to tackle not just the so-called Iran-backed militias, but Iran itself. A report in the NATO-backed Atlantic Council says,

In recent weeks, Iran has waged a shadow war against the United States and its interests in the Middle East, and now three US service personnel are dead and dozens more injured … Washington could sink the Iranian navy, like then-President Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. It could strike Iranian naval bases. It could target the Iranian leadership, following in the footsteps of then President Donald Trump’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. It could seize this opportunity to degrade Iran’s nuclear and missile program—which must be addressed soon regardless”. 

Wesley Clark, a retired general who was once NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, wrote on X that “The US should stop saying, ‘We don’t want to escalate.’ This invites them to attack us. Stop calling our strikes ‘retaliation’. This is reactive. Take out their capabilities and strike hard at the source: Iran.” From within the US political class, Senator Tom Cotton (Republican), known for his staunch criticism of the Biden administration’s Iran policy, insisted that the deaths of the three US troops warranted a “devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East”.

With the Biden administration also fanning such ideas out, it means that targeting Iran will become an issue that may have bi-partisan support in the US. Within the US political system, if an issue has bi-partisan support, it tends to minimize the political risk for the given President. In other words, if the Republicans want Biden to retaliate against Iran, it means that they will not be able to criticize him for starting another war. It was the Trump administration that targeted Iran much more directly when it killed Sulemani in Iraq than the Biden administration has done in the past three years.

This is on top of the fact that a growing political opinion in the US points to the inability, or unwillingness, of Washington to hit Iran directly, i.e., inside Iran. This, some hawks have argued, encourages Iran to adopt an aggressive policy vis-à-vis the US, although it does not explain at all why Iran, a much smaller political and economic power than the US, would create such situations that might throw its country into a long turmoil.

Although the Biden administration is more likely to hit the so-called Iran-backed groups in the first round of counterstrikes, there is little gainsaying that this will add to the difficulty of managing the Middle East in a way that minimizes the possibility of war. It will only make a direct war much more possible.

The only geopolitical deterrent the US might consider seriously is whether or not it will have the support of the Middle Eastern states themselves against Iran, for a wider war in the region would jeopardize these states too in the sense that it will cause the conflict to spread and major middle eastern states, such as Saudi Arabia, are in the middle of massive modernization projects. A wider war in the region would disrupt this process, which is why they are more likely to oppose a US bid to wage a direct war. At the same time, given Israel’s position, it is likely to continue to push for, or create conditions, for a war against Iran to accomplish its key objectives, i.e., developing a Greater Israel and eliminating the main regional opposition to it.


Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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