Taking Aim at the Axis

By Rafael Hoffman

While several unknowns remain about the goals of Hamas’ barbaric incursion, most agree that Hamas hoped to ignite regional unrest that would put pressure on Israel and its ally America to fundamentally change the power balance. The end game of that gamble remains in flux, but Hamas’ attack undeniably triggered a multifront eruption of violence.

Cognizant of the likelihood of Iran’s proxy network using Israel’s campaign in Gaza as a pretext for attacks, shortly after Hamas’ attack, the United States dispatched a fleet of warships to deter them from joining the conflict. President Joseph Biden warned those considering targeting Israel or the United States’ presence, sternly saying, “Don’t!”

So far, that tactic has failed.

The highest-profile attacks on American ships and interests initially came from the Yemenite Houthis, whose rocket, drone, and piracy attacks on Red Sea shipping have nearly closed one of the world’s most important waterways. At the same time, a host of Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria targeted America’s regional military outposts. Hezbollah has conducted attacks on Israel’s north since Hamas’ attack, but has not done so against any American targets.

All told, the U.S. sustained an estimated 165 attacks since October 7, with 80 servicemen injured. The chief justification Iran-proxies articulated for these attacks are efforts to support Hamas’ war in Gaza by striking out at Israel’s ally.

Most rocket and drone strikes were intercepted by defense systems, but it was feared that, eventually, an attack would circumvent protections, leaving Americans dead and the U.S. in a corner to respond more forcefully than the limited strikes it had made against the Houthis.

That happed on Sunday, January 28, when a drone fired by an Iran-sponsored Iraqi militia hit an American outpost in Jordan, killing three and wounding several dozen more.

Beginning last Friday and continuing in the days following, the United States began its retaliation, launching dozens of strikes against Houthi terrorists and some 85 against Iran-backed militias across Iraq and Syria.

While greater in number, the U.S. strikes so far seem like little more than a multiple of the type of operations that have as yet failed to protect American troops and interests in the region.

Speaking three days into the retaliatory strikes, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said there would be more to come.

“What happened on Friday was the beginning, not the end, of our response, and there will be more steps — some seen, some perhaps unseen,” he told a CBS interviewer.

What those moves will be is as yet unknown, but the ongoing Iranian proxy attacks still leave the Biden administration with a very unwanted problem: how to protect U.S. troops and integrity without sparking a regional war.

A military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan, on Oct. 12, 2023. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Axis of Resistance

The Islamic Republic’s development of regional proxies dates back almost to its founding in 1979. By the early 1980s, Iran dispatched advisors and weapons to support Shiite terrorists in southern Lebanon who eventually coalesced into Hezbollah.

Those efforts ramped up considerably in the 1990s when the Iranian military’s al Quds force came under the command of General Qassem Soleimani, who continued to work with Hezbollah as well as developing Palestinian terror groups operating within Israel, including Hamas. This effort mushroomed during the U.S.-Iraq War when Iran supported Shiite militias that terrorized American soldiers, killing several hundred. Many of these same groups, together with Hezbollah, were further developed during Syria’s civil war when they fought to defend Bashar Assad’s regime. Some in that same coalition gained additional experience and resources fighting against Sunni terrorist groups, al-Qaida and ISIS.

A more recent addition to Iran’s minions are Houthi terrorists, who Iran supported in their fight against the recognized Yemenite government.

This deadly crew was effective in advancing Iran’s power and aims in the Middle East. They have all been beneficiaries of Tehran’s funding, weapons, and training, though how involved Iran is in their operations remains largely unknown.

“Since 1979, Iran has had two core foreign policy goals: end the State of Israel as we know it and push America out of the Middle East,” said Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow, and Director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute. “Over the last few decades, Iran invested in the ‘axis of resistance’ as the main instruments to forward these goals. Nobody can deny their connection, since it’s proudly declared by Tehran, but we don’t know much about command and control. Can they pick up the phone and say, ‘fire a missile at this target’?”

