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THE WEEK IN STRATEGY

This Week in Strategy is dedicated to understanding U.S. policy on the Middle East, the Iranian government’s regional strategy, and the attack by Iran on Israel.



UNITED STATES


U.S. Policy Amid “Axis of Resistance” Attacks

By Clayton Thomas

Congressional Research Report – January 26, 2024

 

Summary:

The United States’ foreign policy regarding Iran, amidst the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, focuses on preventing the regionalization of the conflict and deterring potentially escalatory actions by Iran and its backed groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. From the onset of the conflict in October 2023, U.S. officials have warned Iran and its proxies against interference, utilizing private channels to communicate these warnings directly to Iran. Despite this, Iran has linked regional conflicts to the war in Gaza, suggesting an end to the Gaza conflict could lead to broader regional peace. Iran has also escalated its support for attacks against U.S. forces and interests in the region.

 

Iran has increased its support for proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, significantly escalating attacks against U.S. forces and interests. These actions include attacks by Iran-backed Iraqi groups on U.S. forces, missile strikes by Iran in Syria and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. These activities have heightened tensions and the risk of a broader conflict involving the United States and Israel.

 

Heightened tensions and an increased risk of regional conflict characterize the situation in the Middle East. The United States has responded to escalatory actions by Iran-backed groups with airstrikes and military deployments, aiming to protect its interests and partners. The complexity of the situation is increased by the involvement of various non-state actors backed by Iran, including the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have stepped up their military activities since October 2023.

 

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Bottom Line:

The central point is the Biden Administration's strategic approach to preventing the Israel-Hamas conflict from escalating into a wider regional war, while simultaneously deterring and responding to escalatory actions by Iran-backed groups. The U.S. aims to maintain regional stability and prevent direct confrontations that could draw it deeper into conflict. The administration's policy reflects a delicate balancing act of diplomacy and military readiness in response to a complex and volatile regional landscape.


 

MIDDLE EAST

 

Iranian Attack Expected on Israel in Next Two Days

Israel is preparing for a direct attack from Iran in the next few days; Tehran yet to decide, says person briefed on the matter

By Dov Lieber, Bnooit Faucon, and Warren P. Strobel

Wall Street Journal – April 12, 2024

Summary:

Israel is bracing for a potential direct attack from Iran, which could take place on either the southern or northern regions of Israel as soon as Friday or Saturday. This preparation comes in response to a recent escalation in tensions triggered by an Israeli airstrike on a diplomatic building in Damascus, Syria, which resulted in the death of top Iranian military officials, including a significant figure from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. Iran has publicly vowed to retaliate for this attack.

 

The possible motivations for Iran's planned retaliation stem from a desire to avenge the deaths of its military officials and to signal its capability and willingness to confront Israeli actions that it perceives as aggressive directly. The exact nature of the potential Iranian attack remains undecided, with options ranging from sophisticated medium-range missile strikes directly on Israeli soil to operations carried out by Iran's proxies in Syria and Iraq or even targeting Israeli interests abroad to avoid massive Israeli retaliation.

 

Israel's response to any such attack from Iran is likely to be swift and severe. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already stated that Israel is ready to defend itself both defensively and offensively, emphasizing that any harm to Israel will be met with retaliation. This stance suggests that Israel might engage in significant military action against Iran or Iranian interests in the region, possibly targeting Iran’s strategic infrastructure in retaliation.

 

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Bottom Line:

The United States, aware of the escalating tensions and the potential for an attack on Israeli soil, has taken precautionary measures, including restricting personal travel for U.S. government employees and family members within certain parts of Israel. Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, has also visited Israel, indicating the seriousness with which the U.S. is taking the threat. The U.S. preparation reflects concerns about a wider regional escalation and the security of its personnel and interests in the Middle East. American responses could range from diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation to military support for Israel or direct action against Iranian interests if U.S. assets or allies are threatened.

 

The central point here is the heightened state of alert and preparedness among Israel, Iran, and the United States due to escalating tensions following the Israeli airstrike in Damascus. While Iran contemplates its response, the potential for direct conflict looms, with implications for regional stability and the safety of civilian populations and foreign nationals in the affected areas.


 

MIDDLE EAST

 

Israel Says Confrontation With Iran ‘Is Not Over’

The New York Times – April 14, 2024


Summary:

Iran launched a significant missile and drone attack on Israel, marking a pivotal escalation in what has been a clandestine conflict stretching over many years. This direct assault from Iranian territory—considered a historic event—involved hundreds of sophisticated drones and missiles. It represented Iran's first overt military action against Israel following a period of undercover engagements across various domains, including cyber and proxy warfare.

