When national security adviser John Bolton declared earlier this month that the U.S. was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, he vowed that American forces are ready to respond to an attack not only from Iran, but from any of its proxies in the region.
Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have also openly vowed a military response against Iran if proxies attack U.S. interests, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been even clearer ― stating that in the eyes of the U.S. government, Iran is directly responsible for the militia groups it supports.
“We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor,” Pompeo told CNN in September of last year. “We will not let Iran get away with using a proxy force to attack an American interest. Iran will be held accountable for those incidents.”
But experts on Iran are warning that treating proxies as official arms of the Iranian government both increases the chance of military escalation and gives these groups outsize power to draw the U.S. into direct conflict with Tehran. A single miscalculation or attack from an Iranian proxy group could spark something much larger and more difficult to de-escalate.
“Each of these groups has its own history, each of these groups has its own relationship with the Islamic Republic,” said Naysan Rafati, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. “You end up with a really broad array of possible triggers.”
You can’t consider all Iranian proxies an extension of the Iranian government. Dina Esfandiary, International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center
Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, it has given military and financial backing to a wide array of groups in the Middle East with the intent of spreading its influence and undermining U.S. power. These organizations are spread across the region and have different degrees of power, from Houthi rebels in Yemen to Shiite militias in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But their links to Tehran vary wildly and many act on their own accord.
“You can’t consider all Iranian proxies an extension of the Iranian government,” said Dina Esfandiary, an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
The Houthis, for example, have openly gone against Tehran’s wishes in pursuit of their own goals, including when they overran Yemen’s capital in 2014. Houthi militants have recently intensified their attacks on U.S. regional partners in Yemen’s civil war and last week carried out strikes on a Saudi-owned oil pipeline. Even though it’s unclear whether Tehran knew about or condoned the attacks, both the Saudi and U.S. response was to put the blame on Iran.
The pipeline attack wasn’t the only provocation to further inflame U.S.-Iranian tensions. An alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates earlier this month was one of the key incidents in the recent escalation between Washington and Tehran. Although the details of the alleged attack are still unclear, the U.S. has blamed Iran. Another tense incident occurred on Monday, when a missile landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone where the U.S. Embassy to Iraq is situated. No group claimed responsibility but Iraqi security officials said the rocket came from an area where some Iranian-linked Shiite militias operate, according to the Wall Street Journal. The incident echoed a similar flare-up last year, when Pompeo threatened action against Iran for failing to stop militia rocket attacks near the U.S. consulate in Basra, Iraq.
The U.S. reaction in each of these cases has largely been to treat Iran and its proxies as one entity. Following the rocket attack on Monday, a State Department official reiterated the Trump administration policy to Reuters that the U.S. would hold Iran responsible for any such attacks from its proxies or those associated with Iranian-backed groups.
This approach has essentially backed the U.S. into a corner ― if another similar attack happens, the U.S. may be compelled to respond to Iranian-backed proxies in a way that is disproportionate to such a group’s role in Iranian-U.S. relations and the region, said Esfandiary. It also creates a situation where militias that could profit or increase their support in the event of a clash with the U.S. have increased cause to stoke conflict.
“If their purpose is to drag the U.S. into confrontation in the Middle East then they have an incentive to do something dangerous and stupid which could eventually prompt military confrontation,” Esfandiary said. “It gives them a lot more power.”
The Trump administration’s strategy of extensively targeting Iran’s proxy network financially has further destabilized the security situation, analysts say. Although the strict sanctions imposed in recent years have successfully disrupted the cash flows between Iran and its allies, leading to groups such as Hezbollah cutting salaries and implementing massive spending cuts, the sanctions have not led Iran to any broader strategic shift or to give up their support for proxies entirely. Instead, some analysts believe that Iran and its proxies are more likely to retaliate if they are pushed into a situation where the only choices are fully capitulating to U.S. demands or a military confrontation.
“As far as the Iranians are concerned, the U.S. policy right now is carrying a big stick and torching the carrot field,” Rafati said.
President Donald Trump has reportedly tried to rein his hawkish senior officials on Iran and shown frustration with Bolton and Pompeo’s longstanding push for intervention. But it’s possible that if he is convinced Iran has attacked the U.S. or its interests ― even by offshoot proxy ― he may be spurred to act.