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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After US strikes, Iran’s proxies scale back attacks on US bases

One of three coffins containing U.S. Army Reserve soldiers killed in a January drone attack in Jordan is transferred at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 2, 2024. Tehran, wary of igniting open warfare with Washington, has told militia groups it backs to curtail assaults on targets such as military installations, Iranian and American officials say. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Farnaz Fassihi, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes

Iran has made a concerted effort to rein in militias in Iraq and Syria after the United States retaliated with a series of airstrikes for the killing of three U.S. Army reservists this month.

Initially, there were regional concerns that the tit-for-tat violence would lead to an escalation of the Middle East conflict. But since the Feb. 2 U.S. strikes, U.S. officials say, there have been no attacks by Iran-backed militias on U.S. bases in Iraq and only two minor ones in Syria.

Before then, the U.S. military logged at least 170 attacks against U.S. troops in four months, Pentagon officials said.

The relative quiet reflects decisions by both sides and suggests that Iran does have some level of control over the militias.

The Biden administration has made clear that Iran would be held accountable for miscalculations and operations by proxy forces, but it has avoided any direct attack on Iran. The U.S. response “may be having some effect,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said in an interview.

“The question is are the militias attacking or not,” he added, “and at least for now, they are not.”

The lull also marks a sharp turnaround by Iran. Tehran had for months directed its regional proxies in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. bases in the Middle East as part of a wider battle against Israel, which is fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. and Iranian officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

As the proxies’ attacks intensified, culminating in the deaths of three American soldiers, Iranian leaders worried that the level of autonomy provided to the militias was starting to backfire and might drive them into war, according to Iranian and U.S. officials.

“They are scared of direct confrontation with the U.S., they know that if Americans are killed again it would mean war,” said Sina Azodi, a lecturer at George Washington University and an expert on Iran’s national security. “They had to put the brakes on the militia and convince them that a war with the U.S. could harm Tehran first and then by extension the entire axis.”

Iran finances, arms and provides technical support and training for a network of militant groups in the region that it calls the Axis of Resistance.

The groups include Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Houthis in Yemen; militias in Iraq, such as Kataib Hezbollah and Hashd al-Shaabi; Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza; and militias in Syria. While Iran directs an overall strategy to the axis, the level of day-to-day control and coordination runs a spectrum. Tehran has most influence over Hezbollah, with the Syrian and Iraqi militia falling in the middle and the Houthis being the most autonomous.

The Iranian effort to rein in the forces began soon after the killing of the three American soldiers in a drone attack in Jordan on Jan. 28, as Washington vowed a forceful response.

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the high-level Iranian general killed by an American drone strike in 2020, kept the Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria on a tight leash. That was largely because, for most of his tenure, war was raging in both countries, and he commanded the militia to fight Americans and then Islamic State terrorist groups. But when Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani succeeded him, most of those conflicts had settled, and Ghaani assumed a hands-off leadership style, setting only broad directions, according to analysts.

Ghaani, commander in chief of the Quds Forces, the branch of the Revolutionary Guard tasked with overseeing the proxies, has nonetheless been involved in coordinating the strategy toward Israel and the United States for the various militias during the current war in Gaza.

He led a series of emergency meetings in late January in Tehran and Baghdad with strategists, senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and senior commanders of the militia to redraw plans and avert war with the United States, according to two Iranians affiliated with the Guard, one of them a military strategist. Reuters first reported on the general’s visit to Baghdad.

In Baghdad, Ghaani held a long meeting with representatives of all the Shia militant groups who operate under the umbrella of a collective they call Islamic Resistance in Iraq. The collective had been carrying out and then claiming responsibility for dozens of attacks on U.S. bases, and Washington blamed the group for the drone attack that killed the Americans.

Ghaani told them that Iran and the various militia groups had made enough gains in pressuring the United States because President Joe Biden was facing intense criticism for his staunch support of Israel and fissures had emerged between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the two Iranians affiliated with the Guard said. A war between Tehran and Washington could also jeopardize the long-term goal of rooting out the United States from the region, he told the group, the two Iranians said.

The outcome of Ghaani’s consultations was a new strategy that called for Iraqi militias to stop all attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region in the north, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. In Syria, militia groups have been asked to lower the intensity of attacks on U.S. bases to avoid fatalities, according to Iranian officials and U.S. intelligence assessments. But the groups active against Israel in Lebanon and Yemen would continue at pace, the Iranians familiar with the strategy said.

Once the attacks on Americans subsided, the United States withheld striking at least one senior militia leader after Feb. 2 to avoid disrupting the pause and stoking more hostilities, according to a Defense Department official.

Another U.S. official said the Pentagon was prepared to hit more militia targets if necessary but had determined that carrying out more strikes now would be counterproductive.

The military strategist with the Guard said Iran believed a direct war with the United States would work in favor of Israel at a time when world opinion had turned against it because of the heavy toll in civilian deaths and suffering in Gaza. After more than a decade, the strategist said, Iran believes that it is enjoying a surge of popularity among Arabs, who are angry that their own countries’ leaders are not doing enough to support Palestinians.

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokesperson, said last week, “Our assessment is that Iran doesn’t seek a wider regional conflict.”

“But they do support these militia groups that attack our forces,” she added.

While a key part of the Washington-Tehran confrontation is on a hiatus, other destabilizing dynamics in the region remain active and unpredictable. Iran and Israel are engaged in an continuing shadow war, including a recent covert assault by Israel on two main gas pipelines in Iran and strikes on residential compounds linked to Iran in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Iran has not yet openly retaliated against Israel after those attacks.

Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy, said: “Iran has this uncanny ability to walk up right to the line and not cross it.”

But, he added, “It doesn’t feel stable, and it doesn’t feel like we are over the hump, and things could really change at any moment.”

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