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Can a regional war be avoided with Iran?

A woman walks past anti-US graffiti outside the building formerly hosting the embassy of the United States in Tehran -- today known as the "Den of Spies" museum -- on January 30, 2024, amid tensions between Iran and the US over the regional repercussions of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman walks past anti-US graffiti outside the building formerly hosting the embassy of the United States in Tehran -- today known as the "Den of Spies" museum -- on January 30, 2024, amid tensions between Iran and the US over the regional repercussions of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. launched retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria over the weekend.

The strikes were in response to the drone attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan on Jan. 28.

Will tensions in the region continue to rise?

Today, On Point: The U.S., Iran and the return to a terrible status quo.

Guests

Dan Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and director of the Security Studies Program.

Afshon Ostovar, associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Author of the forthcoming book “Wars of Ambition: The United States, Iran, and the Struggle for the Middle East.”

Transcript

Part I

NEWS BRIEF: In Jordan, this is the first time —

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That was on Sunday, January 20. The White House blamed the drone attack on an Iran-backed militia group. Shortly after President Joe Biden said the attack would not go unanswered, but:

JOE BIDEN: I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East.

That’s not what I’m looking for.

CHAKRABARTI: On February 2nd, the U.S. conducted a retaliatory attack in Iraq and Syria at seven facilities utilized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the militant groups they sponsor.

NEWS BRIEF: I want to show you some new video that we have just gotten in of what’s happening there on the ground.

This is the aftermath of one of the strikes the U.S. hit. We understand 85 targets. You can actually see this in the air. You can see the strikes on the ground from this video here, and you can hear it as well as those, on those impacts.

Now according to the White House, B-I bombers dispatched from the United States, fired more than 125 precision-guided munitions over the course of about 30 minutes, they targeted more than 85 locations, which included command and control centers. Headquarters buildings and intelligence centers and weapons storage facilities.

In a statement, President Biden wrote, quote, “Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing. The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. But let all those who might seek to do us harm know this. If you harm an American, we will respond.” End quote. There have been no U.S. strikes on Iranian soil so far. Now the question is how will Iran respond? Here’s major general Hossein Salami of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, speaking through an interpreter.

HOSSEIN SALAMI: You know that we do not leave any threats unanswered. While we are not looking for war, we do not run away from it.

CHAKRABARTI: So both the United States and Iran say they’re not looking for war, but both also say they will continue to retaliate against the others’ actions. Does there come a point where that becomes functionally indistinguishable from a major military conflict in the region?

We’re joined today by Dan Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He’s also a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Director of the Security Studies Program there. He joins us from Washington. Professor Byman, welcome to On Point.

DAN BYMAN: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Also, with us today is Afshon Ostovar. He’s an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the forthcoming book “Wars of Ambition, the United States Iran, and the Struggle for the Middle East.” Professor Ostovar, welcome to you.

AFSHON OSTOVAR: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to ask both of you this, but Professor Byman, I’ll start with you. How would you analyze this first U.S. strike that we just described, that happened a few days ago in terms of the targets that the Biden administration selected its efficacy? What do you think the overall point was here?

BYMAN: The point was to send a message both to groups in Iraq and Syria that are targeting Americans, but also Iran, which supports them, that the United States is going to raise the cost of any strikes, that there’s going to be a price to pay, and they will suffer. But there’s another point as well, which President Biden’s remarks directly indicated, which is the United States doesn’t want an escalation. So the attack was meant to cause pain, but not hit so hard that the groups and especially Iran would feel compelled to strike back and further escalate the war.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I want to come back to that in a second, but who were the groups specifically that the White House said it targeted?

BYMAN: So the United States says it struck an array of Iranian-backed targets. In particular, there’s a group active in Iraq, that’s been active for many years, called Kata’ib Hezbollah, that was responsible for the attack that killed the three U.S. servicemen. And there are an array of these groups that have been attacking U.S. forces.

