Biden-Style ‘De-Escalation’ Won’t Contain Iran

In an old story, a psychic tells a man that he will die because of water. Fearing the sea, the man relocates to the desert. There, he dies from thirst. What one wishes most ardently to avoid can twist into one’s fate. The late January killing of three U.S. servicemen in Jordan by Iran-backed proxies was a predictable outcome of the Biden administration’s fear of escalation, which resulted in . . . escalation. Forced to act, President Biden responded. But there will be more such cases, because weeds do not stop growing unless pulled out by the roots — and Iran is the root of the proxy attacks.

Iran’s proxy campaign against the U.S. and Israel rests on a theory of strategic unification. Iran’s proxies link together the different theatres in the Middle East, creating a coherent, unified threat that simultaneously deters U.S. and Israeli action while imposing costs on both Jerusalem and Washington. The U.S. response should be to impose Iran’s strategic logic in reverse, punishing Iran for its disruption in the Red Sea and Iraq through pressure on its assets in Syria. This would meaningfully degrade Iranian combat capacity, signal America’s willingness to escalate, and come with only limited risk of strategic reprisals.

Tehran’s ultimate objective is to dominate the Middle East and export the Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world. Islam, per the dream of contemporary Iran’s founding legislator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will regain its place amongst global civilizations in world history, with a series of Islamic Republics stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, all directed by Tehran.

Israel and the U.S. are the only regional actors seriously capable of countering Iran’s drive for regional dominance. Turkey’s interests are too narrow, and its domestic politics too fractious, for it to intervene robustly beyond the edge of the Levant. Egypt since 2011 has vacillated between the Muslim Brotherhood and military dictatorship, all the while beset by a festering economic crisis. The Gulf States are entirely uninterested in regional leadership, lacking the resources, population, or military competence to achieve it. Instead, they seek to transform their societies without foreign interference. Pakistan is far too removed and distracted to act. It is nigh-impossible to envision an organic coalition emerging from this matrix of actors considering their contradictory strategic aims.

This explains the centrality of Israeli and American power. Israel is the only regional actor with a military capable of seriously damaging Iran. The U.S. could dismantle the Iranian military independently and has the intelligence and strike capacity to destroy Iran’s proxies. Thus, Iranian rulers’ foremost strategic goal: The U.S. must be ejected from the Middle East, and Israel destroyed, to ensure Iranian ascendancy.

Iran’s strategy balances its desire for total regional dominance with the strategic need for indirect confrontation through its proxies. Termed the Axis of Resistance, this alliance of proxies, non-state groups, and rebel movements now spans Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza and the West Bank and the Houthis in Yemen. The Axis’s proxy character gives Iran crucial strategic flexibility. Iran clearly organizes, coordinates, trains, and directs all its regional proxies, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces and the Yemeni Houthis. But each group is nominally independent, allowing Iran to insist, and sympathetic ears in the West to repeat, that Iran lacks a direct operational relationship with specific Axis member actions.

All the while, the Axis executes Iran’s strategic plan. In each target country, the lead Axis proxy slowly captures the security services, and then state institutions. Lebanon serves as the model. Hezbollah has expanded from a small but effective anti-Israeli militia into a full-fledged shadow state with greater military capabilities than the Lebanese Armed Forces, a de facto veto over Lebanese state policy, and the ability to access Lebanese intelligence. Iran has yet to achieve state capture in its other theatres — Syria, Iraq, the West Bank, and Yemen — but it is on its way. It has picked favorite militias in Syria and, since 10/7, deployed tens of thousands of Iraqi militiamen to the Syrian–Israeli border. It has continued to expand the power of its preferred militias in Iraq. In the West Bank, it supports Hamas’s erosion of Fatah–Palestinian Authority leadership through a concerted smuggling effort. And in Yemen, the Houthi movement functions as a pseudo-state.

Read the rest at National Review.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.

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