 

Israel's defense systems intercepted nearly all incoming drones and missiles, effectively minimizing the physical impact of the attack. The interception rate was reported to be around 99%, with significant contributions from the Israeli military's advanced Arrow 3 antiballistic missile system and support from the United States, which also intercepted a substantial number of threats. Despite the scale of the attack, the damage was relatively minor, and there were only a few casualties, mostly minor injuries.

 

Israel's initial reaction has been cautious regarding direct retaliatory action, though it has made clear that the confrontation with Iran is not concluded. In the meantime, Israel has targeted Hezbollah positions in Lebanon, likely in response to Hezbollah's involvement in the conflict as an Iranian ally. The U.S. has voiced strong support for Israel, condemning the attacks and reiterating its commitment to defending its interests and allies in the region.

 

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Bottom Line:

This event is the transition from a hidden conflict to open confrontation between Iran and Israel. This escalation signifies a potential shift in the regional power dynamics and poses new challenges for international diplomacy and security, especially considering the involvement of global powers like the United States. This direct conflict could herald a new phase of increased tensions and broader conflict in the Middle East, requiring careful international diplomatic efforts to prevent further escalation. The global community's response, particularly from countries like the U.S., will be crucial in shaping the next steps in this volatile regional scenario.


 

MIDDLE EAST

 

Timeline of Proxy Attacks: Iraq, Syria and Jordan

By Katherine Wells

The Iran Primer - April 1, 2024


Summary:

During the first four months of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, from October 2023 to February 2024, U.S. forces stationed in the Middle East were subjected to over 160 attacks by pro-Iranian militias. These assaults, consisting of drone, rocket, and missile strikes, targeted U.S. positions in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and the Red Sea. A pivotal incident in these hostilities was a drone strike on a U.S. base in Jordan, which resulted in the deaths of three Americans and injuries to 34. This attack marked a significant escalation in the conflict.


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Bottom Line:


 

 








 

MIDDLE EAST

 

Iran’s Order of Chaos

How the Islamic Republic Is Remaking the Middle East

By Suzanne Maloney

Foreign Affairs – April 8, 2024


Summary:

Iran's strategy in the Middle East is centered around leveraging chaos as an opportunity to expand its influence and undermine its adversaries, particularly Israel and the United States. This approach, developed since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, involves the use of proxy militias across the region, exploiting periods of instability to Iran's advantage. The Islamic Republic views chaos and volatility as strategic tools to advance its interests, often stepping in as a patron to groups that can destabilize the region in ways that benefit Tehran's objectives.

 

Iran's proxies include a range of militias across the Middle East, with key groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis in Yemen, and various Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. Iran supports these proxies with money, weapons, training, and in some cases, direct military assistance. This support enables these groups to carry out attacks against Israel, U.S. interests, and other regional adversaries of Iran while allowing Tehran to maintain plausible deniability.

 

Iran seeks chaos for several reasons. Primarily, it provides Iran with opportunities to undermine the influence of the United States and its allies in the region, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. Chaos weakens these states and distracts them from focusing on Iran as a primary threat. Additionally, by supporting groups that challenge the status quo, Iran presents itself as a champion of the oppressed, particularly among Palestinian and Shiite communities, thereby expanding its soft power. Chaos also allows Iran to test the resolve and response of its adversaries and the international community, calibrating its actions accordingly.

 

The United States and Israel, along with other key states, have responded to Iran's provocations and support for proxy groups through a mix of military, diplomatic, and economic measures. This includes targeted airstrikes against Iranian proxies and facilities, sanctions against Iran and its allies, and efforts to bolster the defense capabilities of regional partners. Diplomatic efforts have also been pursued, such as the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states under the Abraham Accords, aimed at isolating Iran and reducing its influence in the region.

 

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Bottom Line:

Iran's strategy in the Middle East, characterized by the cultivation of proxy forces and the exploitation of chaos, aims to expand its influence, undermine its adversaries, and reshape the regional order to its advantage. This approach poses significant challenges to regional stability and the strategic interests of the United States, Israel, and their allies. Counteracting Iran's strategy requires a coordinated and multifaceted response that addresses the root causes of instability in the region, supports capable and legitimate state actors, and directly counters Iranian provocations and support for proxy forces.