Have in general served as close partners with Iran, in both Iraq and Syria, and the goal was to diminish their power and weaken these groups.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, professor Ostovar then. Do these attacks, first of all, the drone attack that killed those three U.S. servicemen and women. And then the way in which the Biden administration has been following up or retaliating, does it feel like even a partial escalation of tensions in the region?

OSTOVAR: Whenever U.S. troops die, it is an escalation. Because these attacks have been going on for quite some time, but generally they have been non-lethal. They’re often using rockets that don’t have good targeting systems, and so they’re just launching these rockets at the bases, and they explode somewhere, but they generally don’t kill anybody.

This was a drone attack which means it was targeted and it hit a barracks while people were sleeping, so it was meant to be lethal. So both the intent and the effect, I think were quite different. So in that sense, it absolutely was an escalation. It tested a U.S. red line, which is U.S. lives.

But the response, I would say the U.S. response was not an escalation. It certainly was a response. It certainly was retaliation. But it was not an escalation regarding Iran. And the distinction here is that Iran has a similar red line as the United States, which is to say the lives of its own officers and soldiers.

That red line is a little fuzzier for Iran than it is for the United States. But were Iranians to have been killed, and in these attacks, Iran would’ve been compelled to respond. But because the only people who died were Iraqis, Iran is fine with letting the attacks go, I would suspect.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

Iran would feel compelled to respond. Let’s just press on that a little bit, because when the Trump administration successfully assassinated Qasem Soleimani in 2020. That wasn’t in Iran, mind you, but he was a very important high-level leader there. I don’t, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t actually recall Iran responding.

OSTOVAR: Oh no, there was a major response.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

OSTOVAR: A major response. Iran launched something like two dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in in Iraq. It was the largest ballistic missile attack against the United States in history.

CHAKRABARTI: I see.

OSTOVAR: It wasn’t lethal, nobody died as a result of that attack. The United States had understood Iran’s intentions for at least, I think, several hours beforehand and were able to evacuate the base and put people in bomb shelters. And so while there was a lot of injuries, mostly traumatic brain injuries, there was no deaths. So the Trump administration, that was really an inflection point for the Trump administration. Because they had just killed the most high-level leader in Iran, Qasem Soleimani wasn’t just a military leader. He was also a cause celeb for the regime. And so when he was killed, it was something that Iran felt like it had to respond to, and it did in a major way. And that response, the Iranian response, could have very easily led to a shooting war.

In fact, I think the Trump administration’s decision, or the President Trump’s decision not to respond to Iran’s ballistic missile strikes, I think was counterintuitive to a lot of people. But that along with Iran shooting down a Ukraine air flight, that was leaving Tehran hours after its ballistic missile attack, accidentally seemed to have forestalled a war, so we were really on the cusp of war at that point. But it didn’t get there.

CHAKRABARTI: I see.

OSTOVAR: So were there a similar attack against an Iranian leader? You could suspect that Iran would retaliate in a similar way.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. Much appreciated that his correction there.

Professor Byman, do you think that at this point in time, there is a possibility that things could escalate to the point that professor Ostovar was describing we may have been in 2020 about on the edge of a shooting war, if the retaliatory attacks continue from both the U.S. and Iran.

BYMAN: There’s always a possibility when you’re talking about the use of force and responses, that things can get out of control.

I think there are three reasons to think that the response is going to be limited. First of all, as Professor Ostovar said, the United States did not strike directly at Iran, did not kill Iranian personnel in Iran itself. And that very much is a possible red line. The United States also didn’t go after the leaders of the various local groups it hit in Iraq and Syria. Most deployed struck were ammunition depots. Were command sites, were things that were much more limited, often equipment that could be replaced. And this is still happening. The United States has been telegraphing what it’s going to do. And this allows the potential targets, if there are people, to get out of the way, to hide, to secure themselves and reduces the damage.

