A series of attacks in the Middle East this past week are raising alarms
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
From the start of the war between Hamas and Israel on October 7, there have been concerns about a widening conflict in the region, but a series of attacks this past week point to intensifying tensions in several countries. Since Monday, Israeli airstrikes in Syria killed a top Iranian general, a U.S. strike killed an Iranian-backed militia leader in Iraq, and in Iran, bomb blast killed at least 84 people. ISIS took responsibility for that. A senior Hamas leader was killed in Lebanon. Although Israel hasn't claimed responsibility for that, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group on Saturday fired roughly 60 rockets into Israel as a response to that killing. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the Middle East hoping to lower tensions.
Firas Maksad is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Welcome to the program.
FIRAS MAKSAD: Thank you, Ayesha.
RASCOE: Let's start with Lebanon. Hezbollah said Saturday's rockets were just the start of their response. Are they signaling that they're ready to be more deeply drawn into the war between Israel and Hamas?
MAKSAD: There's been a lot of signaling back and forth across that Lebanon-Israel border, some of it through words, others through missiles. But I think what we can deduce is that Hezbollah very much wants to maintain the current status quo and avert an all-out war with Israel. The current status quo suits Hezbollah very well because they are reverting to asymmetric warfare, gray zone warfare, some would say, where they can harass Israel across the border, show their support for Hamas and the Palestinians by forcing Israel to redeploy and refocus hundreds of thousands of troops away from Gaza to that northern border, but nonetheless stop short of an all-out war that might be in Israel's favor.
RASCOE: Is Israel's strategy with Lebanon and Syria, and, by extension, Iran - is that a provocation, or is it a warning?
MAKSAD: The current status quo, while it suits Hezbollah and Iran, as I mentioned, does not suit the Israelis. The Israelis have about 75,000, 80,000 citizens who've vacated the north for fear that Hezbollah, much more capable than Hamas, would do on to them what Hamas did in southern Israel. And they're not willing to come back unless that is settled. So Israel is demanding that Hezbollah pull its forces, at least its elite troops, away from that border, or else it's threatening war.
RASCOE: So let's turn to that attack in Iran. It was carried out on the anniversary of the killing of a top Revolutionary Guard commander, who was killed by the U.S. in Iraq in 2020. Attacks of this magnitude are rare in Iran, right?
MAKSAD: They are, in fact, rare. By some accounts, this is the largest attack in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The ISIS in Afghanistan has taken responsibility for that. What is important to note here, in terms of the current confrontation between Israel and the U.S. on one hand and Iran and Hezbollah on the other, is that even though ISIS did claim that, the Iranians still believe and have publicly blamed Israel for it and believe whoever carried out the attack must be a cutout on behalf of Israel, given the timing of the attack.
RASCOE: So Iranian-backed groups are also active in Iraq, where they've been attacking U.S. installations off and on for years, and the U.S. periodically retaliates. Is there anything to the timing of this U.S. strike, as tensions are so high in the region?
MAKSAD: I think what we're witnessing is a collapse of a detente and sort of unwritten understanding between the U.S. on one hand and Iran on the other, in which Iran essentially was warned and accepted to keep its enrichment of uranium below a certain threshold so that the U.S. is not forced into taking action. I think what we're witnessing, increasingly so, is that the war in Gaza and its reverberations throughout the region is causing that detente to come apart. And so unless there is U.S. diplomacy and regional diplomacy kicks in to try and lower the temperature, there is now an increasing fear that we're going to see various conflicts across the region kind of metastasize into a broader regional war.
RASCOE: With that being the case, you have the U.S. and Israel. They're allies. Does it seem to you that their goals in the region might be diverging?
MAKSAD: Absolutely. What we're seeing is that now the Biden administration needs to think about the domestic ramifications for its almost unequivocal support for Israel. Biden is slipping in the polls in an election year. There's a lot of consternation about that support, given the very significant civilian death toll in Gaza. But also, we must say, at a strategic level, the administration does not want to see a broader regional war that would suck it in - back into the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has a very different calculus. He is looking at an investigation into his handling of the October 7 attack. His political career is on the line, and it seems that he just wants to continue fighting for now and resist talking about the day after.
RASCOE: That's Firas Maksad, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
MAKSAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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