Opinion: How likely is a US-Iran escalation in the Middle East?

Editor’s Note: Charles Dunne is a former US Foreign Service officer. He is a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

This piece has been updated to reflect news developments.

A total of 21 US military personnel have sustained injuries after coming under attack 13 times by aerial drones and rockets on bases in Iraq and Syria last week, defense officials told CNN on Wednesday. The injuries might be minor, but the statement behind them isn’t: The threat of a broader conflict, possibly involving US forces, is growing almost daily following the gruesome October 7 terrorist attacks on southern Israel by Hamas, the Iranian-supported militant group.

Charles Dunne - Courtesy Charles Dunne
Charles Dunne - Courtesy Charles Dunne

Indeed, US troops in these locations have often been attacked by Iranian proxy forces at times of rising tension, and Washington, which believes Tehran has been “actively facilitating” these latest attacks, is bracing for a surge. Fresh US airstrikes against Iran-backed militia targets in Syria on Thursday show the United States is not backing back down from this fight, and a sharper intensification appears likely. However, the White House has, for the moment, rightly stopped short of concluding that a major escalation is inevitable.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that the US is “deeply concerned about the potential for any significant escalation of these attacks in the days ahead,” and is positioning additional air defense forces, two aircraft carrier strike groups and some 900 additional troops in the region as a deterrent. President Joe Biden himself has issued a starkly simple warning for any country or group that might be looking to stir up more trouble: “Don’t.”

That posture is about right: stern warnings backed by a defensive buildup, which allows the US to make possible strikes against discrete targets if the origins of the attacks can be identified in real time. The US should also make clear it retains the option to hit the facilities of Iran-backed militias responsible in Syria and Iraq, as it did in 2021. While this risks escalation, it might be necessary — and a lack of resolve is also a risk in the face of ongoing attacks.

In important respects, the Middle East of the moment resembles Europe on the eve of World War I, in which entangling alliances and secret commitments pushed a cascade of combatants to tumble together into war after the first shot was fired in Sarajevo.

There is a history here that goes beyond the fact that the US is allied with and supporting Israel in its war on Hamas. Iran and the US have been on the brink of open conflict since early 2020 when the US assassinated the notorious commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, the man widely believed responsible for enabling attacks against American troops throughout the region.

Iran has a long memory, and earlier this year renewed its call for revenge. For months Tehran apparently has been planning a more aggressive strategy aimed at US troops in the region.

Last February, Reuters reported that Iran used earthquake relief flights to Syria as a cover for secret weapons shipments, and The Washington Post reported that documents leaked as part of the Discord trove revealed plans by the IRGC Qods Force to equip and train militias with devastating advanced IEDs.

All this may be part of an effort coordinated among Russia, Iran and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to expel the 900 US troops in Syria, who are there to counter the Islamic State. The 2,500 American troops still in Iraq on an advise-and-assist mission will also present tempting targets.

That means at the very least that Iran is well-positioned to heighten already roiling tensions in the Middle East after spending decades building a network of proxies and terror cells in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere to act as a forward line of defense for a clerical regime that sees itself as surrounded by external threats. Most important — especially in the case of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — these furnish a direct front and capable forces in the armed fight for Israel’s destruction.

But there’s also a deeper question of what exactly Iran did to bring about this crisis in the first place with the October 7 attacks — and what that says about where it goes from here.

In Gaza, Iran has helped transform and expand the capabilities of Hamas (and its smaller cousin, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, also involved in the recent attacks on Israel) almost since the group’s inception in 1987. Tehran has supplied a wide array of rockets, missiles and other weapons, while Israeli intelligence has assessed that it manages a sophisticated and complicated ratline smuggling weaponry from Iran to Yemen to Sudan by sea, to Egypt by truck, through the Sinai courtesy of Bedouin smugglers, and from there into Gaza via Hamas’ extensive network of cross-border tunnels. In addition, Iran has provided Hamas up to $100 million annually, according to a 2021 State Department report.

Given that largess, some Biden opponents have charged that the $6 billion in embargoed oil sales “released” to Iran in exchange for freeing five American hostages in September played a role in financing the Hamas attack. But the funds are held in an account controlled by Qatar and carefully monitored for humanitarian purposes, and none of those funds (now frozen) had been released at the time of the attack.

It’s also important to note that Iran has never been at a loss for funds to support its clients, notwithstanding internationally frozen assets, heavy international sanctions and abiding economic problems. Ironically, such spending is controversial even in Iran itself; revelations concerning the substantial billions Iran spends on foreign adventurism helped fuel anti-government protests in 2018.

There has been much speculation about whether, given these well-documented ties, Iran ordered the Hamas operation in southern Israel. The White House has tentatively concluded that while Tehran has provided material assistance that could facilitate such an operation, it has no information to suggest that Iran did so.

Despite a story in The Wall Street Journal of Hamas sources claiming Iran helped plan the attack, there is no analytical unanimity, and no firm public evidence, verifying this report. Other intelligence reported in the WSJ that Hamas militants recently received some specialized training in Iran hasn’t been linked specifically to the October 7 attacks.

While Iran shares an anti-Israel agenda with Hamas, many experts assess it has never had the ability to control it and doesn’t require prior authorization for its activities. It is reasonable to assume, as the US has said, that Iran was surprised (albeit pleased) with the October 7 operations.

All of which is consistent with the fact that neither Iran nor Hezbollah appear to have committed to more intensive involvement — yet Iran is reportedly fearful of a harsh response if it crosses Israel’s red lines. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s probing attacks in Israel’s north over the past two weeks may be intended as signs of solidarity with Hamas and to keep Israel distracted from Gaza. And while the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen have fired shots at Israel in recent days, they haven’t yet posed a serious threat to the Jewish state.

Still, Iran and its allies have their red lines, too. Iran-backed forces in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen have both threatened American targets if the US intervenes; Iran has warned against Israeli strikes on Iranian soil; and Hezbollah has hinted that any attempt by Israel to eliminate Hamas would be met with a major response.

The situation could tip in a number of directions depending on the smallest actions, and even the domestic considerations, of the parties. For example, the alleged beating-induced coma in Iran of 16-year-old Armita Geravand for refusing to comply with Islamic dress laws earlier this month recalls the dramatic nationwide demonstrations against the morality police last year that authorities were hard pressed to put down. If a distraction is needed, could Iran’s clerical leaders look to a dramatic foreign crisis?

Miscalculations — whether by Iran, Israel, Hezbollah or even the US — could rapidly lead to a multifront regional war with casualties easily numbering in the tens of thousands. None of the major parties involved appears to have a compelling strategy to address the long-term dangers. The key players might benefit from a pause for reflection, before it’s too late.

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