Fears of wider Middle East conflict recede as US and Iran pull back from the brink

Tehran’s proxies scale back attacks on American bases after US air strikes

Iran has made a concerted effort to rein in militias in Iraq and Syria after the United States retaliated with a series of air strikes for the killing of three US Army reservists a month ago.

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

Before then, the US military logged at least 170 attacks against US 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 US 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 US bases in the Middle East as part of a wider battle against Israel, which is fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The US 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 US officials.

“They are scared of direct confrontation with the US, 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 US 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 Hizbullah in Lebanon; the Houthis in Yemen; militias in Iraq, such as Kataib Hizbullah 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 co-ordination runs a spectrum. Tehran has most influence over Hizbullah, 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 January 28th, as Washington vowed a forceful response.

Gen Qassem Soleimani, the high-level Iranian general killed by a US drone strike in 2020, kept the Shia 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 co-ordinating 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.

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 US 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 Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the two Iranians affiliated with the Guard said. A war between Tehran and Washington could also jeopardise the long-term goal of rooting out the United States from the region, he told the group, the two Iranians said.

Two of the larger Iraqi militias, Kataib Hizbullah and Harakat al-Nujaba, at first fiercely resisted Ghaani’s demand that they pause attacks on Americans, arguing that fighting US troops was integral to their ideology and identity, the two Iranians said.

Influential politicians in Iraq, including senior clerics known as the marjaiah who are based in Najaf, a Shia holy city, joined the efforts to persuade the militias to pause attacks. Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani also played a role, telling the commanders of the Iraqi militia and Ghaani that continued attacks on US forces complicated negotiations between Baghdad and Washington for a US troop withdrawal from his country, according to Iranian and Iraqi officials.

The commanders conceded. Kataib Hizbullah announced that it was halting attacks on US bases and that its decisions were independent from Iran.

The outcome of Ghaani’s consultations was a new strategy that called for Iraqi militias to stop all attacks on US bases in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region in the north, and the US Embassy in Baghdad. In Syria, militia groups have been asked to lower the intensity of attacks on US bases to avoid fatalities, according to Iranian officials and US 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 February 2nd to avoid disrupting the pause and stoking more hostilities, according to a defence department official.

Another US 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 favour 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 spokeswoman, 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.

Iran’s overall policy is to keep multiple fronts against Israel boiling through proxies as long as the war in Gaza rages, even if the Tehran-linked militias are avoiding striking US bases.

Hizbullah in Lebanon exchanges almost daily fire with Israel’s military, and the Houthis in Yemen attack ships in the Red Sea and try to block commercial vessels from reaching Israeli ports.

The attacks by Hizbullah and the Houthis will intensify if Israel launches an offensive against Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than a million civilians are trapped, according to the two members of the Guard familiar with Iran’s new strategy. Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas leader, said at a news conference in Iran that “any attack on Rafah would be met with a fierce response from the resistance”.”

US officials acknowledged that they faced a particular challenge with the Houthis. US strategy on the Houthis is to whittle away at the group’s formidable arsenal, prevent weapons transfers from Iran and press for a ceasefire in Gaza.

While a key part of the Washington-Tehran confrontation is on a hiatus, other destabilising dynamics in the region remain active and unpredictable. Iran and Israel are engaged in a 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.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times