Widening Middle East Conflict: U.S., Iran Should Avoid Direct Clashes

The U.S. military has carried out airstrikes on sites in Iraq and Syria that pro-Iran groups are said to have used to attack U.S. soldiers. The countries concerned are urged to exercise restraint to prevent the further escalation of tensions in the Middle East.

The United States said the attacks were conducted in retaliation for the deaths of three U.S. service members when a U.S. military base in Jordan was hit by a drone attack by pro-Iran militias in late January.

U.S. forces targeted seven bases of pro-Iran militias in Iraq and Syria, attacking such locations as storage facilities for missiles and drones, and command and control centers, with precision munitions. It is said that they also targeted bases of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite Iranian military organization.

Since fighting between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas began in the Palestinian territory of Gaza last October, pro-Iran forces supporting Hamas have repeatedly attacked U.S. military bases in the Middle East.

The Iraqi military has criticized the latest U.S. attacks as a “violation of sovereignty.” This can be said to be a critical situation in which the conflict in Gaza has spilled over into other parts of the Middle East.

U.S. President Joe Biden expressed his intention to continue such attacks to ensure the safety of U.S. forces, but stressed his restrained position, saying, “The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.”

There is growing hardline opinion in the United States that an attack on Iranian soil should not be ruled out in response to the deaths of the U.S. soldiers. Biden perhaps needed to demonstrate his firm stance to the American people before the presidential election in November, in which he is seeking reelection.

However, the military capabilities of the IRGC and pro-Iran militias were not decisively damaged by the airstrikes. An exchange of counterattacks with the United States may continue.

The immediate focus will be on how Iran responds. So far, it has stated that it does not want a direct conflict with the United States. If that is the case, Iran should stop providing arms and dispatching personnel to pro-Iran groups and urge them to cease their attacks on U.S. bases.

Most importantly, the fighting between Israel and Hamas that sparked the latest turmoil in the Middle East must be brought to an end. If a ceasefire is achieved, Iran and pro-Iran forces will have no cause to attack Israel and the United States, and may become isolated.

Ceasefire negotiations have not bridged the gap between Israel, which wants fighting to stop for a limited period of time, and Hamas, which is calling for a permanent ceasefire. The United States, Qatar and other mediating countries should encourage both sides to come to a compromise and lead them to a ceasefire agreement as soon as possible.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 4, 2024)