- By Lyse Doucet
- Chief International Correspondent
The deaths of three U.S. servicemen and the wounding of several others add to the heat in an already fever-stricken region and increase pressure on President Joe Biden, the U.S. commander-in-chief.
This is the first time US troops have been killed by enemy fire since the start of the Israel-Gaza war.
This may be the first time Washington faces such a difficult decision during this current crisis: Where and how to strike Iran?
Washington wants to send strong messages to Tehran, which it now blames for fires burning everywhere from Lebanon to Yemen. But it also wants to avoid triggering an even more dangerous escalation spiral of strikes and counter-strikes.
This moment seems inevitable. Since mid-October, U.S. military positions in Iraq and Syria have come under repeated attacks by Iran-backed militias, injuring a growing number of U.S. soldiers. The US has retaliated at least eight times, striking targets in both countries. It was only a matter of time before American lives were lost on this low-intensity, but high-risk, battlefield.
In his first response, President Biden left no doubt where the blame lay this time. The drone attack on Tower 22, a small outpost on Jordan's border with Syria, was the work of “radical pro-Iranian militia groups operating in Syria and Iraq.”
Iran has retaliated by refusing to take responsibility. Referring to what Tehran calls “opposition groups,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted they “will not take orders (from Iran) in their decisions and actions on how to support Palestine.”
All of Iran's allies in the region have been trained and armed by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or instructed on how to arm themselves.
This web of connections has tightened in recent years in what has been called their “axis of resistance,” and the Israel-Gaza conflict has strengthened this military alliance of radical non-state actors.
But each actor has its own agency, its own agenda and ambitions. In Iraq, most of the attacks appear to have been carried out by groups affiliated with an umbrella group called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. Retaliatory attacks are complicated by the fact that some are part of Iraq's own armed forces.
In recent months, the US has fired on Iranian assets in the region, including a training base in Syria and what has been described as an IRGC weapons depot.
This time, the goal should be the kind of “high value” that hurts Iran the most – to demonstrate Washington's prowess in the region, and, importantly, domestically.
In an election year, President Biden's political opponents are already using the crisis to reiterate accusations that he is “soft on Iran.”
“It's very tricky, very difficult,” Pavas Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the BBC. “All scenes have consequences.”
In the range of options, attacking Iran is the most dangerous of all. It was the first attack on Iranian soil since a plot to rescue American hostages taken during the 1980 Iranian revolution.
The last US action against Iran was the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a top commander of the IRGC, four years ago by a US drone strike in Baghdad. He was accused of plotting to kill US diplomats and soldiers across the region and was a key figure in the creation of this “axis of resistance”.
Speaking on the BBC's Newshour programme, Joel Rayburn, the former US special envoy for Syria, underlined that “there must be a deterrent like the Suleimani attack. “If we don't impose a cost on the Iranian mastermind, these attacks will continue.”
Iran, also under considerable pressure domestically, has held back in recent months from its own strikes on Israeli or US bases in retaliation for the assassination of several of its senior Revolutionary Guard commanders.
Earlier this month, in its first direct response, it focused its fire on what it considered a “soft target” when it struck a base of Israel's Mossad agency in Iraqi Kurdistan.
America knows it needs to see something done now, but more than anything it needs to succeed.
This is the dilemma for Washington and its allies as the devastating Israel-Gaza war continues, causing civilian casualties and untold suffering. Iran's allies insist they will not stop firing until there is a cease-fire in Gaza. So far, no one has batted an eye when Israel starts a war that will only end when Hamas is destroyed and the hostages released.
Tensions on another front in the Red Sea's critical shipping lanes tell a cautionary tale. The United States, backed by the United Kingdom and others, already sees itself leading a military campaign against Yemen's Houthis.
This intensified the Houthi opposition and thrust them into the center of world attention.
According to recent Western intelligence estimates, the Houthis have suffered losses of around 30% of their arsenal. But the Houthis, who have mastered irregular warfare after surviving nearly a decade of Saudi-led airstrikes, believe they are winning more than they are losing.
The Houthis and others in their Iran-backed coalition have seized on the crisis to try to burnish their reputation as standard bearers for the Palestinians in their wars against Israel. As the Gaza war rages, the U.S. is bracing for a long struggle to put out multiple simultaneous fires and prevent them from burning out of control.