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A U.S.–Iran War At Last?

As Israel readies for confrontation with Hezbollah, American war hawks are smacking their lips.

Protests Continue In Iran Despite Crackdowns
Iranian protesters set their scarves on fire while marching down a street on October 1, 2022 in Tehran, Iran. (Getty Images)

Washington hawks may get their war with Iran at last.

The chances are now greater than at any time since October 7 that Israel and Hezbollah will come to blows in a full-on war, and military and regional experts warn it could be uglier and more kinetic than in 2006, when a 34-day conflict killed upwards of 1300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis.


“The escalation is really significant and in my opinion we are really right now at a dangerous moment. [It] can basically move into an all out war at any time—any mistake, any miscalculation by either party can really push the confrontation which so far has been limited to border clashes,” said Randa Slim, who spoke this week to DW News in Germany, noting that Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, part of the so-called “axis of resistance,” were already lining up and pledging military support

The Israeli government has been signaling all over the place that it may launch an operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer—and that Iran won’t be far behind. 

“We are in an existential war on seven fronts,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset Monday. Netanyahu claimed that this war was led by Iran, which is “working in obvious ways to destroy us.”

“At any cost and in any way, we will thwart Iran’s intentions to destroy us,” he said. 

The militant wing of Shi’a Hezbollah, a powerful political bloc in the Lebanese government, is backed by Shi’a Iran. Some say an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, particularly if it poses an existential threat to Hezbollah, would be a “red line” for Iran, and Tehran would have to get involved at some level in order to maintain the credibility of a major security patron. Iran’s resolve to restart a nuclear weapons program would be further hardened. 


This is where the U.S. comes in. As Israel’s primary ally and longtime adversary of Iran, if the Islamic Republic were to lean in—whether directly or by activating the “axis of resistance” militias against U.S. assets and troops in the region—Washington would be compelled to meet the challenge, experts say, and are probably preparing for that scenario today. 

This would, in a perverse way, satiate the long held desires of many in Washington—people like Nikki Haley, John Bolton, H.R. McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), and others who have insisted that the U.S. must “cut off the head” of the problems in the Middle East, including that of Hamas in Gaza. That head is Iran.

“I think it’s very important that we’re crystal-clear to the world that if Hezbollah escalates and goes against Israel, the target (for retaliation) will not just be Beirut; it will be Tehran. I am telling my Senate colleagues that they should be thinking that way,” declared Graham, who said this week that he will be introducing a resolution holding Iran responsible for any all-out attack by Hezbollah.

Major American newspapers are all but goading Israel to push for the very conflagration described above. In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Seth Cropsey, a former Naval officer, wrote that Israel should attack Hezbollah now via Iran, with or without Washington’s backing: “It should take the form of a large-scale air campaign that hits Iranian command nodes and Iranian allies in Syria and Lebanon. The strategic conditions aren’t ideal, but waiting won’t make them any better.”

Meanwhile, the Journal’s editorial board on the same day complained that the U.S. is holding Israel back, pointing to reported comments by CQ Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which he “said the U.S. won’t likely be able to help Israel defend itself against a broader Hezbollah war as well as it helped Israel fight off an Iranian barrage of missiles and drones in April.”

“That’s a calculated red light to Israel—don’t count on U.S. help, do count on Iran’s wrath—but what message is the general sending to Hezbollah? In the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah’s bunker, it probably sounds like: ‘Go ahead. You can get away with more,’” claimed the WSJ.

Experts who spoke to The American Conservative say this is what Israel and its most ardent supporters here in the U.S. want, for the attention to be fixed on Iran.

“Hezbollah is Iran’s most important ally and a Shiite group, and Iran will react very strongly, because otherwise it will lose all credibility. I believe the Biden Administration does not want this war, but if Israel starts it, and Iran reacts strongly, which it will, Iran and the U.S. will be on a collision course,” charged Iran observer Muhammad Sahimi, who teaches at the University of Southern California, in an email with TAC. 