Al Quds officers regularly visit axis members. Just recently, the U.S. intercepted a shipment of Iranian weapons headed for the Houthis. Hezbollah, whose ideology and religious tenets are closely aligned with Iran, is believed to have the strongest linkage to Tehran.

The many militias in Iraq and Syria vary. Some with links to the Iraqi government might be under pressure to use more restraint, while others have less to lose by striking whatever targets are in their sights.

Some believe the Houthi attacks are pushing beyond Iran’s comfort level and are aimed at rallying more domestic support in Yemen, a nation with deep ties to the Palestinian cause. This view is part of a larger hypothesis that some of Iran’s proxies have grown beyond their control.

“If it’s accurate that Iran wants to de-escalate, what that says is Iran doesn’t have much control over these groups,” said Mr. Vatanka. “This goes beyond Iran. The biggest problem in the Middle East now is non-state actors that can act as spoilers and bring the whole region to the brink.”

Mr. Vatanka added that militias in Iraq have enough access to domestic oil revenue to become self-sufficient and that multiple axis members might not take well to Tehran asking them to temper down resistance over the war in Gaza.

“Iran created these groups 20 years ago, but they might not feel beholden to them anymore,” he said. “Without Soleimani around anymore, they might feel, ‘We’re the Arabs left fighting for the Palestinian cause, who are these Persians to tell us what to do?’”

Iran itself emphatically denied any role in its proxies’ attacks but celebrated their role in fighting Israel and America, with government spokesmen and media expressing no regret over the risks they are taking.

Michael Rubin, senior fellow and Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Iran might not direct attacks, but it does set boundaries.

“Tehran controls by omission rather than commission,” he said. “It tells groups what they cannot do but seldom gives a direct order to micromanage an operation. That said, it will reward those groups that carry out attacks and so incentivize after the fact.”

Dr. Rubin added that the idea of Iran working to restrain its proxies is like “the arsonist trying to profit from selling water.”

Pick your Target

A Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 takes off to carry out air strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, Jan. 22. (AS1 Jake Green RAF/Ministry of Defence via AP)

Some who see Iran as capable of stopping these attacks argue that only strikes inside the Islamic Republic itself can revive deterrence. A model for such attacks are the 1988 strikes that President Ronald Reagan ordered, sinking several Iranian naval vessels in response to the mining of a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf.

Dr. Rubin said that given the high premium the Biden administration places on preventing escalation, it is unlikely that any targets in Iran’s borders will be targeted.

“Iran has concluded America is a paper tiger. The days of deterrence are long gone,” he said. “Biden is no Reagan.”

Circumstances are markedly different from 1988, or even more recent confrontations with Middle East enemies. After costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to fully achieve U.S. goals and left both nations in chaos, few Americans support another war in the region. The reluctance towards escalation is voiced not only from the Biden camp, but also in isolationist-leaning corners of the right. 

The Biden administration’s hesitancy to become embroiled in a broader conflict has guided its mild reactions to Iran-proxy attacks.

“I think there is an inherent risk of miscalculation sparking a broader conflict when we’re talking about the kind of tit-for-tat attacks that we’ve seen between Iranian proxies and the United States,” said Michelle Grise, Senior Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation, a Washington think-tank.

Strikes on proxies themselves, as the U.S. has done to the Houthis, and now militias, carry the lowest risk.

Some argue for hitting Iran economically by intercepting oil sales. U.S. and U.N. sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear violations forbid such sales, but they are rarely enforced. This too, however, might be unattractive to the Biden administration, as Iran’s number-one energy client is China, with whom the President is also focused on minimizing confrontation. Administration officials carefully avoided assigning direct blame for attacks to Tehran, which would obligate action against that nation.

A more aggressive retaliation would be to attack Iranian assets or personnel in the region. A high-profile version of that was the U.S. strike under former President Donald Trump that killed Soleimani while on a visit to Baghdad, which the U.S. carried out in response to Iran-backed groups storming America’s embassy in Iraq. After much blusterous rhetoric, Iran retaliated with a minor missile strike on a U.S. military base. Iran hawks point to the incident as proof that strength is the most effective tool to clamp down Iran-related threats.

