Washington has sent a warning to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about Iranian anti-US provocation in the Middle East. This has been going on sporadically for years, but from October 17 to October 25 there was an increase, as Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq carried out 16 drone and rocket attacks on bases with US personnel. One contractor died of a heart attack, and 21 troops suffered light injuries.
The US warning came in two parts. On October 25, Joe Biden sent a note to Khamenei, which he later summarised for the press: “My warning to the Ayatollah was that if they continued to move against those troops, we will respond, and they should be prepared.”
But on Thursday the militias fired another three volleys at US positions. So that night, US F-16 fighter jets struck a weapons depot and an ammunition store used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the militias, in northeast Syria near the Iraq border. The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, emphasised:
If attacks by Iran’s proxies against US forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people … We continue to urge all state and non-state entities not to take action that would escalate into a broader regional conflict.
These US messages were loud and clear. But will Iran heed them?
‘Axis of Resistance’
The immediate context for the militia attacks was Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7. Sources differed on whether the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s leadership – or both – had advance notice of the deadly assault. But most analysts agree that Tehran provides funding, weapons, intelligence, and operational and logistical advice to Hamas.
But whether or not they knew Hamas was going to attack, Iranian officials appeared to be taken back by the scale of the killing. They tried to contain the fallout with strident denials of any involvement. Khamenei insisted in a public address on October 10: “Those who say that the recent saga is the work of non-Palestinians have miscalculated.”
But if the Iranian regime gave any indication that it did not fully back the killing, then its proclaimed position as the leader of the “Axis of Resistance” would be shaken. So Tehran stepped up its rhetorical offensive with daily assurances of alliance with Hamas and daily threats against Israel, the US and the west.
In his October 10 address, Khamenei said: “We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack.” Intelligence minister, Esmail Khatib, pledged “a harsh, destructive, mortal and annihilating revenge for the Zionist regime and its advocates”. Foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, told the UN general assembly on October 26 – after Biden’s message to the supreme leader but before the US strikes in Syria – that America “would not be spared from the fire” if Israel continued attacks on Gaza.
There is no evidence the regime has followed up the rhetoric with planning – for example, through Lebanon’s Hezbollah or the Houthi insurgency in Yemen – for a wider war against Israel or in the region. But the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards branch for operations outside Iran, supervises as well as funds and equips the militias in Iraq and Syria. So it is almost certain that Iran’s leaders have authorised the more limited response against US positions.
Did Khamenei listen?
A clue to the regime’s response to the US message came in the coverage of the US strikes by Iranian state media. For hours, there was silence across the regime outlets. Finally, the English-language site Press TV mentioned the US missiles. However, it did so in an article which gave most of the emphasis to further militia attacks on US positions.
The indications are that the regime – having been cautioned by Saudi Arabia as well as the US – does not want a regional war. The supreme leader came to power after the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians – including up to 30,000 executed by Iran’s leaders – perished. He pulled back from war in Afghanistan in 1998 after the Taliban killed ten Iranian diplomats. He shook his fist, including token attacks on bases with US personnel, but avoided a showdown after the US assassinated Iran’s leading commander, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020.
With Israel now starting a ground offensive into Gaza, Tehran can turn its initial defence over Hamas’s mass murders – “this is the work of Palestinians themselves,” Khamenei said – into political offence, calling for the world to unite against the Israelis.
But the regime will not publicly rule out getting involved in an armed confrontation. On October 15, Amir-Abdollahian announced: “We have conveyed our message to Israel through its allies that if they do not cease their atrocities in Gaza, Iran cannot simply remain an observer.”
Two days later, Khamenei expanded the point: “If the crimes of the Zionist regime continue, Muslims and resistance forces will become impatient, and no one can stop them.” And so on Sunday, three days after the US strikes, Press TV ran with the headline: Simultaneous Attacks Hit 3 US Bases in Syria.
The drone and rocket show of the militias, overseen by the Revolutionary Guards, will go on. And from that show may come the regional war that no one wants. If one of the militia assaults causes significant casualties among US personnel, the always-circling cast of hawks in Washington – among activists, lobbyists, and legislators – will demand escalation. That could further unsettle a fractured Syria and a perpetually unstable Iraq. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, settling for skirmishes on Israel’s northern border so far, and its Iranian interlocutors could risk wider attacks.
The Biden administration was at great pains to say that Thursday’s strikes had nothing to do with the Israel-Gaza violence. That, of course, is a facade. While US tensions with Iran are rooted in the soil of post-2003 Iraq and the Assad leadership’s devastation of Syria from 2011, the supreme leader and his allies will seize maximum advantage from deadly Israeli operations in Gaza.
Only a halt to those operations will curb the manoeuvres of Khamenei and his commanders – including the lobbing of rockets at the “US occupation forces”.