The Irish Times view on tension in the Middle East: the risk of a dangerous escalation

Both sides are trying to avoid sparking a regional war, but the situation is volatile

The US retaliation for the drone attack by an Iran-backed militia which killed three US soldiers has been substantial – 85 targets in Iraq and Syria were hit on Friday by the US in air assaults on sites linked to militia and Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards. And on Saturday, with the UK, the US hit 36 Houthi targets in North Yemen in response to attacks on Red Sea shipping.

It indicates an escalation, though the attacks were calibrated, calculated not to tip the conflict into a regional war. There was no discussion of an attack on Iran itself, US officials insist, despite domestic and Israeli political pressure to do so.

Iran’s response to the raids has so far been relatively muted, also seemingly determined not to allow excuses for further escalation. That was, reportedly, the message from the meeting of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council last week and from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: avoid a direct war with the US and distance Iran from the actions of proxies who had killed Americans – but be prepared to hit back if the US struck Iran. That’s the red line, and the US did not cross it.

Khamenei is understood to be closely engaged in Gaza-related discussions and is believed to oppose war with the US because preserving the Islamic regime’s hold on power is the highest priority. War would divert the world’s attention from the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

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So Iran has been engaged in a balancing act, trying to manage the multiple conflicts in which its relatively autonomous proxies are involved without precipitating direct confrontation. After more than 160 attacks by “axis of resistance” Iran-linked militias on US bases in Iraq and Syria and shipping in the Red Sea since October 7th, the recent one by Kata’ib Hizbollah was the first to kill Americans. It has since been ordered by Tehran to stand down.

It is difficult not to conclude that Iran is content to support a simmering, violent but ineffective resistance as long as it remains just that. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Hizbollah in Lebanon, are the biggest in the network of 19 armed groups that Iran has established along Israel’s borders. But while Iran’s fingerprints are clearly identifiable in the growth, training and financing of Hamas, they are not so clear in the planning of October 7th,and it is also not clear that the proxies will take kindly to Tehran’s urgings to “cool it”.

Iran aims to project itself as a major regional player and its opposition to Israel and support for Hamas burnishes a revolutionary veneer that plays well in the Arab world. Its longer term aim remains to drive Americans out of the region but the balancing act between short term and long term imperatives is precarious. For now, it will be hoping that the currently stalled Gaza ceasefire talks resume and take the heat out of the regional clashes.