So I think there’s been a real attempt to try to limit escalation, but I would stress there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know if individuals within these groups might seek revenge despite instructions from high up. Although I think Professor Ostovar has it exactly correct in his analysis of how Iran is likely to respond, there is a lot of uncertainty and domestic conditions in Iran might change.

There might be leadership rivalries. So I think it is unlikely that this will seem major escalation from here. It’s certainly a possibility.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Let me ask you both here. The bigger backdrop is, of course, the extreme conflict, war happening between Israel and Hamas and the sustained campaign Israel is taking on in Gaza. So that has triggered a lot of action from other groups in the region. Professor Byman, you wrote an article that says essentially this is already a regional conflict, if not regional war. And some of those groups include the Houthis in Yemen, right?

Who have been targeting ships, and then the United States responded by attacks in Yemen against Houthi targets. Of course, the Houthis are backed by Iran. So what I’m seeing here is the revival of what’s been called the axis of resistance in the region from many groups that are Iran supported. So given that, and Professor Byman, we’ll start with you, is this not a time to have greater concern about a potential inadvertent escalation of conflict, if not directly from the Iranians, than from groups that support them? Go ahead.

BYMAN: Certainly. So we’ve seen over 150 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

We’ve seen the Houthis attacking international shipping repeatedly and U.S. and Israeli targets. So there’s certainly a low-level conflict going on. And at present this low-level conflict benefits Iran, Iran is able to say, “Look, we are standing up to Israel. We are on the right side while Israel and the United States behind it are killing slaughtering Palestinians.

We are the only ones fighting back.” But Iran doesn’t want that massive all-out war. It recognizes that its military is weak compared to the United States, and that the current low-level conflict actually serves it quite well. The problem is many of the actors involved, including those that receive Iranian money, Iranian training, Iranian weapons are not fully controlled by Iran, so they can go off and do their own attacks and some of these, as happened in Jordan recently, may kill American service members, may otherwise violate U.S. red lines, and there’s domestic politics in the United States.

There’s domestic politics in all these countries that can take these careful strategic considerations and really throw them out the window. So everyone’s trying to walk a fine line between showing resolve and making sure that the other side knows that they mean business without further escalation.

But when you have rockets going back and forth, when the United States is regularly bombing, then a low-level war can become a bigger war.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Ostovar pick up on that. What do you think?

OSTOVAR: I think it helps to step back a little bit and understand a bit better what Iran is trying to achieve and what all of these groups are trying to achieve.

All of these groups are in some sense free agents when it comes to how they operate within their own countries, but how they operate regarding the United States, regarding Israel is something that it was, is highly coordinated with Iran. Iran provides the weapons that these groups use.

Regarding the Houthis, Iran is the one that’s helping them with targeting, which ships and how to use their systems. So Iran is driving the show with what’s going on right now. Dan is, Professor Byman is absolutely right that these groups have the ability to go off script. And that’s always a concern, but when it’s regarding something like attacking the United States, something that could lead to escalation directly against Iran, this is something that Iran I think, leads pretty carefully, but Iran is trying to achieve.

One major thing in this conflict, besides the sort of outward desire to bring a halt to the Israeli War in Gaza. Which I think is really just window dressing for what Iran is actually trying to achieve. And what Iran is mostly trying to achieve at this moment is to remove U.S. forces from the region.

Particularly from Iraq and Syria, where there’s a small U.S. presence, both doing train and equip mission in Iraq, but also countering ISIS in Syria. And this is something that Iran and its allies in Syria and Iraq have actually been trying to do in fits and starts ever since the war against ISIS concluded.

There’s been intermittent attacks for almost a decade against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, driven by Iran and Iran-backed groups. And this, the Gaza War has given them a pretext to push forward. So there’s that aspect, that immediate aspect. But the other aspect here is that Iran and its allies, this axis of resistance that it likes to call its allies, are on the ascent within the Middle East. At least from their own perspective. Iraq or Iran is the most powerful state, outward actor in Iraq. It’s the most powerful actor in Syria.

