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U.S. Strikes Test Iran’s Will to Escalate

U.S.U.S. Strikes Test Iran’s Will to Escalate

As Iran and the United States assessed the damage done by American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq on Friday, the initiative suddenly shifted to Tehran and its pending decision whether to respond or to take the hit and de-escalate.

The expectation in Washington and among its allies is that the Iranians will choose the latter course, seeing no benefit in getting into a shooting war with a far larger power, with all the risks that implies. But it is not yet clear whether the varied proxy forces that have conducted scores of attacks on American bases and ships — and that rely on Iran for money, arms and intelligence — will conclude that their interests, too, are served by backing off.

The Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group that controls parts of Yemen, have continued to attack ships in the Red Sea despite a series of American strikes, including one on Saturday, meant to deter them.

Friday’s strikes were largely in retaliation for a drone attack by an Iran-backed militia that killed three American soldiers in Jordan on Jan. 28. The United States hit back at that group and several other Iran-backed militias with 85 targeted strikes. In the aftermath, American officials insisted there was no back-channel discussion with Tehran, no quiet agreement that the United States would not strike directly at Iran.

“There’s been no communications with Iran since the attack,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters on a call on Friday night after the retaliatory strikes were completed.

But even without direct conversation, there has been plenty of signaling, in both directions.

President Biden is engaged in a military, diplomatic and election-year gamble that he can first restore some semblance of deterrence in the region, then help orchestrate a “pause” or cease-fire in Gaza to allow for hostage exchanges with Israel and then, in the biggest challenge of all, try to reshape the dynamics of the region.

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