Fearing escalation, Biden seeks to deter Iran and Hezbollah | ET REALITY


The Biden administration has become increasingly concerned in recent days that Israel’s enemies may try to expand the war with Hamas by opening new fronts, a move that could force the United States to enter the conflict directly with air and naval forces. to defend its closest ally in the region.

The administration has tried to use diplomatic and military means to prevent any expansion. The Pentagon sent a second aircraft carrier to the region over the weekend along with additional ground fighter jets, even as Washington sent indirect messages to Iran through intermediaries in Qatar, Oman and China warning against escalation.

Fears of a second front deepened on Sunday as intense clashes broke out along Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia that controls southern Lebanon, fired missiles at Israel, and Israel responded with artillery fire and airstrikes. A full-blown attack on the north could overwhelm Israel, as most of its forces are focused on a possible ground invasion of Gaza in the south.

“We cannot rule out that Iran chooses to get directly involved in some way,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We have to prepare for all possible contingencies. That is exactly what the president has done. “That is part of what has motivated the president’s movement of these assets, to send that clear message of deterrence to make it clear that this war must not escalate.”

Some experts warned that such a scenario remains frighteningly possible because Israel’s vulnerability was exposed by the Hamas surprise attack that killed more than 1,300 people, including at least 29 Americans. Hezbollah poses a much more serious threat to Israel than Hamas due to its vast arsenal of precision-guided missiles and thousands of experienced, well-trained fighters. Iran and Hezbollah may decide that this is the moment of maximum opportunity to confront a wounded Israel, which is focused on recovering 150 hostages and destroying Hamas as a viable organization in Gaza.

Martin S. Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and special envoy to the Middle East, puts the odds of a broader war at 50-50. “The potential for it to spread not only to Lebanon but beyond Lebanon is very high,” he said in an interview. “That’s why you see the administration so actively engaged in trying to defend against them, which they normally wouldn’t have to do if there hadn’t been such a big blow to Israel’s deterrence.”

An Iranian close to the government said no decision had been made on whether to open a new front against Israel, but added that a meeting would be held Sunday night at a Hezbollah command center in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, to deliberate. .

After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Iran’s proxy militias across the region were put on high alert, as was Tehran’s own military, according to two people familiar with Iran’s military calculations.

Iran itself does not plan to attack Israel if it is not attacked, the people said, but leaders of the so-called resistance axis supported by Tehran have been discussing whether Hezbollah should enter the war. The final decision, they added, may depend on what happens if Israel’s ground forces enter Gaza as expected.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has been on a diplomatic tour of the region to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Qatar, countries aligned or friendly to Iran, according to Iranian state media. He openly showed Iran’s support for Hamas by meeting with its political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, in Doha, Qatar. He also met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut.

After Amir Abdollahian’s three-hour meeting with Haniyeh, a Hamas representative, Khalil al-Hayya, said the two had agreed to create “a broader front against Israel” and discussed how to prevent Israel’s anticipated attack on Gaza. according to IRNA, Iran’s state news agency.

“In my meetings with the leaders of the resistance,” Amir Abdollahian said, “I learned that when the time comes to respond to these crimes, the current map of the occupied territories will be determined and changed.”

In his public statements last week, Biden has repeatedly made clear that he strongly supports Israel and has sought to send a clear message to Iran through military deployments. Last week he ordered the Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, to the eastern Mediterranean along with its escort group. Then on Saturday, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower to join him.

Similarly, the Air Force is sending more fighter jets to the region, doubling the number of F-16, A-10 and F-15 squadrons on the ground. Combined with the four squadrons of F/A-18 aircraft aboard each of the two carriers, the United States will have an air armada of more than 100 attack aircraft, according to military officials.

The Pentagon has also sent a small team of Special Operations forces to Israel to assist with intelligence and planning to help locate and rescue hostages held by Hamas, believed to include some Americans.

Israel has historically resisted the participation of foreign ground troops in operations on its territory, and White House officials have said they are not contemplating any action on the ground by US forces. But if Hezbollah launches a major attack, the United States could come to Israel’s aid by using naval and air units to bomb the militia in Lebanon.

“The move of the two aircraft carriers to the region sends a very strong signal,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, retired commander of U.S. Central Command, said on “Face the Nation.” “There is ample historical evidence that Iran respects the flow of combat forces into the theater of operations. It affects your decision calculus. And just as Iran’s decision-making calculus is affected, so too is Lebanese Hezbollah’s calculus.”

Still, an Iranian close to the government said that American diplomatic messages sent through intermediaries indicated that the United States had no intention of entering a war with Iran and that the warships were intended to provide moral support to Israel. This may suggest a difference in interpretation. U.S. officials said they do not want a war with Iran, but were explicitly sending military forces to deter Tehran with the option of using them if provoked.

Analysts wondered if the message had really gotten through. They said the fact that Biden felt compelled to send a second carrier group suggested that deploying the first did not produce the kind of response from Iran that Washington had hoped or desired.

Other American political leaders issued strong warnings against Tehran on Sunday. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that if Hezbollah launched a major attack on Israel, he would introduce legislation that would authorize U.S. military action alongside Israel “to get Iran out of the oil business.” Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Graham said: “Iran, if you escalate this war, we will come after you.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the prospect of escalation by Hezbollah was real and that direct involvement by Iran would be even more frightening. “This is the nightmare scenario that we’ve always been worried about,” he said on Fox News, adding, “That’s what worries me the most.”

The prospect of renewed military action in the Middle East comes after years in which the United States has tried to disentangle itself from what were called “the forever wars” in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. At the moment, the United States is busy helping Ukraine repel invaders from Russia, although not with American troops. That mission has tested American weapons stores and generated growing opposition on the far right.

With Biden’s request for $24 billion in additional aid to Ukraine stalled by House Republicans, the White House and congressional leaders are discussing a broader security package that would combine money for Ukraine with aid for Israel. It would also include additional assistance for Taiwan and funds for greater protection of the US southwest border.

While all of this could strain American resources, Biden said the United States could afford to help both Israel and Ukraine. “We can take care of both and still maintain our overall international defense,” he said in an interview broadcast on CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday night. “We have the ability to do this and we have the obligation to do this.”

As for his message to Iran and Hezbollah, Biden said it was simple: “No, no, no, no.”

So far, fighting on Israel’s northern border has been limited but alarming. Israeli emergency services said at least one Israeli civilian was killed and three others wounded in Sunday’s attack on the border community of Shtula. Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed in Israel’s counterattack.

In a statement, Hezbollah said its missile attack was in response to the death of a Reuters cameraman, Issam Abdallah, along with two other civilians killed in recent clashes in southern Lebanon. The United Nations said its peacekeeping headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon, was hit by a rocket, but it was not clear from whom. The peacekeepers were not in shelters at the time and no one was injured, authorities said.

After the exchange of fire, the Israeli military said it had designated a 4-kilometer area near the Lebanese border as an “isolation zone.” No one would be allowed to enter the area, and civilians already there should stay near safe rooms in their homes, the military said.

“People are preparing for the worst,” said Shimon Guetta, president of the Ma’ale Yosef regional council, which oversees Shtula. “After what happened in the south, residents are terrified it could be repeated here.”

The report was contributed by Eduardo Wong, Eric Schmitt, Euan Ward and Aaron Boxerman.

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