OPINION | Biden’s response to the Houthis must not lead to a broader war with Iran

The Middle East is at its most tense in recent memory, and the conflict in Gaza threatens to spark a broader regional conflict. The Biden administration and its European allies have launched attacks against Houthi targets in Yemen in retaliation for continued attacks on ships in the Red Sea. The attack could also include Iranian spy vessels operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which The Times of London reported is providing targeted support to the Houthis.

So far, the Biden administration’s restraint in response to Iranian provocations has been a sign of wisdom and strength, not weakness. At this point, a carefully calibrated response to the Houthi attack is warranted. But President Biden must ensure that this response does not spiral out of control. A wider war would be disastrous.

Despite the widespread belief that Iran is the dominant and most destructive actor in the Middle East, the theocratic state is perhaps at its weakest point in its 45-year history.

Domestically, public support for the Iranian government has long evaporated. In recent weeks, authorities have stepped up arrests of dissidents and religious minorities and executed alleged regime opponents, as regional and domestic instability threatens to undermine the regime. It’s a sign that you’re nervous. The recent Islamic State terrorist attack at the memorial service for Qasem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who was assassinated by the Trump administration, highlights the regime’s inability to maintain domestic order and further emboldens the ruling elite. It made me upset.

Iran is not a superpower abroad. Although its population of more than 87 million is small compared to Israel’s 9 million, the Islamic Republic’s military budget is less than a third of that of the Israel Defense Forces. In a conventional war, Iran cannot match the military power of Israel, the United States, and its allies.

However, the government will not fall. Doing so would undermine one of the United States’ main claims to legitimacy in confronting the United States and its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. In Iran’s worldview, Israel is the only enemy more sinister than America.

Iran’s support for the self-proclaimed Palestinians is perhaps its greatest source of strength. Particularly since the war in Gaza began, support for the Palestinians has increased, if not increased, by Iran and the leaders of its Persian Gulf neighbors, many of whom still seek to normalize relations with Israel. , giving some credibility to the Arab quarter with its support for Palestine.

Until now, Iran has pursued a relatively low-cost strategy on this issue. It helped finance Hamas and came to think of it as an asset. Hamas has long served as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and as a check on Israeli hostility toward Tehran. Hamas is expected to cause problems for Israel if it considers attacking Iran. Iran also supports Hezbollah in Lebanon for similar deterrence purposes.

However, Iran took a step back after Hamas rioted and massacred Israeli civilians on October 7. This signaled continued support for the Palestinian cause, but ruled out escalating the war on behalf of Hamas. Hezbollah has taken much the same action, but its gunfights with Israel have so far not resulted in major conflicts. The Houthis, Iran’s third major regional proxy force, have launched missiles at Israel and begun harassing ships in the Red Sea, declaring they are trying to pressure Israel to halt its Gaza operation.

The Biden administration clearly sees the situation as it is. We understand that the Iranian regime is stirring up a combustible situation with limited means, but with limited goals. Iran seeks to maintain its position in the region rather than upend the existing balance.

Although some hawks in Washington are encouraging military escalation, the Biden administration understands that doing so could help strengthen Iran’s fragile leadership. Although Iran could not easily survive a full-scale attack from the United States and its allies, it is likely to survive and benefit from a broader proxy war. Winning such a war decisively would entail significant military, diplomatic, and economic costs for the United States, but the Biden administration has no intention of drawing the country into another conflict in the Middle East. Indeed, avoiding a broader war was perhaps the most successful aspect of America’s initial response to the Gaza conflict.

Avoiding such a war does not mean enduring Iranian provocations indefinitely. But it means staying focused. Following a series of attacks against the Houthis, the Biden administration needs to think of ways to exploit the Iranian government’s obvious weaknesses and undermine its limited strengths.

Financial penalties targeting selected Iranian officials, particularly the most radical members of the Revolutionary Guards, would be a good first step. Just as the Iranian government has relied on proxies to fight its wars abroad for decades, so too has its leadership used proxies to protect its ill-gotten wealth in the West.

The appropriate next response in a conflict where neither side wants more bloodshed is to target these individuals. The fight against Iran will be won with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

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