US Military Presence in the Middle East: Deterrence and Retaliation

The United States has recently bolstered its military presence in the Middle East as the Israeli war on Gaza escalated. Bolstering this presence is meant to deter a wider war by sending a message to Hezbollah not to get involved against Israel, which is likely to respond by invading Lebanon as the war in Gaza rages on. Additionally, some of these assets have likely been used to strike pro-Iranian militias in the region that have targeted US military personnel and bases, primarily in Syria and Iraq, in a kind of low-level, reciprocal warfare. Although Washington has warned Tehran to pressure these militias to desist from such attacks, this message has not been heeded. Iran may want the United States to overreact to these militia attacks in order to galvanize public opinion in the Middle East to demand the departure of US troops, as well as to tie the United States more closely to the ongoing Israeli attacks in Gaza that have resulted in the killing of more than 11,000 Palestinians. So far, Washington has not taken the Iranian bait, but the prospects of a wider war are ever present.

Deterring Hezbollah since the Hamas Attack

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, the Biden administration pursued a two-track policy. The first was a full embrace of Israel that involved replenishing its military stocks (with promises of $14 billion in additional military aid), and the second was sending US naval and air assets to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea to deter Hezbollah from joining the war. US strategic planners undoubtedly remember the events of 2006 when Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in which Israel bombed infrastructure targets as far north as Beirut, causing much destruction. The US fears that a two-front war for Israel this time around would not only widen the conflict but would bring further destabilization to Lebanon, a country already mired in economic and political woes, as well as to the region as a whole.

The US fears that a two-front war for Israel this time around would not only widen the conflict but would bring further destabilization to Lebanon.

In October, the Pentagon deployed the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, the largest such carrier in the world, to the Eastern Mediterranean, along with several support ships. The Ford is known to hold 5,000 sailors, 75 aircraft, and an arsenal of missiles that include those capable of downing drones. This deployment was followed by sending the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to the region, which passed through the Suez Canal in early November, and is now stationed in the Red Sea. This carrier also holds 5,000 sailors, 9 squadrons of aircraft, fighter helicopters, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operational capabilities. In addition, in early November, USCENTCOM announced that it had deployed an Ohio-class submarine to the region, which is able to carry 154 Tomahawk missiles. One former US military intelligence official told the media that these missiles “can deliver a lot of firepower very rapidly” and that “no opponent of the US can ignore the threat.” All of these deployments are in addition to US naval and air assets in the Arabian Gulf, which witnessed a bolstering of the US military presence in early August in response to Iranian attacks and provocations against commercial ships in those waters.

Hezbollah’s Reaction

In a widely anticipated and watched speech on November 3, Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah stated that “all options” were on the table and, in a message to Washington, said, “Your fleets in the Mediterranean Sea, these do not scare us, nor have they ever scared us.” Although the speech included a lot of bravado, including the above-referenced quote, it was clearly a disappointment to militants in the region who had hoped it would signal that Hezbollah would soon attack Israel in a major way with its substantial stockpile of missiles (estimated by some analysts at 150,000). In a later speech on November 11, Nasrallah kept the party uncommitted to enter the fray, but emphasized that the decision to go war against Israel will be dictated by developments on the ground. So far, there have been some skirmishes and attacks by both Hezbollah and Israel across the Israeli-Lebanese border in which civilians and soldiers died or were injured, but there has been no major conflagration.

Nasrallah is likely holding back for a number of reasons, some of which are related to Lebanese domestic politics, such as the concern about jeopardizing its position as a dominant political force if Israel were to attack the country in a major war. But it is also likely that the enhanced US military presence nearby is working as a deterrent. US officials have publicly warned pro-Iran proxies not to escalate the situation in the region, and may have passed messages to Hezbollah that US naval aircraft and missiles stationed on the nearby ships would strike its military targets in Lebanon if it were to unleash its missile stocks against Israel. Although Hezbollah may believe it could possibly withstand an Israeli military assault, it is undoubtedly worried about facing the power of the US military.

Striking Pro-Iran Proxies in Syria and Iraq

While deterrence may help deter Hezbollah in Lebanon, the same cannot be said for the pro-Iran proxy forces in Syria and Iraq that have undertaken more than 45 attacks against US personnel and bases in these countries since October 17. So far, these attacks (usually by rockets or drones) on US targets have not led to any US combat deaths, though one US contractor apparently died of a heart attack during one such episode, and there have been some minor injuries to US service members.

President Joe Biden has publicly criticized Iran for the actions of its proxies. During a news conference on October 25, he warned Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that if such attacks continue, “we will respond, and he should be prepared. It has nothing to do with Israel.” The latter comment was made because these proxy forces in Syria and Iraq have attempted to tie their attacks to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and US support for Israel, but the United States clearly wants to separate the two. Indeed, such militias have attacked American targets on numerous occasions prior to October 7, and so their attacks are nothing new (though there was a lull for several months). Yet, the frequency of the attacks has been stepped up in recent weeks.

