Is the Jordan attack the miscalculation everyone feared could trigger a regional war?

We need to separate three main trends that all have the potential to set off a broader conflict

US President Joe Biden is briefed on the deadly drone attack in Jordan, by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in Washington on Monday. Reuters
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Nearly four months after Hamas’s attacks in Israel, and Israel’s military response in Gaza, all lights are blinking red. The conflict has set off a series of regional crises that have made it increasingly complex to understand and navigate, even for the actors themselves. Just a few days ago, for the first time, US soldiers died as a direct result of an Iran-backed attack since the October attacks.

A regional escalation has already taken place in several theatres, with Iran even recently involving Pakistan. Although neither the US nor Iran want a direct confrontation, climbing out of this gradual repeated escalation has become a challenge in itself.

To understand the crisis, we need to separate three main trends that all have the potential to set off a broader regional conflict.

The first, and perhaps most concerning, dynamic is being played out at the border with Lebanon and Israel. The conflict in Gaza has already set off what can be best described as a low-scale and limited conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

The conflict is low scale when compared to what it could be. Hezbollah is armed with one of the most powerful missile arsenals in the world, and it has built a complex defensive network in southern Lebanon meant to absorb the blow of an Israeli ground incursion, and delay or stop Israeli advances for weeks if not months.

Up until January, Hezbollah and Israeli attacks were confined to a relatively narrow area along the border. Both sides were playing by new “rules of the game” meant to avoid a full-scale conflict. But this changed on January 2 when Israeli strikes killed Saleh Al Arouri, a senior Hamas member, in a Beirut area considered to be a Hezbollah stronghold. Though the group responded in a relatively muted manner, Israel later doubled down and killed two of its commanders.

The acceleration of Iran's enrichment programme also ensures that it would have several bombs, rather than one

This is worrying because a conflict between the two entities is the shortest way to a regional escalation. Hezbollah is Iran’s best and most experienced proxy. It acts as a deterrent against deeper and stronger Israeli attacks not only against Iranian proxies, but also against Iran itself.

This explains why Tehran has been hesitant to fully commit the group: Hezbollah is Iran’s first line of defence. But this also means that, if this deterrent was to fail, all bets would be off. Israel could decide that, if it is already paying the price of a full-scale conflict with Iran’s most potent proxy, it may as well get its money’s worth, and go for the head – Iran.

Then comes the second dynamic: the US-Iran escalation.

Washington and Tehran both entered the fray shortly after October 7. On October 17, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the US of “formulating the Zionist regime’s current policy”, claiming that Israel’s policy was “governed by US policy making” and that the “US must be held responsible for the situation”. A few hours later, attacks by Iranian proxies started raining on US forces in Iraq and Syria, triggering a slow but still dangerous crisis.

To be sure, Iran did pick a response to the Gaza conflict that was probably designed to avoid a broader regional war: by attacking the US rather than Israel, Tehran may have sought to hit back at an actor that has shown restraint – rather than at a country that had become unpredictable due to the depth of the October 7 trauma.

Still, the US-Iran dynamic is increasingly concerning, even before the recent attack in Jordan that led to the death of three US soldiers. One of the most recent attacks, on January 20, was out of the ordinary as Iraqi militias aligned with Iran fired a salvo of ballistic missiles and rockets at the Ain Al Assad air base, which hosts US troops. Several US personnel suffered minor injuries.

The attack was much closer to what Iran had done in response to the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in 2020 (against the same base), than what we had seen in the weeks that preceded this year’s attacks. It was an escalation, and the US received the message, responding with a set of air strikes against an area near Baghdad, and another close to Syria, both known to host Iranian-tied assets. Iraqi militiamen have warned they would respond.

The Iranian response itself may have been partly tied to another regional crisis, this time in the Red Sea and Yemen. There, the Iranian-backed Houthis have continued to fire missiles at maritime shipping lines, prompting a series of joint US-UK attacks.

The crisis could escalate if the Houthis manage to hit a warship, kill US soldiers, or start attacking US bases in the region. There have been calls among Tehran’s allies to emulate the “blockade” the Houthis claim to have imposed on Israel, but in other seas. This could also serve to raise the regional temperature.

This is the context of this week’s fatal attack in north-eastern Jordan, which also wounded more than 30 US soldiers. Some American commentators have called for a more direct response against Iran. The Biden administration is likely to try to avoid a direct conflict with Iran, but political pressure is poised to increase, as we get closer to the US elections. After all, President Joe Biden’s presumptive opponent, Donald Trump, is the president who ordered the most daring US attack against Iran, by killing Suleimani.

Then comes the third dynamic, which has been less publicised, but is no less dangerous: Iran’s nuclear programme.

Since October 7, Iran has consolidated its status as a de facto “nuclear-threshold state”. Iran has been accumulating highly enriched uranium at a higher pace, ensuring that it can produce enough fissile material for a bomb in a matter of weeks.

This is not to say that Iran has crossed the threshold: Tehran has been careful not to do so, understanding that this could lead to a military response by Israel or the US (or both). But by accumulating near-weapons-grade uranium, Iran is building de facto nuclear deterrence by sending the message that it is just one decision away from having the bomb.

The acceleration of its enrichment programme also ensures that, if Iran were to decide to cross the threshold, it would have several bombs, rather than one. Piling upon this trend is Tehran’s refusal to co-operate fully with the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog in charge of monitoring the programme.

The added uncertainty is a factor of concern, as it could convince Iran’s adversaries, including Israel, that a regional confrontation is needed to stop it in its tracks.

This does not mean that a broader escalation is bound to happen. Neither Iran nor the US have shown any real appetite for a more direct confrontation. The cost of a regional war would be so high for the region (and beyond), that a war seems in no one’s interest.

But as the conflict expands and becomes more complex, the risk of miscalculations also becomes increasingly real – and may already have materialised.

Published: January 30, 2024, 2:00 PM