It is the most powerful outside actor in Lebanon. And through the Houthis, it’s becoming a very important actor in Yemen as well. And its allies in all those countries are increasingly strong. And so what Iran sees is this moment, where it can continue to push and to expand its interest. And its main interest is to encircle Israel and ultimately to end Israel as a Jewish entity. And so even if that is a very long-term goal, that many see as outlandish, this is a moment where it seems like it can make incremental steps towards that goal. And because, as Professor Byman explained, Iran cannot do this militarily, that’s to say, cannot take it military and defeat the United States or defeat Israel directly.

It has to do it through these sort of thousand paper cuts, if you will.

CHAKRABARTI: I got it. Okay. So Dan Byman, let’s focus for another minute on Professor Ostovar’s observation that one of the things that Iran really wants is the removal of U.S. forces in the region. Now, the United States and the Iraqi government, at least as was reported late last month, we’re at least in the beginnings of discussions to negotiate the terms of ending the mission of the 2,500 or so U.S. troops that are in Iraq. Has that been completely derailed by the Israel-Gaza war and the attacks that have happened thereafter?

BYMAN: I wouldn’t say those talks have been completely derailed, but I would say that both the United States and the elements of the Iraqi government that want a closer relationship with America, very much want these on the back burner right now.

In general, the back-and-forth with Iranian back groups is one source of tension in Iraq. But so too is the very open support of the United States for Israel, which is very unpopular in Iraq. So when there are voices in Iraq calling for the complete removal of U.S. forces, those have more support right now, and they’re politically stronger. But many leaders in Iraq also recognize the necessity for Iraq, of a U.S. regional presence. The United States has been tremendously important in the, I don’t want to say defeat, but I will say the significant diminishment of the Islamic state, which a decade ago was running rampant in Iraq. And really posing a true threat to really the integrity of the state and to millions of people there.

And U.S. forces both through their strike capabilities, but also through their intelligence, are important partners of Iraqi forces. And this is very much a beneficial arrangement, I would say, for both countries. So the strategic logic remains very sound, but the politics and the optics look very bad right now.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. So Professor Ostovar then. Linking this back to Iran’s interest at the moment and trying to understand how therefore its decision making. I’m looking at a Reuters report from January 10th, when the beginnings of the reporting on discussions to draw down the remaining U.S. forces in Iraq. The report says Iraq wants a quick and orderly negotiated exit of military forces on its soil. But has not set a deadline. Okay, so that was about a month ago. But then it follows up with long-standing calls by mostly Shiite Muslim factions. Many close to Iran for the U.S.-led coalition’s departure have gained steam after U.S. strikes on Iran-linked military groups.

Again, this is from January, if those calls had gained steam, again, there’s a big question mark over this now, but is that further evidence of what you were saying about the strengthening of Iran’s influence and power in the region?

OSTOVAR: In some ways yes. In some ways, no. Okay. So yes, in the sense that Iran has a political advantage here, where as Professor Bryman explained, the conflict in Gaza is not at all popular. The U.S.’s support for Israel is not at all popular. U.S., the United States dropping bombs within Iraq is not at all popular. But what is also true is that Iran is not very popular within Iraq. Iran is very popular with the constituency that is on its payroll, essentially, its clients and its proxies. Both within the Iraqi government and within the Iraqi security services and among these Shia militias.

But it’s not politically popular amongst regular Iraqis, if you will. So Iran has a lot of power within the Iraqi government, to push forward what it wants. But it runs into real limits and that is the actual sort of needs of the Iraqi state. And the Iraqi government, for a long time, as Professor Byman has explained, has seen a real necessity for keeping the United States military around.

Particularly, in dealing with the remnants of ISIS. And so it’s between this, so the Iraqi government is between sort of a rock and a hard place. In the sense that it is pressured by both Iran to remove the U.S. forces, but it also has very real pressures, security pressures to keep them there.

