TSC IntelBrief: Potential for Conflict with Iran Increases
Bottom Line Up Front:
- Both the United States and its key regional ally, Israel, are countering Iran’s regional influence, including through existing or potential military action.
- U.S. commanders in the region assess Iran’s military capabilities as improving, positioning them to threaten U.S. forces, allies, and freedom of navigation.
- Iran will challenge the U.S. and Israel through proxies but try to avoid conventional conflict with either.
- Russia seeks to reduce U.S.-led pressure on Iran, which is an ally in the conflict in Syria but would not come to Iran’s defense in the event of hostilities.
The potential for U.S. or Israeli military conflict with Iran is increasing as the two allies perceive Iran’s regional influence as increasingly threatening and its military capabilities growing. U.S. and Israeli leaders and commanders have set clear ‘red lines’ for Tehran and indicated that they will act to contain Iran’s regional reach. The key potential flashpoint is not limited to Syria, which has evolved into an arena for competition among outside powers. Although most of the outside powers, including the United States, Russia, and Turkey, have negotiated understandings and mechanisms to avoid confrontation, no such understandings exist between Iran and the United States or Israel.
Israel, already facing the heavily armed Iranian proxy Hizbollah across their northern border with Lebanon, has become alarmed at the added threat from the extensive presence of Iran and Iran-backed fighters in Syria. In a February 18 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel ‘will continue to act to prevent Iran from establishing another terror base [in Syria] from which to threaten Israel,’ and he threatened to act against territorial Iran itself to enforce that red line. The Netanyahu threat came a week after a significant Israel-Iran clash inside Syria touched off by an Iranian drone launch from a base there.
U.S. commanders are issuing their own warnings to Iran. In a February 27 statement to Congress, the commander of U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel said that ‘Countering the [Iranian] regime’s malign influence in the region is a key component of [U.S.] efforts to defend allies from military aggression, bolster our partners against coercion, and share responsibilities for the common defense.’ He noted that Iran’s capabilities to threaten strategic chokepoints are growing, and it is supplying its regional proxies with increasingly lethal weapons, such as ballistic missiles. The testimony came one day after Russia, Iran’s key ally in Syria, blocked a U.S.-led effort at the U.N. Security Council to punish Iran for supplying ballistic missiles to its Houthi allies in the Yemen conflict.
The U.S. and Israeli warnings demonstrate that Iran’s regional strategy has the potential to spiral into conflict with either power. But, even though its conventional capabilities are improving, Iran cannot and will not enter into a conventional conflict with capable powers such as Israel or, especially, the United States. Iran will continue to arm, train, and empower proxies and allies, but will stop short of undertaking or authorizing actions that could escalate into war on Iranian soil itself. An all-out battle with either Israel or the U.S. would likely cause Iran significant losses, coming after a significant uprising in which many Iranians challenged the regime’s use of national resources on regional adventures. And, Iranian leaders realize that Russia is a tactical ally in Syria, with a shared interest in thwarting U.S. policy in the region, but that Iran could not count on Russia to assist Iran in any conventional conflict with the United States or Israel
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