Nadim Koteich

American Retaliation That Serves Iran

If the Americans had been following Iran’s advice on how to respond to the attacks of "Hezbollah in Iraq" on the US "Tower 22" base that killed three soldiers in Jordan, its response would not have suited the Iranians any better.
While targeting Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq in the way the US did had always been the most likely scenario, the US statements that preceded and followed the retaliation, in which the US signaled that it does not want a war with Iran, were a gift to the latter. It reassured Iran that the United States would not change its current approach of engaging Tehran's proxies rather than directly attacking Iran itself.
Washington is, of course, entitled to bet on its strategy limiting escalation in the Middle East and averting destabilization in the region that precipitates a direct clash with Iran. However, this bet overlooks a key question: what does Iran really want?
More importantly, this bet overlooks what are supposed to be the shared interests of the US and its allies in the region, both Arab and non-Arab - actions that harm them should concern the US, even if these actions do not directly undermine its own security and interests.
The bet on de-escalation and averting destabilization overlooks the fact that Iranian foreign policy clearly reflects its ambitions for regional hegemony and its desire to establish a strategic depth throughout the Middle East through militias and proxies. This strategy is driven by a complex mix of security considerations and ideological motives, and Iran is playing a carefully calibrated game in the Middle East. Through these militias, it seeks to enhance its standing in the region and assert itself as a major player in regional political, security, and military issues, in the face of its Gulf competitors first and foremost, and secondly Israel and the United States.
Moreover, Iran’s support for proxies enhances its image domestically, allowing the regime to present itself as the protector of Muslims in general and the Shiites in particular, and these proxies also help Iran project itself as the leader of the camp opposing Western influence.
Moreover, Iran's proxies grant it influence over other countries in the region, such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, allowing it to gain political and economic advantages that partially compensate for the damage done by Western sanctions on it. It also allows Iran to present itself as the victor in its political and diplomatic struggle with the United States.
In addition, by maintaining these militias in neighboring countries, Iran creates for itself a buffer zone that protects it from the threats of its adversaries and moves the battles waged against it outside its territory.
Accordingly, seeking to reduce escalation to avoid destabilization clashes with the objectives that Iran has explicitly laid out, even if we assume that the US is genuinely working to achieve these objectives.
The truth is that strikes like those that hit Iran's proxies recently, in response to Iran's direct sponsorship of lethal attacks against Americans, directly benefit Iran and reinforce two narratives that, while they may seem contradictory, are in fact complementary.
1- After these cautious and calculated strikes, Iran can boost its narrative of being an undefeatable adversary feared by its enemies.
2- These strikes also play into conspiratorial framings of how the world works. For example, it reinforces the claim that Iran and the US are secretly colluding to undermine the interests of regional powers.
There seems to be no limit to the benefits that the clerical regime can reap for either of these narratives. They help Iran push an anti-colonial and anti-Western ideological discourse and achieve its practical strategic interests. Chief among its interests is keeping the states hosting these militias weak and perpetuating the despair of these country’s peoples and governments at having their sovereignty compromised and their national dignity squandered, buttressing their conviction that they have always been and will remain victims caught in the crosshairs of international politics.
Contrary to the naivety that the US has demonstrated in its response to Iran's militias, Iran has shown exceptional adeptness at handling this moment. It instructed its proxies to announce a suspension of their attacks against American interests, as we saw in the communique of "Hezbollah in Iraq," while simultaneously leading a propaganda campaign to emphasize the independence of these militias! How can the party that imposed the cessation of attacks not bear responsibility for the decision to launch the attacks in the first place?
This scenario illustrates the complexity of the proxy war that Iran is waging, in which it deliberately obscures its responsibility. It is important to note that Iran does not merely seek to maintain plausible deniability, but also wants to project an image of restraint and rationality in the face of what it presents as US aggression. It is no secret that this narrative resonates strongly given today’s global context, as the world is becoming increasingly skeptical of the justifications and legitimacy of American military interventions on the international stage.
The tepid American response to Iran's direct sponsorship of its proxies' attacks exposes a grave deficiency in its conception of Iran's behavior. Iran is driven by its desire for regional dominance and ideological influence, and it is committed to enhancing its interests while minimizing the risks of a direct clash with the US.
Ultimately, the US has given Iran what it wants. Rather, it has encouraged further provocation, as reflected by the actions of the Houthi militia and some Iraqi militias following the American strikes.
Only more severe strikes, of the sort that directly undermines Iran’s standing and makes it look weak, could deter Iran and encourage US allies to stand united behind the US. Anything less than a recipe for audacious Iranian actions that perpetuate regional instability.