An idea that garnered a good deal of media coverage is targeting Iran’s spy ship in the Red Sea, which some feel is providing intelligence on shipping to the Houthis.

“The external al Quds branches should be nervous right now,” said Mr. Vatanka. “The U.S. could hit them or take other much more forceful actions than they have till now. That would really be for the benefit of the region. If Iran is shocked into pulling back, it could avoid a regional war. The problem is, though, since there are no clear lines, at the same time it’s hard to avoid starting a regional war.”

Center of Gravity

U.S.-owned ship Genco Picardy that came under attack from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen’s Houthi terrorists in the Gulf of Aden, Jan.18. (Indian Navy via AP)

While Iran’s goal to pressure the U.S. and Israel into retreat is decades old, axis members proudly proclaim that their actions are an effort to aid Hamas’ fight. They also likely observed that the widespread anger in the Muslim world at the U.S. and Israel made the present moment ripe for risk taking.

The Biden administration remains publicly steadfast in its support for Israel’s goal to eliminate Hamas.

“We obviously want to see this conflict end … as soon as possible, but it has to end in a way that doesn’t imperil the Israeli people from the threat of Hamas, which is right next door. So, we’re going to continue to support them in their efforts to do that,” said the White House’s Mr. Kirby.

Yet, since a cessation of combat in Gaza is seen by many as the easiest road to stop Iran proxy attacks, many suspect the administration is quietly pressuring Israel to wind down its operations.

“I think the Biden administration’s efforts since October 7 to resolve the Israel-Hamas conflict have sought to prevent the kind of escalation that we are seeing now,” said Dr. Grise. “A more protracted conflict against Hamas increases the risk of horizontal escalation. I would expect the administration to continue communicating with Israel about the necessity of balancing the achievement of its military objectives with the imperative of preventing a broader regional war.”

Many in the Israeli government would likely object to this suggestion, arguing that its security goals cannot be met if Hamas retains power in Gaza. Some argue that rushing Israel’s campaign is not in America’s long-term interests either.

“There’s an argument that ending the war in Gaza would end some attacks on U.S. forces, but the counter to that is, Hamas gets to live,” said Mr. Vatanka. “That’s a win for Iran and a strategic loss for the U.S. and Israel.”

Deterrence Dilemma

While the debate over the strength and choice of strikes against Iran-related threats mirrors some of the dove-versus-hawk debates of recent decades, America’s bruises from recent wars give more people pause in considering the effectiveness of responses.

A key variable in these questions is whether Iran proxies can be deterred. Some feel it would be near impossible to stop groups like the Houthis, who may be operating with much independence from Tehran and stand to gain stature and support through escalation with the United States. In this view, America might have little to gain with robust responses, besides risking ensnarement in an unwinnable conflict.

An opposing view holds that Iran retains power over its proxies and will reel in their activities when its interests come under threat.

“They are deterrable if Iran concludes they will not be able to enjoy the plausible deniability. The road to deterring the Houthis, Hamas, and Hezbollah passes through Tehran,” said Dr. Rubin. “If we show we are so afraid of escalation, we self-deter rather than deter our adversaries. Deterrence is not just military, its psychological.”

The answers to these questions might only become known through a high-stakes game of trial and error. Yet, as the White House acknowledges, as long as the U.S. maintains a military presence in the Middle East, it has a responsibility to respond to attacks against it.

“I don’t know if [Iran proxies] are deterrable, but you can take the fight to them and neutralize them,” said Mr. Vatanka. “No American President can afford to have troops be sitting ducks to militant groups. If America can’t protect them, they should pull them out.”

Many criticized the Biden administration for repeatedly advertising its desire to avoid escalation, arguing it invites enemies to raise the stakes.

