Thursday, April 25

Iranian proxies reduce attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria after US strikes

Iran has made a concerted effort to rein in militias in Iraq and Syria after the United States responded with a series of airstrikes following the deaths of three U.S. Army reservists this month.

Initially, the region feared tit-for-tat violence would lead to an escalation of conflict in the Middle East. But since the Feb. 2 U.S. strikes, U.S. officials say, there have been no attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. bases in Iraq and only two minor attacks in Syria.

Before that, the U.S. military had recorded at least 170 attacks against American troops in four months, Pentagon officials said.

This relative calm reflects the decisions of both sides and suggests that Iran exercises some control over the militias.

The Biden administration has made clear that Tehran will be held accountable for miscalculations and operations carried out by mandated forces, but it has avoided any direct attacks on Iran. The U.S. response “could have some effect,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the retired head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said in an interview.

“The question is whether the militias attack or not,” he added, “and at least for now, they don’t.”

This lull also marks a sudden turnaround on the part of Iran. Tehran had for months ordered its regional proxies in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. bases in the Middle East as part of a broader battle against Israel, which is fighting Hamas in Gaza.

U.S. and Iranian officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

As the proxies’ attacks intensified, resulting in the deaths of three U.S. soldiers, Iranian leaders feared that the level of autonomy granted to the militias was beginning to backfire and could push them into war, officials say Iranians and Americans.

“They are afraid of a direct confrontation with the United States, they know that if Americans are killed again it would mean war,” said Sina Azodi, a lecturer at George Washington University and security expert. Iranian national. “They had to rein in the militias and convince them that a war with the United States could harm Tehran first and, by extension, the entire axis.”

Iran finances, arms, provides technical support and forms a network of militant groups in the region that it calls the Axis of Resistance.

These groups include Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Houthis in Yemen; militias in Iraq, such as Kataib Hezbollah and Hashd al-Shaabi; Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza; and militias in Syria. As Iran orients an overall strategy toward the axis, the level of day-to-day control and coordination covers a varied spectrum. Tehran has the greatest influence over Hezbollah, with the Syrian and Iraqi militias falling in the middle and the Houthis being the most autonomous.

Iranian efforts to rein in the forces began shortly after the three U.S. soldiers were killed in a drone attack in Jordan on Jan. 28, as Washington promised a forceful response.

General Qassim Suleimani, the top Iranian general killed by a US drone strike in 2020, kept Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria under tight control. This is largely because, for most of his tenure, war was raging in both countries and he was commanding militias to fight the Americans and then the Islamic State terrorist groups. But when Brig. General Esmail Ghaani succeeded him, most of these conflicts were resolved and General Ghaani adopted a hands-off leadership style, setting only general directions, according to analysts.

General Ghaani, commander in chief of the Quds Force, the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for overseeing the proxies, was nevertheless involved in coordinating the strategy towards Israel and the United States for the various militias during the current war in Gaza.

He led a series of emergency meetings in late January in Tehran and Baghdad with strategists, top Revolutionary Guard commanders and senior militia commanders to redraw plans and avoid war with the United States, according to two Iranians affiliated with the Guardians, one of them a military strategist. Reuters first reported the general’s visit to Baghdad.

In Baghdad, General Ghaani held a lengthy meeting with representatives of all the Shiite militant groups that operate under a collective they call Islamic Resistance in Iraq. The collective had carried out and then claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks against American bases, and Washington blamed the group for the drone attack that killed the Americans.

General Ghaani told them that Iran and the various militias had made enough progress in pressuring the United States because President Biden was facing intense criticism for his unwavering support for Israel and that fissures were appeared between him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both Iranians. affiliated with the Guards, said. A war between Tehran and Washington could also jeopardize the long-term goal of extricating the United States from the region, he told the group, the two Iranians said.

Two of Iraq’s largest militias, Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, initially fiercely resisted General Ghaani’s demand to suspend attacks on Americans, arguing that fighting American troops was an integral part of their ideology and identity, the two Iranians said.

Influential politicians in Iraq, including high-ranking clerics known as Marjaiah and based in Najaf, a Shiite holy city, have joined efforts to persuade militias to halt their attacks. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani also played a role in telling Iraqi militia commanders and General Ghaani that continued attacks on U.S. forces were complicating negotiations between Baghdad and Washington for the withdrawal of U.S. troops of his country, according to Iran. and Iraqi officials.

The commanders concede. Kataib Hezbollah announced that it was stopping its attacks against American bases and that its decisions were independent of Iran.

The result of General Ghaani’s consultations was a new strategy calling on Iraqi militias to cease all attacks against US bases in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region to the north, and against the US embassy in Baghdad. In Syria, militias have been asked to reduce the intensity of attacks on U.S. bases to avoid deaths, according to Iranian officials and U.S. intelligence assessments. But groups active against Israel in Lebanon and Yemen would continue in peace, Iranians familiar with the strategy said.

After the attacks on Americans subsided, the United States held back from striking at least one senior militia leader after Feb. 2 to avoid disrupting the pause and stoking more hostilities, according to a Department of Defense official. defense.

Another U.S. official said the Pentagon was prepared to strike more militia targets if necessary, but had determined that carrying out more strikes now would be counterproductive.

The Guards military strategist said Iran believed a direct war with the United States would work in Israel’s favor at a time when world opinion has turned against it due to the high death toll and in civilian suffering in Gaza. After more than a decade, the strategist said, Iran believes it is enjoying a surge in popularity among Arabs, who are unhappy that their own countries’ leaders are not doing enough to support the Palestinians.

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said last week: “Our assessment is that Iran is not seeking a broader regional conflict. »

“But they support these militias who attack our forces,” she added.

Iran’s overall policy is to maintain multiple fronts against Israel through proxies as long as the war in Gaza rages, even as Tehran-linked militias avoid striking U.S. bases.

Hezbollah in Lebanon exchanges almost daily fire with the Israeli army, and the Houthis in Yemen attack shipping in the Red Sea and try to prevent commercial ships from reaching Israeli ports.

Attacks by Hezbollah and the Houthis will intensify if Israel launches an offensive against Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than a million civilians are trapped, according to the two Guards members familiar with the new Iranian strategy. Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas leader, told a news conference in Iran last week that “any attack on Rafah would be met with a fierce response from the resistance.”

U.S. officials have acknowledged they face a particular challenge with the Houthis. The U.S. strategy against the Houthis involves reducing the group’s formidable arsenal, preventing arms transfers from Iran and pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza.

While a key element of the confrontation between Washington and Tehran is suspended, other destabilizing dynamics in the region remain active and unpredictable. Iran and Israel are engaged in an ongoing shadow war, including a recent covert attack by Israel on two major gas pipelines in Iran and strikes on Iranian-linked residential complexes in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Iran has yet to openly retaliate against Israel following these attacks.

Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy, said: “Iran has this uncanny ability to walk to the line and not cross it. »

But, he added, “it doesn’t feel stable, and we don’t feel like we’ve cleared a hurdle, and things could really change at any moment.” »