But provocative actions by Iran’s proxies in the region are raising the danger of miscalculation and an unintended war, sources say.
The U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran is not currently seeking a direct war with the United States but that it is looking to ratchet up pressure on Israel and the U.S. through its proxies in the region, two congressional aides and a defense official told NBC News.
Iran’s approach, however, raises the risk of miscalculation and an unintended regional conflict, the sources said. Provocative actions by Iran’s partners, including Hamas in Gaza and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, are also designed to shape Israel’s calculations as it prepares for an expected ground operation in Gaza. Tehran’s efforts appear to be a bid to force Israel to limit the scope of the military campaign, the two congressional aides said.
Israel has vowed to “destroy” Hamas following a devastating Oct. 7 attack by the militants across the southern border that caught Israel by surprise and killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians. The Biden administration has said Iran was complicit in the Hamas assault as Tehran has armed, trained and financed the group for decades.
On Thursday, a U.S. Navy ship in the northern Red Sea downed three cruise missiles and several drones launched from Yemen by pro-Iranian Houthi forces. The Pentagon said the missiles and drones might have been headed toward Israel.
A senior Israeli official said, “In my opinion, the Houthi missile attack would not have been executed without Iran’s green light.” On Friday, two rockets were fired at U.S. targets in Baghdad, which a defense official said was consistent with actions by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
At least two drones targeted al-Tanf, a U.S. garrison in southern Syria, on Wednesday. The U.S. military shot down one of them, but the other struck the base, resulting in minor injuries among a small number of U.S. troops, according to the Pentagon.
The U.S. is still investigating who was behind the drone flights, but initial indications suggested Iranian-backed militias launched the drones. The pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria have launched numerous rocket and drone attacks on U.S. forces in recent years.
Despite its relatively modest conventional military power, Iran has long cultivated armed proxies in the region to fend off adversaries, extend its political influence and make its enemies think twice before attacking Iran directly.
Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, told CNBC on Wednesday that it was unlikely Iran would enter directly into the war between Israel and Hamas. But she added that there was a growing danger of an accidental conflict breaking out, especially along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon where Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces have clashed with Israel’s military.
“The risk of miscalculation is very, very high. The risk of one side or the other misinterpreting actions across the northern border and having that escalate is very real,” Flournoy said.
The Office of Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Sunday, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said: “We can’t rule out that Iran would choose to get directly engaged some way.” Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Sullivan added: “We have to prepare for every possible contingency. That’s exactly what the president has done.”