Expert William Wechsler: The United States failed to deter Iran-backed factions (Al Jazeera)

Washington -

Strategic experts in Washington were not surprised by President Joe Biden’s decision to strike 85 targets inside Iraq and Syria at dawn on Saturday, in response to the killing of three American soldiers at the “Burj 22” base in northeastern Jordan a few days ago.

The strikes - which the US administration confirmed were only the beginning - came as a way out for the Biden administration instead of demands for the necessity of directing strikes inside Iran, which could lead to igniting a wider war.

But on the other hand, the strikes were more extensive than any previous action taken by Washington so far, against groups it accuses of destabilizing the region and of receiving funding and arming from Iran.

Washington hopes that these strikes will have an impact in preventing further attacks on the Americans and their bases in the region, or attacks launched by the Houthi group in Yemen against some commercial ships in the southern Red Sea, amid widespread doubts about that.

To shed light on these developments and what they mean for the region and the United States, Al Jazeera Net interviewed William Wechsler, director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington, who is also director of an initiative for regional integration and support for normalization efforts between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Wechsler previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Counterterrorism, and also worked during the administration of former President Bill Clinton as Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for Foreign Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering. He also previously served as Director of Transnational Threats at the National Security Council, and before that was Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

  • Do you think the United States has failed to deter Iranian-backed elements?

I definitely failed. By virtue of what happened, they were not deterred from carrying out these attacks, and if that had been the case, they would not have launched more than 170 such attacks against American forces in recent months.

It has failed because Iran and its proxies have a long-standing pattern of slowly and steadily pushing escalation steps as far as they can go to see if they will be met, and when they encounter no resistance, they go further.

What they are trying to do is establish borders and rules that other parties and the international community consider acceptable de facto, which they will return to when they face no resistance, and they have succeeded in this strategy.

The example I use is that there is one country, and only one country in the entire world, that provides advanced precision weapons to non-state actors, and orders those actors to use those weapons across international borders with the intent to strike civilians.

Only Iran does this, but it does it routinely in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and for a long time the rest of the world accepted it as if it were normal behavior, rather than realizing how unnatural this behavior was at all.

Washington tried to deal with this behavior in other ways, and believed that this escalation could be dealt with and controlled within acceptable limits, and that these attacks may not have been major, as no Americans were being killed.

The situation was very similar to the thinking process that the Israelis applied with Hamas. Many in Israel believed that the Hamas problem was under control as long as Iron Dome was there to protect them, but the attack of last October 7 proved that the thinking was wrong, and that the problem on the ground did not Not managed at all.

Likewise, as long as the attacks on American soldiers were casualty, there were officials in the Biden administration, and the Donald Trump administration before it, who confidently believed that the problem could be managed and dealt with, but when 3 soldiers are killed, you know there is a problem.

  • But the White House said that "the attacks were very successful." How do you think they measured their success or failure so quickly?

There is operational success that comes from what Washington says that the strikes were successful, and that the elements that were targeted were hit correctly, meaning that the level of damage they wanted to do to the enemy’s capabilities was done, and this analysis at the tactical level of military operations is very important to understand, because in Many times, forces try to hit a target but miss it.

There is success at the strategic level related to the extent to which the attacks changed the decision-making process of Iran and its allies in Iraq and Syria, and whether these attacks deterred them, and I do not think anyone can make this judgment yet.

  • The White House confirmed that these attacks are only the beginning. How long do you think they will continue?

It will continue as long as there are risks from Iran and its allies. They must be deterred from attacking the Americans, and there must be a red line, which is that the Americans will not be attacked in this region.

The United States can recall that the last time Iran took this path of escalation, the result was the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, followed by a few years of Iran not engaging in this type of escalatory behavior. If Iran wants to achieve the same result as before, it must continue on the same path.

I do not know whether they will be deterred after one day of launching strikes. What they say does not seem that way, but rather suggests otherwise, but we have to judge by actions and not by words, and it is really up to them to decide how they want to respond.

If they respond with more attacks on the Americans, the strikes will continue for some time. This is similar to what is happening with the Houthis in Yemen. There is a red line drawn by the United States regarding freedom of navigation, and the strikes on infrastructure will continue until they return to their previous behavior.

  • The United States and Iran confirm that they do not want a wider war. Can they prevent this? Or are they moving towards a dangerous confrontation?

They will most likely be able to avoid widening the arena of confrontation towards a war between them, as both parties share the goal of avoiding war unless one of them makes a deliberate decision that pushes in this direction. So far, there is no evidence that Washington or Tehran have a desire to do so, but once attacks and counterattacks begin, incidents can occur, and so we have to be very careful about what the two sides do, to achieve their goal of preventing a broader regional war.

I believe that the recent American attacks are trying to set red lines for Iran and its affiliated militias, and aim for Iran to understand that it must control its agents, and as long as it does not launch attacks on American targets, there is no reason for us to attack inside Iran. So we have to wait a while to see what she will do, but if more American soldiers are killed tomorrow, I think that will change the situation completely.