US officials have also said they do not seek conflict with Iran, but will continue to retaliate as necessary.

US officials have also said they do not seek conflict with Iran, primarily because they do not want to see the Middle East engulfed in a wider war. However, they have also said that they will continue to retaliate as necessary. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III on October 25 stressed that the US will “not tolerate such attacks and will defend itself, its personnel, and its interests.” He also put Iran on notice by saying that Tehran “wants to hide its hand and deny its role in these attacks against our forces. We will not let them.” After the November 8 attacks, the United States upped the ante by targeting an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) facility in eastern Syria. An anonymous US Defense Department official said: “By specifically targeting IRGC-associated facilities, we seek to convey a clear message to Iran that we hold it accountable for the attacks on US forces and we expect Iran to take measures to direct its proxies to stop.” A November 12 American attack also targeted an IRGC training facility in eastern Syria.

The Houthi rebels in Yemen appear to be encouraged to take provocative actions. In October, a US Navy ship intercepted four cruise missiles and more than a dozen drones launched by them toward southern Israel. On November 8, the Pentagon acknowledged  that a US military drone was shot down by the Houthis off the coast of Yemen. Another attack by the Houthis succeeded in reaching the southern Red Sea city of Eilat. It is probable that the deployment of the aircraft carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the Red Sea was in part designed to deter additional Houthi attacks against either Israel or American ships.

Iran’s Motives

To be sure, Tehran clearly wants to take advantage of growing anti-Americanism in the region as a result of the strong American support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza and high Palestinian civilian casualties there to ratchet up pressure on the United States to leave the region. It also probably hopes that the United States will overreact to its proxies’ attacks on US forces by striking areas and causing civilian casualties, thereby tying US tactics with those of Israel and building political pressure within these countries, particularly in Iraq, against a US military presence.

This proxy military campaign has been accompanied by a diplomatic one to put pressure on Iraqi leaders. For example, the day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Baghdad on November 5 to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia` al-Sudani to discuss the Iraqi government’s efforts against the militias striking US bases and to pass a message to Tehran to restrain its proxies, Khamenei told Sudani that the United States was an “accomplice to the Zionist crimes in Gaza.” During a press conference on the same visit, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi stated that US support for humanitarian pauses in Gaza was “absolute lies.” It seems clear that whatever message Sudani was carrying to Iran on behalf of Washington did not bear fruit. Not surprisingly, Raisi took a belligerent stand against Israel and the United States at the November 11 Arab-Islamic summit which condemned the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Tehran clearly wants to take advantage of growing anti-Americanism in the region as a result of the strong American support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

It should be noted that some Iraqi Shia elements, such as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have again called on the 2,500 US troops to leave Iraq. To counter such pressure, Secretary Austin has praised Sudani for reaffirming the Iraqi government’s commitment to protect these troops which are there at the government’s request to help it conduct operations against so-called Islamic State elements.

Given that Beijing has developed close relations with Iran in recent years, in terms of oil imports and in brokering the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, President Biden apparently wants to use this channel to influence the Islamic Republic, especially as the Iraqi channel did not succeed in dissuading it over the militia attacks. Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are to meet on November 15 at an economic conference in San Francisco, and press reports suggest that the US president will use the occasion to ask the Chinese leader to weigh in with Iran on this issue. Whether Xi will oblige with this request remains an open question. He may relish the fact that the United States is being harassed militarily by a lesser power and still does not want to irritate and pressure Iranian leaders.

The US Dilemma Going Forward

That the United States is even considering using China, with whom it has tense relations, as a go-between with Iran suggests how keen and perhaps desperate Washington is to tamp down this low-level proxy conflict with Tehran. Although US military deterrence seems to be working vis-à-vis Hezbollah, it has not prevented Iran from using its other proxies to harass the US military in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq. The dilemma for Washington is that Iran may believe its policy is succeeding at a low cost to itself as long as its proxies are willing to absorb US strikes.

Recent such strikes against IRGC facilities in eastern Syria are a signal that Washington’s patience is wearing thin, but the United States has few good military options. It can escalate by threatening to strike Iran itself if such proxy attacks continue, but that would fly in the face of its declared policy of not wanting a wider war. And if the United States threatens an attack on Iran and does not follow through, it would then look like a paper tiger.

A more practical and less belligerent way for deterrence to work more effectively against Iran and its proxies would be to combine it with a US call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Such a call would not only have the benefit of saving Palestinian civilian lives but would deny Iran and its proxies the opportunity to exploit the conflict for their own purposes. However, a ceasefire is only likely to come about if Biden modifies his position—a tall order thus far—and pressures Israel to accept it, since other outside parties lack the luxury of having any clout with Israel.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

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