More than 160 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, 37 clashes in the Red Sea with the Houthis — and now five dead U.S. service members. America’s mounting proxy battle with Iran over the past three months is spurring questions about whether the countries are at war.
It’s also raising questions about whether the U.S. can continue to hit back at Iranian-backed militia groups without seeking congressional authorization.
The Biden administration argues it has successfully contained the Israeli war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas to Gaza and that there is not a wider conflict. But the sheer number of attacks on U.S. forces points to tensions spinning out of control.
“It is already a larger conflict. It’s a question of degrees,” said Robert Murrett, a retired Navy vice admiral. But he said the fighting is “not out of control yet.”
“Calling it a war is probably overstating things,” said Murrett, now a professor at Syracuse University. “But the tensions, the hostilities that exist between Iran and [the U.S.] are at the highest level they’ve been for some time.”
The tit-for-tat battles reached a boiling point after a Sunday attack in Jordan, which the U.S. has said likely came from an Iranian-backed militia group in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah. A suicide drone exploded in a housing unit at the Tower 22 base near Iraq and Syria, killing three Army soldiers.
The U.S. also lost two sailors during a covert mission off the coast of Somalia to intercept Iranian missiles bound for the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. While the mission was a success, two sailors died after falling into the rough waters.
The deaths sparked mourning across the U.S. and calls for more action, particularly among Republicans, some of whom urged Biden to strike back inside Iran.
Washington is already deploying significant resources to defend ships in the Red Sea from the Houthis and to carry out airstrikes in Yemen and Iraq, none of which have deterred the militia groups from stopping their attacks.
The latest Houthi attack came Tuesday night, when a cruise missile launched from Yemen into the Red Sea came within a mile of a U.S. destroyer before it was shot down — the closest such an attack has come to an American vessel, CNN reported.
And U.S. forces on Wednesday morning destroyed a Houthi surface-to-air missile that the group was preparing to launch into the waterway, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
Even the Biden administration admits the situation is veering dangerously close to a powder keg moment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday warned that the “incredibly volatile” environment in the Middle East is as dangerous as it’s been in the region “since at least 1973, and arguably even before that.”
President Biden has vowed to respond to the Jordan attacks, but the commander in chief also stressed he was trying to prevent the conflict from escalating.
“I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East,” Biden told reporters Tuesday. “That’s not what I’m looking for.”
When asked if the wider war was already here, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said she was “not discounting that tensions are high in the region by any means.”
“These Iranian-backed groups are targeting our military members with the intention of trying to kill them,” she said at a Monday briefing. “But we don’t seek a war.”
Iran also appears to be trying to pull away from a growing conflict. Iranian officials quickly denied any responsibility for the Jordan attack, claiming that Tehran does not give direct orders to the militia groups it backs.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday Jan. 7, 2024. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP)
Besides the Jordan attack, the fighting has largely been limited to proportional responses and tit-for-tat attacks, analysts say — but they also fear the conflict will soon reach a tipping point.
Sina Azodi, a professional lecturer of international affairs at George Washington University, compared it to World War I, when European countries did not seek a major war but the events spun out of control.
“Space for diplomatic maneuvering is shrinking, and Iran and the U.S. are dangerously on a pathway to a conflict,” he said. “Neither Iranians nor the Americans are interested in having a direct conflict. It is an existential threat for Iran to fight the U.S. It’s also quite costly for the United States to fight Iran directly.”
“Neither side is interested, but my concern is they’re being pushed into that direction without actually wanting a conflict,” Azodi added.
While there has been no direct fighting between American troops and Iranian fighters, the U.S. says Iran is broadly complicit for supporting its proxies. And Iran is being pulled into the conflict more directly as well.
Israel assassinated a high-ranking Iranian official in December in Syria. And an Israeli strike in January killed five Iranian officers, also in Syria.
Iran has not sat idly by during the fighting. Tehran in early January carried out direct strikes on what it said was an Israeli spy base in Iraq.
