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The recent Houthi strikes on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea represent an expansion by Iran on the scope of its attacks on American interests in the Middle East. Since the Israeli bombardment of Gaza began on Oct. 17, Iranian-backed Shia groups have attacked American forces in Iraq and Syria 76 times. These strikes injured more than 60 American troops.
The U.S. has responded with four precision airstrikes, mainly targeting empty buildings and ammo bunkers in Syria, some of which killed a small number of militia fighters. Iran considers these buildings and low-level fighters dispensable, which partly explains their deployment in the uncontrolled regions of Syria instead of within Iran's borders.
The disproportionate scale of Iranian attacks to American responses lays bare that Iran, not the U.S., holds deterrence in this power imbalance. Should the U.S. continue to ignore attacks by Iran-aligned groups, a catastrophe may lie ahead. To restore American deterrence, the U.S. must strike targets Iran holds at value: its bases inside Iran.
Iran does not seek war with the U.S. any more than the U.S. invites a direct war with Iran. A full-out war would place the survivability of the regime in Tehran at risk. Instead, Iran hopes to control the dials of pressure against both the U.S. and Israel.
The groups striking American troops in Syria include Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr Organization and Kata'ib Hezbollah -- all formed to advance Iranian interests in the Middle East and all of which receive funding and arms from Iran. Meanwhile, the Houthis are less tightly tethered to Tehran than these groups and often strike independently of Iranian orders. The Houthis are more a partner force than an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran's most potent security organization.
Nonetheless, Tehran can influence the Houthis and enables the group with arms and funding. Houthi forces are incapable of launching coordinated drone strikes against multiple ships at sea, as the group has done, without Iranian resources.
Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, a group that functions as an IRGC branch in Lebanon, ensures that Israel maintains attention and an IDF element focused on its northern border while engaged in what will likely be a monthslong offensive in southern Gaza.
In Iraq and Syria, Iran wants American troops with their heads down, hunched in defensive positions. In the Red Sea, Iran seeks to disrupt commercial shipping and oil flow through key maritime chokepoints to introduce sufficient regional instability to tip the balance of power away from Riyadh and toward Tehran. To do so, the IRGC pushes arms and funding to all these Shia groups. While these groups on occasion act out on their own, Iran can generally restrain or direct these attacks.
With American troops in Iraq and Syria, Iran wants something else as well. Defense officials familiar with Iranian intelligence tell me that Iran believes a strike that kills multiple American service members could incite the U.S. Congress to remove all American troops from those two countries. The Iranian regime may be on to something here: Last March, after a drone strike killed an American contractor and wounded American troops, Republicans in Congress moved unsuccessfully to withdraw the hundreds of American troops remaining in Syria.
Should another strike kill or injure more American troops, another withdrawal proposal may succeed. The thinking in Tehran is that a certain number of American dead may result in a complete American withdrawal, leaving Iran to bolster its influence across both countries and bully the rest of the region. But if the casualty number is low enough, Iran wagers it can avoid all-out conflict with the U.S.
One month ago, the Houthis shot down an American drone operating in international airspace without an American response. Seeing no consequences, the group has now graduated to attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, an escalation that could detonate bubbling tensions in the region. The Houthis could introduce regional or even global instability if merchants, fearing attacks, discontinue the flow of energy and commerce through the Bab-el-Mandeb or the Strait of Hormuz. More than 10% of international commercial transport flows through these chokepoints. More than a quarter of global oil transits the Strait of Hormuz. These waterways are critical energy and commerce arteries, crucial to American interests and global energy and trade.
In dialing the attacks on land and at sea up and down, Iran seeks to stay on the near side of a threshold that would trigger an American response. That threshold is unknown to Tehran and probably to Washington, D.C. The rocket attacks against American bases are meant, in part, to test how far Iran can go without triggering a significant reaction. The danger: In testing the Biden administration, should Iran trip over a red line, both countries could stumble into war.
To prevent a catastrophic miscalculation and defend American troops and interests in the region, the U.S. must go beyond strikes on inconsequential targets in Syria. Deterrence of Iran, or any other state for that matter, is based on perception. For deterrence to work, leaders inside Tehran must perceive that the U.S. has not only the means but also the will to inflict such significant pain that the imposed costs of any further attacks outweigh the benefits. Right now, Tehran does not believe the Biden administration has the will.
Beyond the quartet of American air strikes, the administration has mobilized a pair of aircraft carrier strike groups to the theater. The militia groups' attacks, meanwhile, continue apace, now paired with the attacks at sea.
The messaging from the Pentagon has not helped. According to official statements, the two carrier strike groups were moved to the region to "address risks" and "respond to contingencies." Left unclear is whether these two dozen ships, more than 100 aircraft and thousands of troops are on hand to defend American forces in the region, protect the maritime straits, provide humanitarian relief to Gazans or strike at Iranian targets. In response to the Dec. 3 Houthi attacks on three separate commercial vessels, U.S. Central Command explained, "The United States will consider all appropriate responses." Given the tepid reactions to the 76 strikes on American forces in Iraq and Syria, it's unclear what the administration would consider an appropriate response.
The United States cannot influence Iran's behavior by targeting its surrogate militants. However, the instances where America has imposed direct, consequential losses upon the Islamic Republic have seen success in curbing hostile actions. A notable instance was during the Tanker War in 1988 when, under President Reagan's orders, American ships destroyed more than half of Iran's naval fleet, prompting an end to its belligerence and persuading Khomeini to conclude the protracted conflict with Iraq. A more recent example was the targeted elimination of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, which precipitated a marked decline in Iranian hostilities toward American forces and interests in the Middle East.
To restore deterrence and put a cap on escalation, U.S. forces must strike assets of value to Tehran. For example, a limited, precision strike against IRGC training bases inside Iran would send a message that the administration has moved beyond the back-and-forth exchanges inside Syria. Such a strike against empty IRGC facilities would avoid a broader war and allow room to scale up. An unmistakable public message should follow, clarifying that the carrier strike groups are in the region to climb the escalatory ladder should Iran choose to do so and inflict crushing damage against more significant Iranian targets. Similarly, a strike on IRGC naval assets in the Persian Gulf, followed by a clear public message, would restore deterrence.
Supreme Leader Khamenei is a rational actor. As president and supreme leader, he has held power in the world's most volatile region for four decades. He understands violence and its cost. He must be made to understand precisely how far he can go in provocations without prompting a war between two states looking to avoid one. Washington must be willing to impose significant costs on Iran for its actions
Joe Buccino is a former communications director at U.S. Central Command, and a retired U.S. Army colonel with five deployments to the Middle East during his military career.