A failed Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 was the United States’ first and last attack on Iranian soil. At the time, the US Government planned a supposedly surprise military attack to free American hostages stuck in their embassy in Tehran. They used an aircraft carrier, fighter jets, military cargo planes, helicopters, Special Forces, and Marines – but a sandstorm stopped the plan in its tracks. After that, the Americans shunned the idea of waging direct attacks, opting instead for responding from afar and waging proxy revenge attacks.
Four decades after this hiatus, the comeback was as interesting as it was surprising. Of all the warcraft choices available to them, the Americans and Israelis chose drones to target Isfahan’s drone plants, in a clear response to Iran’s supply of drones to Russia in its war on Ukraine.
With the accelerating race for supremacy between the US and China on the one hand and the Russian war in Ukraine on the other, oil and gas are back to the forefront, as are Iran and the Middle East.
Last week’s US-Israeli maneuvers were clearly directed against Iran and involved training to address nuclear threats. The military offensive is more a message than a declaration of war. Iran can easily reconstruct what the attack destroyed. What it cannot do now is stay out of the bloody game being played in Ukraine.
We may not have a role in the Ukraine war or in the attacks on Iran, but they sure have added a new dimension to regional politics. The aspects of the Russian-Western conflict in the Middle East have now stretched beyond Syria. The Russian media is urging Moscow’s government to support Iran and its armament plans, nuclear included.
Yet, for many reasons, it is unlikely the Russian government will take that path. When the Iranians agreed to become Russia’s main supplier of drones in Ukraine, they must have realized that they are marching into another game – and a dangerous one at that, in a bid, I believe, to have leverage over the West and return to negotiations with preferential terms. In short, their indirect involvement in the Ukraine war is a means to an end: the Vienna negotiations. The surprise, there, is that Joe Biden responded by attacking Iran directly instead of targeting its external proxies as usual.
The Russian media retorts with rumors saying that the bombing of Iranian military sites by Washington and its allies seeks to obscure the secret negotiations with Iran. Truth is, the negotiations are no secret – neither those in Vienna, nor those taking place in New York between Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. The attacks aim at coercing Iran to stop supplying arms to Russia in Ukraine. Should Iran insist on continuing to send drones and missiles, the targeting will likely not stop.
The Americans and Israelis can destroy Iran’s system of missile and drone manufacturing. The sites are open and can be easily accessed, unlike its nuclear project, guarded by an arsenal and hidden eight meters below the ground under a 2.5-meter-thick cement cover.
The question lies not in military prowess, but in desire and determination. Will the Americans risk engaging in a war with Iran not even two years after withdrawing from Afghanistan? The US considers the war in Ukraine to be a direct transgression upon its security and against NATO, which it leads. Therefore, Washington seems ready for confrontation with the Tehran regime, and despite not claiming it publicly, perhaps this is the first time the US has shown such readiness through a show of force, increased military presence and maneuvers with Israel, and bombing of military factories in Iran.
This inevitably leads us to a final question: will the targeting of Iran make matters better or worse for us?
The weakening of Iran’s regime is certainly good news for the region, and for countries like Ukraine and Azerbaijan. But we cannot bet on that. Tehran can change the equation and bargain with Washington to halt supplies of weapons to Russian fighters in exchange for reviving the nuclear deal according to its expectations. Here the equation becomes different. The West wants to besiege Russia, not necessarily Iran.
However, Tehran is weakening with time and successive wars. It no longer enjoys a position of power that allows it to impose its terms, what with the growing internal discontent, aging leadership, and persistent economic sanctions facing Tehran.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.