A US-Iranian miscalculation could lead to a bigger war, officials say

Neither Washington nor Tehran want the conflict in the Gaza Strip to spark a wider war in the region, officials in both capitals say.

But in the seven weeks since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Iranian-backed militias have launched more than 70 rocket and drone attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon, for its part, responded with four rounds of airstrikes, killing as many as 15 people, US officials say.

National security officials fear that a miscalculation amid the head-on attack, combined with each side’s belief that the other doesn’t want a bigger fight, could spark just that: a regional conflict, just two years after the United States ended 20 years of war in the Middle East and South Asia.

So far, none of the US retaliatory strikes have escalated, not even the one last week in Iraq that killed several militants with Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group. The Pentagon announced this on Tuesday the attacks subsided at least temporarily – the last one was on November 23, the day before the start of the operational pause in the war in Gaza.

But US intelligence agencies continue to closely monitor Iran and the groups it supports, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and militias in Iraq and Syria.

“The problem with how people look at this is that we only thought about a short war” in Gaza, said Vali Nasr, an Iran expert and professor of international relations and Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.

But, he said, Iran and Hezbollah believe that once Israel is done with Hamas, it will turn its attention to them.

“If the United States is not careful, Gaza is just the beginning of something much, much bigger,” Nasr said.

Defense officials believe Iran is using the militia attacks to warn the United States of what would happen to US troops and interests in the region if Israel expands its campaign to include Hezbollah or if Israel targets Iran’s nuclear program, as it has done in the past.

Israel and Hezbollah have repeatedly clashed along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon since the beginning of the war. One US official said the Biden administration wanted to see Israel “removed” from the conflict. But the official did not elaborate on what the administration was doing to prevent Israel from opening a two-front war.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with Israeli officials.

Since the first days of the conflict, Tehran and Washington have exchanged multiple messages stating that neither side wants to escalate the war, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said in an interview.

“We understand that the US does not want the war to spread, but we think the US wants the war to intensify,” said Mr. Amir Abdollahian. “If the US continues its military, political and financial support for Israel and helps direct Israeli military attacks on Palestinian civilians, then it must face the consequences.”

Since the October 7 attack, intelligence officials have been informing President Biden of the risk of a wider war with Iran. For weeks, intelligence agencies have assessed that Iran wants to avoid a wider conflict – an assessment that, at least for now, still holds.

Guided by that intelligence, US defense officials proposed targeted retaliation against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria following drone attacks on military bases. As the White House weighed options, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and Mr. Biden discussed potential outcomes.

Publicly, the Biden administration says its strategy is one of deterrence.

After the Hamas attack, the Pentagon tried to send that message of deterrence, sending two aircraft carriers and accompanying warships — one to the eastern Mediterranean, the other near the Persian Gulf — as well as a Marine amphibious unit and dozens of additional warplanes.

But US officials blame Iran and militias linked to it for repeated missile and drone attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria.

US warplanes hit ammunition depots in eastern Syria on October 27 and again on November 8. The Pentagon concluded that there were no casualties in those attacks.

On November 12, US airstrikes on facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and proxies in eastern Syria killed six or seven people. One strike hit a large ammunition bunker that Pentagon officials said provided weapons for the recent attacks.

“Our strikes have significantly reduced and degraded the access that these militia groups have to these weapons,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said at the time.

Biden administration officials say the calibrated strikes are aimed at inflicting a price on Iran and its proxies without provoking a regional war that would draw the United States in. Mr. Biden has ruled out more aggressive bombing options in recent weeks, senior military officials said.

“Our main objective is to contain and ensure that this conflict is contained within Gaza,” Ms Singh said earlier this month. “We’re seeing that right now. We see that the conflict remains within Israel and Gaza and between Israel and Hamas.”

US intelligence agencies say that approach is working so far.

“Even with the United States under attack, we estimate that Iran and Hezbollah are trying to walk a very fine line in the region, avoiding overt actions that risk bringing them into more direct conflict with either Israel or the United States, while still piling on the costs of enabling anti- American and anti-Israel attacks,” Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Nov. 15.

The question, officials say, is whether Mr. Biden can prevent Israel from expanding the conflict.

Some Republicans in Congress complain that the US military response has been insufficient and actually calls for more aggressive action by Iran and its proxies.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Mr. Biden “may not want to seek conflict, but Iran does, and it will continue to try to kill our troops until they face real consequences, until they are scared directly,” Senator Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on the Senate floor.

“Iran will not fight if we risk the things they hold dearest: their shock troops in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, or, if necessary, sites and facilities in Iran itself,” Mr. Cotton said.

The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria, mostly to help local forces fight the remnants of the Islamic State.

More than 60 US soldiers in Iraq and Syria have been injured in attacks by Iran-backed militias, about half of those traumatic brain injuries. Pentagon officials say all soldiers have now been returned to duty.

But senior US military officials say it was only luck that spared the United States from more serious casualties. One explosive-laden drone landed on a barracks at Erbil Air Base in Iraq on October 25. It turned out to be a mistake, but several members of the military would likely have been injured or killed if it had exploded, a senior military official said.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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