Iran, by contrast, signals an openness to conflict. Amid the discussion over American responses to the servicemen killed in Jordan, Iranian officials promised to respond in kind to any attack.

“We do not leave any threat without an answer,” said General Hossein Salami, the Commander in Chief of Iran’s military. “We are not after war, but we have no fear of war.”

Despite Iran’s bravado, most U.S. analysts surmise that the Islamic Republic would shrink from a direct conflict. The nation’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 84 years old and the country is beset by economic crisis and internal unrest.

“Iran has a lot to lose if the escalation of the conflict draws more direct U.S. involvement, and Iran is likely trying to prevent escalation in the near term while still maintaining its ability to leverage its proxies to achieve Iran’s goals in the region,” said Dr. Grise.

Yet, even if Iran is not as war-ready as its officials pretend, risks remain in how the U.S. responds to the spate of proxy attacks. Not the least of these is the potential for unwanted escalation. Moreover, few Americans have an appetite for another Middle East war, handicapping its goal of projecting strength in the region.

“It’s not plausible for the U.S. to take on Iran now; the public opinion is not ready,” said Mr. Vatanka. “Still, America needs to make a strong point that it’s not on its way out of the region. Its prestige is at stake. It needs to find a smart way to reestablish deterrence without falling into the trap of war.

* * *

War Powers

Amid the strategic discussion over America’s military response in the Middle East, another debate is brewing over how much President Joseph Biden can do without first asking Congress.

After the U.S. military first initiated strikes against the Houthis, a bipartisan group of Senators sent the White House a letter saying that a prolonged operation requires a congressional vote.

While the Houthis and their backers, namely Iran, bear the responsibility for escalation, unless there is a need to repel a sudden attack, the Constitution requires that the United States not engage in military action absent a favorable vote of Congress. We have long advocated for deliberate congressional processes in and authorizations for decisions that put service-members into harm’s way overseas. There is no current congressional authorization for offensive U.S. military action against the Houthis.”

The letter was signed by Republican Senators Todd Young of Indiana and Mike Lee of Utah and Democrats Tim Kaine of Virginia and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. This group has spent several years advocating for Congress to step up its involvement in war power discussions.

President Biden informed Congress of the attacks against the Houthis, as required by the War Powers Resolution of 1973, yet asked no permission. Questioned on the topic, White House officials and the President himself said they were quite comfortable with their legal grounds for unilaterally ordering the attacks.

Charles Stimson, Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the administration was in the right regarding the initial strikes themselves.

“The analysis has to look at every particular strike, but in general they fall within the President’s authority,” he said. “Every country has a right to self-defense and if [the Houthis] went after U.S. ships, the President has the authority to respond.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Stimson said the Senators are justified in asking the administration to detail strategy, the extent to which it thinks its authority reaches and, generally, to demand Congress have a role in what is likely to be a prolonged campaign.

“The problem with Congress ceding its prerogatives to the executive is that they get out of the habit of doing their job; that has very negative consequences for the balance of the branches of government,” he said. “Congress has been out of the habit of using its war power muscles for so long, they don’t remember how to do it.”

The President’s war powers rest in the Constitution’s Article Two, which names him commander-in-chief of the nation’s military.

Unhappy with the moves that allowed America to be drawn into the Vietnam War, in 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. The law’s most noteworthy sections require the President to notify Congress of any military action within 48 hours and forbids troop commitment for more than 60 days without a congressional vote granting Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) or a formal declaration of war.

The United States has not declared war since World War II. Recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were approved by Congress with AUMF votes.

Mr. Stimson said that, in addition to keeping the executive’s powers in check, congressional involvement in war decisions plays an important role in making sure the people are behind the campaign being pursued by the White House.

“It’s important that Congress has a series of briefings and talks about the need and authority for these strikes,” he said. “The facts drive policy … and those discussions help get the American people behind these attacks. It’s an important aspect of the PR campaign and Presidents have to be careful not to get ahead of the American people.”

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