He went further. “Israel has always wanted to start a war with Iran to get the United States sucked into it. This is particularly true since the latest round of war between Israel and the Palestinian people began on October 7, “ he said. “This is of course also what the Iran hawks in the U.S., such as Lindsey Graham and (Sen.) Tom Cotton, want.”

This talk has others very worried, particularly military experts who believe that a war between Hezbollah and Israel, which has been burning through its own arsenal in daily air assault and ground attacks in Gaza for eight months, would look nothing like 2006. Today, the group has an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles, which could overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome without assistance. The “axis of resistance” militias have their own drones and rockets that could be activated instantly.

“Any escalation with Hezbollah would be far more significant than what we've seen with Israel and Hamas, and the U.S. would likely have to step in directly to defend Israel from Hezbollah's robust rocket and missile arsenal,” said Michael DiMino, a former career CIA military analyst and counterterrorism officer. 

“A major war between Hezbollah and Israel has been my greatest fear regarding a plausible scenario that could lead to a regional conflagration since day one of this conflict, and the U.S. and international community should do everything it can to prevent it. It would not benefit Israel, the United States, or global security writ large.”

Right now, for all the bombast and cajoling from the Wall Street Journal and others, the Biden administration seems determined not to let it get to that point. Nevertheless, as Paul Pillar writes Wednesday in Responsible Statecraft, “its peacemaking efforts, however, have only slim prospects for success.” This is mostly because the White House continues to send mixed messages about support for Israel, and does not take seriously that continued operations in Gaza, which have resulted in a self-evident humanitarian nightmare, cannot be removed from the equation. 

“I think the last thing Joe Biden wants is a big war in the Middle East right before the election—especially one that entangles America,” said John Gay, executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, noting that U.S. officials have acknowledged that the order calling off Iranian militia attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria came from Iran’s Supreme Leader. That order could be rescinded at any time. 

“Significant U.S. casualties would create the opposite pressure…. [Biden] wouldn’t want to look weak,” Gay added. “Precedent tells me he’d order strikes on the militias that did it, not Iran itself. But it is also possible that the Israelis will be acting in Syria, Iraq, and even Iran if there’s a big conflict in the region—and that could both reduce the U.S. ability to separate our forces from the conflict and lower the anticipated costs of more extensive U.S. action.”

Despite the comments by Brown suggesting that the U.S. would not likely lend the same kind of assistance as it had in April, deflecting Iranian attacks against Israel in retaliation for the consulate bombing in Syria, other signals indicate the opposite. 

Last week, CNN reported that in talks with U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi got “in person assurances” that “if a full-out war were to break out on Israel’s northern border between Israel and Hezbollah, the Biden administration is fully prepared to back its ally.”

Greg Brew, Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group, tells TAC that “it’s still possible for a collision to be avoided—should a ceasefire emerge in Gaza, it is possible Hezbollah de-escalates and agrees to a settlement that permits Israeli civilians to return to towns near the border. Despite its assurances that it will support Israel, the U.S. is putting most of its energies into finding a diplomatic solution that avoids an escalation.”

Sina Azodi, who teaches at George Washington University, agrees that the last thing the Biden team wants right now is to get dragged into a war with Iran. “In the past (both sides) have been able to communicate (indirectly) through the Omanis and Iran’s Mission to the UN and drawing red lines,” he said.

It will depend on whether the pressure to act decisively on behalf of Israel overwhelms the White House caution there seems to be against a wider war. Certainly there is a tug-and-pull going on, but as Slim and Pillar point out, no one can anticipate what happens if a miscalculation or provocation happens on the Israel–Lebanon border today. 

The U.S. appears to be preparing Arab states for that very moment, insisting that the U.S. would not be able to rein in its Israeli partners—despite the risk of American involvement. In a POLITICO story published Tuesday, an unnamed U.S. official was blunt. “Israel’s gotta do what they gotta do.”