And so if you go back to even when Qasem Soleimani died, there was also a huge moment. Where Iraq’s clients, these Shia militias were calling for an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq, and the then Prime Minister put forward a bill that was supposed to lead to the exit of U.S. forces. But of course, that hasn’t happened yet.

So the Iraqi government is playing a difficult dance, but so far has been able to keep the U.S. forces there, even though there’s been constant discussion of a timeline for an exit. Professor Byman, when Professor Ostovar earlier said that in a sense, a low-level conflict serves Iran well, and he went through all of those, the reasons why, does any kind of conflict, low-level or not, do any service to U.S. interests there?

BYMAN: From a U.S. point of view, one of the overriding goals in the Middle East is stability. The United States is allied, at times, very openly and closely as in Israel, at times less so, as in a number of other Arab states in the region, with most of the region. And it wants these regimes to be secure. It wants them to be able to focus on other issues, not on Iran, not on terrorism.

And so in general, the U.S. goal is a high degree of stability. Conflict is seen as a way of Iran being able to insert itself, as unfortunately it’s done very successfully in recent years. And if you look at the region in the last 15 years, you had a wave of civil wars break out after the 2011 Arab Spring.

And in a number of these conflicts, Iran was able to back one side, to increase its footprint and several other conflicts. Terrorist groups, like the Islamic State, established themselves. And in general, this was bad for U.S. interests. It was bad for U.S. allies. So something the United States would like very much is to have greater stability.

But that’s very easy to say, and very hard to do. Many of these states are weak. There’s a high degree of corruption. Often the governments lack monopoly on the use of force. There are minority groups that are seeking autonomy. There are a host of reasons and problems that are difficult to manage. And to add to all this, the Biden administration, and I would say the Trump administration before it, and the Obama administration before that, would rather focus on other parts of the world.

The Middle East is seen with some degree of accuracy, as a place where successful policy goes to die. There are problems, of course, with the Russian invasion in Iraq. Or, excuse me, Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growth of China. So there are other priorities. Administrations don’t want to be in the Middle East, but the instability has a way of sucking the United States into the region.

CHAKRABARTI: But tell me more about that, because what you’ve just described is basically the reasoning behind a infinite U.S. presence there, or a forever U.S. presence there. Is there, do you foresee the possibility of any other future?

BYMAN: So when we say U.S. presence, I think there are several things to consider.

One is the size of the U.S. presence. So of course, the United States had a presence in Iraq and Afghanistan 15 years ago. That was massive. You had hundreds of thousands of troops coming in now, these countries. We do have a presence today in Syria, but it’s in the low hundreds, and that’s a dramatic difference from a military point of view, that’s much more sustainable in terms of the demands and the forces.

The risk of U.S. casualties, while still real, as we tragically learned a week ago, is much lower, and the cost is much lower. The societal disruption is much lower. So I think that there is likely to be a demand for continued U.S. forces in places like Iraq and Syria. Certainly, there’ll be a demand for U.S. security support, to allies like Saudi Arabia.

The deployment of aircraft carriers, to reinforce the kind of visible signals of U.S. commitment. And that’s not going to go away. And it may be there in five years, 10 years, 20 years. The United States has learned that when it tries to leave the region, problems often get worse. But I want to stress that doesn’t mean the United States has to be deploying hundreds of thousands of troops, or there in force.

A limit presence can go a long way.

CHAKRABARTI: A limited presence in Iraq and other places. But looking at a map of U.S. permanent installations, U.S. bases. There are many elsewhere in the region, right? All over Saudi, Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Dubai, Oman. I don’t necessarily think that at this point in time, and correct me if I’m wrong, when we come back from the break, but is Iran demanding the removal of all of those U.S. bases or troops. But just a counterpoint to what we mean by U.S. presence. It’s not just a number of troops, I would say, in a select number of countries, but when we come back, I want to hear from both of you about what, if any, are possible ways forward to meaningfully reduce these years-long tensions between Iran and the United States.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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