The Iranian-backed groups have tied their mission against U.S. forces to America’s support for Israel in its devastating war on Hamas. The death toll in Gaza has now topped 26,000 Palestinians, including what Israel says is thousands of Hamas fighters.
Many experts believe a cease-fire is the only way to stop the Middle East fighting for good, but ongoing diplomatic negotiations appear to be at an impasse.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he will not allow for a permanent cease-fire in the war to annihilate Hamas. And Hamas officials issued statements saying they will only return the roughly 130 hostages in Gaza for a lasting cease-fire.
Others aren’t convinced a cease-fire would quell Houthi attacks.
“Based on my analysis and that of my team … even if the Israel-Gaza situation ended today with a complete resolution that was mutually agreeable to all parties involved, the Houthis will continue to attack shipping,” said Ian Ralby, CEO of I.R. Consilium, a company that specializes in maritime law and security and strategy.
Speaking before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday, Ralby said 100 percent of the Houthis’ ballistic missile capabilities could be taken out and the group would still attack shipping lanes.
The pending U.S. attack in retaliation for the deaths in Jordan will likely lead to another round of hostilities. Iran has vowed to respond decisively to any U.S. actions.
But Iran’s response will largely depend on how Biden responds. Paul Eaton, a retired U.S. major general, said Biden could effectively halt most of the fighting with a forceful hit outside of Iran, pointing to the 2020 American strike against Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, which he said sent a “big message.”
“We can make it clear to the Iranians that there’s no future in persisting and that we’re not leaving,” he said. “And we can turn that region into a very lonely place for Iran and their proxies.”
President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then on to Florida for campaign receptions. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
At some point, Biden will have to go to Congress to seek authorization to continue the fighting against the militia groups.
The president has constitutional authority to carry out strikes and take military action in self-defense from attacks on American troops and assets.
The 1973 War Powers Act puts restraints on that authority, requiring the president to seek approval from Congress, which alone has the power to declare war, within 60 days of military action beginning.
The Iranian-backed groups first launched their attacks in late October, but more decisive U.S. retaliatory action started only in the past two months.
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Still, the 60-day limit is more of a loose rule than a fixed one, meaning lawmakers may not press Biden unless the conflict drags on for several more months or longer, said Frank Galgano, a retired U.S. Army soldier and Villanova University professor.
“At some point, theoretically, national command authority exceeds its authority to basically run an undeclared war against the Houthis,” he said. “If this keeps going on for six months or a year, [Biden] is going to have to explain to somebody what he’s doing.”
On Capitol Hill, the strikes on the Houthis in Yemen are already spurring concerns among lawmakers, some of whom have asked the White House to clarify the justification to hit the rebel group.
In the House, 27 lawmakers — on the far left and far right of the political spectrum — joined forces to question the Biden administration’s targeting of the Houthis and accuse him of violating the power of Congress to declare war.
“We urge your administration to seek authorization from Congress before involving the U.S. in another conflict in the Middle East,” the lawmakers wrote last week.
A bipartisan group of senators argued in a letter to Biden that any claim of self-defense was a stretch, as Houthis are mainly targeting foreign ships and commercial shipping, and the U.S. has repeatedly called it an international problem.
The Pentagon said it is working off a United Nations charter article that gives to member nations an “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against” them, at least until the Security Council takes action.
Galgano said anti-piracy laws at the U.N. and in other maritime organizations may be able to justify action against the rebel group, even on land-based targets.
“This represents a form of piracy,” he said. “The Houthis are not interested in robbing ships, unlike the Somali pirates or somebody else. But the idea is to create pressure and economic pain on the West, which is what [the Houthis are] doing at the behest of the Iranians.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), when asked if the White House needs to come to Congress for authorization before responding to attacks, said, “It’s all circumstantial, like it depends on the nature and the timing of the response.”
“The president has an Article 2 authority to defend U.S. forces. He then has a war powers obligation to notify Congress,” he said.
“I think I’m waiting for the response from the administration.”