 

MIDDLE EAST 

 

Why Russia Doesn't Want War Between Israel and Iran

RAND - Apr 12, 2024

Summary:

Russia has significantly invested in establishing its influence in the Middle East, especially following the U.S. withdrawal from regions like Syria. Over the past decade, Russia has exploited localized conflicts in Syria and Libya to position itself as a regional security guarantor. It has solidified its presence by supporting the Assad regime in Syria and engaging in military and economic activities, such as holding joint naval exercises with Egypt and constructing a nuclear plant there.  More recently, Russia has deepened its partnership with Iran, particularly since the onset of its invasion of Ukraine. This partnership has been beneficial for Russia, especially in terms of military supplies and economic cooperation. Iran has supplied Russia with critical military resources like unmanned aerial systems and ballistic missiles, which are crucial for Russia as it faces international sanctions and needs support in its military endeavors.

 

However, a full-scale war between Israel and Iran would be detrimental to Russian interests for several reasons:

·      Resource Allocation: Russia's current military preoccupations, primarily its engagement in Ukraine, limit its capacity to intervene or manage additional Middle East conflicts effectively.

·      Regional Stability: Russia benefits from controlled instability but not from full-scale wars that can unpredictably alter the balance of power in the Middle East, a region where it has heavily invested in maintaining a strong influence.

·      Economic and Political Risks: An escalated conflict could jeopardize Russia's economic interests in the region and its relationships with other Middle Eastern countries that might be drawn into the conflict or affected by its ramifications.

 

The main drivers pushing towards a potential conflict include retaliatory attacks (like the recent Israeli airstrike on an Iranian embassy in Syria), mutual hostilities, and the strategic alliances each country holds with other global powers. These elements contribute to a heightened state of alert and can easily spiral out of control, leading to broader regional conflicts.

 

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Bottom Line:

While Russia has historically capitalized on regional conflicts to enhance its geopolitical stance, it does not favor an all-out war between Israel and Iran. Such a conflict would not only strain its resources but could also destabilize the careful balance of power Russia has helped to maintain in the Middle East. This scenario would diminish Russian regional influence, counteracting its long-term strategic goals. Therefore, Russia will likely continue advocating for restraint and diplomatic solutions to avoid escalation to full-scale warfare.


 

MIDDLE EAST

‘Serious escalation’: World reacts to Iran’s drone, missile raids on Israel

World leaders express fear the conflict could lead to further escalation in the region, calling for all sides to exercise restraint.

Aljazeera News Agency– April 14, 2024


Summary:

Iran launched a significant attack using drones and missiles targeting Israel. This action is a direct escalation following a previous Israeli airstrike that reportedly destroyed Iran's consulate in Syria. The international community has widely condemned the attack, fearing further escalation in the region.

 

China expressed deep concerns about the escalation resulting from Iran's attack. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for calm and restraint from all relevant parties to prevent further escalation. This position aligns with China's typical diplomatic approach, which often emphasizes de-escalation and dialogue in international conflicts. China highlighted the situation as a spillover from the ongoing conflict in Gaza, indicating that resolving that conflict should be a priority.

 

China has maintained diplomatic relations with both Iran and Israel, balancing its strategic interests in the region. With Iran, China has developed significant economic ties, especially in the energy sector, and has also participated in multilateral talks regarding Iran's nuclear program. With Israel, China engages in substantial trade and technological cooperation. This balanced approach positions China as a potential mediator in regional disputes.

 

Global Reactions

  • Argentina and Brazil expressed solidarity with Israel and concern over the potential spread of conflict.

  • Canada and the United States strongly condemned Iran's actions and reiterated their support for Israel's security.

  • The European Union, the United Kingdom, and France emphasized the attack's unacceptable nature and potential to destabilize regional security.

  • Russia and Saudi Arabia echoed calls for restraint and warned against further escalation.

  • Egypt and Qatar expressed deep concern and called for diplomatic efforts to manage the crisis.

 

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Bottom Line:

China views the missile and drone attack by Iran on Israel as a serious escalation that could destabilize the already tense situation in the Middle East. China's call for restraint and diplomatic engagement reflects its broader foreign policy strategy of promoting stability to safeguard its regional interests, including maintaining its economic ties and political influence. The Chinese reaction is part of a broader international call for de-escalation, highlighting the global concern over the potential for this confrontation to trigger a wider regional conflict.

 

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