Beirut, Iran attacks spark fears of ‘regional war’ for West Asia, US

WASHINGTON: American, Israeli and Lebanese officials insist that few parties want Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip to become a wider conflict that engulfs West Asia. But the assassination of a top Hamas leader in Lebanon on Tuesday, and the deaths of scores of people in mysterious twin explosions in Iran on Wednesday, threatened to bring West Asia – and the US – closer to the brink of a regional war, which the Biden administration has tried to stave off since Hamas’ attacks against Israel on Oct.7.
Just hours after the bombs went off in Iran, the US and 12 of its allies issued a written warning to another militia group in the region, the Houthis of Yemen, who have been mounting near-daily missile, drone and attacks on commercial vessels. So far the US has held back from retaliating against Houthi bases in Yemen, in large part because it does not want to undermine a fragile truce in Yemen’s civil war.
But now Biden officials are signalling that their patience is running out. “Let our message now be clear: We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews,” White House officials said in a statement on Wednesday. “The Houthis,” it continued, “will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.” The warning – also signed by Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands – stopped short of threatening military strikes.
On Monday, Iran’s navy announced the deployment of a flotilla of warships to the waterway. A senior Iranian official said dispatching the warships, which join an Iranian spy ship already in the region, was meant to signal that Iran is supporting the Houthis and to raise the stakes. But the official said Iran has no plans for the warships to engage in a confrontation with US naval vessels.
Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group, has pledged that Tuesday’s killing of Saleh Arouri, the Hamas leader, in a Beirut suburb, would not pass without a response. A key ally to Hamas, Hezbollah exercises de facto control over Beirut’s southern suburbs where the explosion occurred and has been engaged in escalating clashes with Israeli forces for months. The circumstances surrounding the blasts at a memorial for Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani, in Kerman, Iran, were murkier. While Iran was quick to blame Israel, European and American officials said they doubted that the Israelis conducted the strike: Most of their actions against Iran have been highly targeted, from taking out the chief architect of Iran’s nuclear program to blowing up specific nuclear and missile facilities. Three senior American officials and one senior European official said on Wednesday that the Islamic State group or another terrorist group was a possible perpetrator.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a statement on Wednesday blaming the attack on the nation’s “malicious and criminal enemies”, but stopped short of naming any group or country. Two people familiar with Iran’s internal discussions said that the ayatollah had instructed Iranian military commanders to pursue “strategic patience” and avoid getting Iran into a direct military confrontation with the US.
Several American officials said it was too soon to predict whether any kind of wider war would erupt. Israel, the officials said, would not have struck Arouri without some belief that they could do so without escalating the conflict on the Lebanon border. But with the explosions, whatever the cause, coming so quickly after the assassination, there was little doubt that the risk of a spreading conflict was once more front of mind in the US and Europe. “The chances of a regional war in the Middle East go up from 15% to as high as 30%,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former Nato commander. “Still relatively low, but higher than before, and certainly uncomfortably high.”
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