The Biden administration is very clear, and is trying to deliver its message diplomatically and indirectly through several channels, but it is also sending messages with its attacks, and it is up to Iran to decide what it wants.

On the other hand, the United States has many interests in the Middle East, and there are other reasons unrelated to the recent tensions, which may make it attack Iran directly.

  • Why did the Biden administration choose to launch its attacks using B1 bombers, despite the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers in many military bases in the region?

There are two reasons to use this type of shell:

  • One of them is tactically functional, represented by the B1 bomber’s ability to carry much more weapons than fighter bombers in the region, or compared to drones, or anything else.

  • The other reason is strategic, meaning that Iran and its proxies understand that the United States’ ability to retaliate does not depend only on the powers it possesses in the region.

Iran must not be left to believe that the movement of an aircraft carrier and its accompanying battle group away from its shores - which is what happens on a routine basis - means distracting Washington from launching attacks on Iran, which may suggest it unleashes targeting of Americans. The B1 bomber shows very clearly that members and commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, their agents and partners, will be vulnerable to attacks any day if they continue to threaten the Americans.

  • Will the recent attacks change the nature of the tasks and objectives of the presence of thousands of American soldiers at military bases in the Middle East?

One of the reasons these attacks occurred is Iran’s belief that there is an opportunity in this year 2024 to achieve its long-term goal of expelling the United States from the region. Iranians read American newspapers and realize that there are discussions within the Biden administration about how long they should remain in Syria and Iraq.

As the Iraqi government began formal talks with the United States about the future of our forces there, they may have believed that through escalation and violence, America's departure from the region could be accelerated and encouraged.

But the matter is quite the opposite, and reflects an Iranian misreading of American political reality. The possibility that President Biden will take a decision to withdraw forces from Syria or Iraq has decreased to nearly zero at the present time.

Before the attacks, there was a possibility of withdrawing American forces from Syria or Iraq, and thus, Iran's strategy failed the moment they killed 3 Americans.

The matter is also related to Israel, as the leaders in Tehran saw a weakness represented by the dissatisfaction of many in the Arab and Islamic worlds with the United States because of its alliance with Israel and what it is doing in Gaza.

When reading opinion polls, they can see that many not only have a worse view of the United States, but also a better view of Iran, as they see it as supporting anti-Israel groups such as the Houthis, Hamas, Hezbollah, and those who confront Israel.

On the other hand, Tehran sees the possibility of Donald Trump coming to power at the end of the year, and they know that he has talked for a long time about withdrawing from the Middle East, so to me, it seems that they thought that this context gave them an opportunity to increase violence on all fronts, and it also increases From the opportunity of their agents who have the power to act on their own to make the same decision.

However, this would likely have exactly the opposite effect if their goal was for the United States to leave Iraq and Syria.

  • How do you evaluate Biden's position and political calculations in this election year, and what are the risks to him after making the decision to launch attacks?

Biden is trying to balance several things, the most important of which are:

  • An external balance between the need to restore deterrence and the desire not to slide into a regional war.

  • There is also a domestic balance between many different opinions across the political spectrum. But I would also caution against a lack of understanding of American politics, as foreign policy issues are rarely important issues in a presidential election.

And when it comes to a crisis, it may only matter to small groups of Americans who really care about an issue. The Cubans in Miami really care about our Cuba policy, there are many Americans who really care about Israel, there are many who really care about Palestine, but when you look at foreign policy issues in... Election season deep, foreign policy issues rarely have a major impact at the national level.

  • Do you think that these attacks will affect the course of negotiations between Hamas and Israel under American sponsorship, with the aim of releasing detainees in exchange for a temporary ceasefire and facilitating the entry of aid to the residents of the Gaza Strip?

One of the reasons Hamas carried out its attack on October 7 was to spoil the discussions between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the regional integration that was underway.

I do not think that the attacks in Iraq were related to the negotiation process between Israel and Hamas, but I would like to warn against what I imagine, that they want to spoil it under the inspiration of Tehran. They do not want to conclude a deal, and they do not want Hamas to accept a temporary cessation of fighting and the release of detainees, because they prefer the war to continue. This is truly a terrible and terrifying thing.

Iran's influence stems from its weapons, and a lot of these weapons in Gaza come from Iran, and it's more about creating an environment that helps Hamas. Hamas has literally asked the rest of the resistance forces to join the war, because if the war is only between Hamas and Israel, then Israel will win this war. Because it is the stronger party by far.

But if it is a war between Israel and all the other powers, this is the only way that Hamas can survive, and so the movement wants to see the rest of these battles continue. This is influence.

But the truth is that the Palestinians in Gaza are the ones suffering because of the decisions taken by Hamas and the decisions made in Tehran. Also, the leaders of Hamas and the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are the people who seem to care least about the Palestinian people.

Source: Al Jazeera