(January 29, 2024 / Newsweek) Over the course of some months, Iranian proxies have struck U.S. military positions more than 150 times throughout the Middle East. None of these attacks had been fatal until militants killed three American soldiers in a small outpost in northeast Jordan over the weekend.
These deaths were entirely preventable. They were caused by the Biden Administration’s failure to respond strongly to the 164 earlier strikes orchestrated by the Iranian regime and its underlings.
Following the drone strike, President Joe Biden vowed a response. Yet, so far previous American “responses” have consisted only of “precision strikes” against proxies that target empty warehouses or kill a handful of militants. Press releases typically follow these airstrikes with statements about the need to prevent further escalation.
This must change.
Washington needs to make Iran pay for killing Americans by striking its territory. Not for revenge, but because it is the only way to stop this from happening again. Iran uses proxies to attack U.S. and Israeli targets because its conventional forces are no match for either military. By using proxies like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Hamas, Iran can slap Washington without being held responsible. If Tehran had to pay a price for its actions, it would significantly alter this equation.
To date, Washington has not understood this, and has chosen to strike directly at Iranian-backed groups, even though these proxies don’t acting against Iran’s geopolitical strategy. The deaths of proxy militants or even civilians don’t faze the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In fact, the death of militants is factored into Iranian strategy.
Last November, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander declared that the Palestinians were fighting a “war of attrition” against Israel, speaking at a protest in Tehran in response to the growing death toll in Gaza. This sentiment has been voiced by proxy officials in Iraq as well. Iran has proven its willingness to sacrifice as many Arabs as it takes to achieve its geopolitical goals.
But whether the regime would be willing to sacrifice Iranians is another question.
This isn’t to say that the mullahs care about Iranian lives. Four years ago, the regime’s security forces killed 3,000 protesters in three days. And more than 500 have been killed in the most recent protests after a young woman died in custody, having been arrested for violating the nation’s strict religious dress code.
What the Iranian leadership cares about is what any other dictatorship cares about—survival. Strikes against strategic targets such as oil fields, the Iranian Navy and IRGC headquarters would threaten its survival by causing political instability, diminishing its conventional forces, and sowing panic in the ranks of the regime. It could also drive Iranians back out into the streets en masse, which could cause the Islamic Republic to scale back its activities abroad to deal with domestic unrest.
History has shown that direct strikes against Iranian high value targets work. In 2020, former President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of the Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s proxy strategy. Iran promised a swift and fierce revenge but did almost nothing. In fact, following the assassination, attacks from Iran and its proxies declined. According to then-CENTCOM commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the assassination reestablished U.S. deterrence in the region.
But hitting Iran now would have an even stronger effect with wider ramifications. It would send a clear message to Russia and China that there are limits and that the United States. is willing and able to strike hard when needed. Some pundits say that Russian President Vladimir Putin was convinced to invade Ukraine due to the weak U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. A strong response to Iran may deter Putin from further adventurism or Chinese President Xi Jinping from moving on Taiwan. In short, a strike on Iran could have the same effect on the world that the Soleimani assassination had on the region.
Some may worry that a strike on Iran could lead to another “forever war” in the Middle East. This fear has paralyzed U.S. Middle East policy for more than a decade. However, the goal in striking Iran is not occupation with eventual regime change. It is striking concrete targets to signal to the regime that it will not remain immune. This will not cause a “forever war.” Iran is a corrupt, backward country with porous borders and a weak conventional military. It has no allies except for the proxies it uses to attack U.S. forces and Israel. Many of its own citizens would even approve of a U.S. strike. Tehran would not be able to escalate further without risking the regime’s survival.
We should have never gotten to this point. But now that we are here, we need to adjust our strategy, so things don’t get worse. Washington must begin to hold Iran directly responsible for its proxies’ actions. Such a change of course will guarantee a safer region not just for the U.S., but for its allies as well. And it may just deter other tragedies like the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and the invasion of Ukraine caused by the aggression of dangerous dictators.
America’s enemies will be more cautious knowing that their actions have consequences.
Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow for the Endowment of Middle East Truth (EMET).
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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