The West may now have no option but to attack Iran

Tehran will only accept it has miscalculated if it faces significant costs for its recent acts of aggression

Houthi attacks on commercial shipping and US Navy vessels in the Red Sea threaten the global economy, endangering the vital Suez Canal trade route. As if 14 such attacks in the past month, and against Israel directly, were not enough, Iran has now joined the fray. The Pentagon said on December 23 that an Iranian-launched drone struck an Israeli-affiliated merchant ship in the Indian Ocean.

This marks the first time since October 7 that Washington has directly blamed Iran, even with over 100 attacks on US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iran-dependent Shia militia, on which the White House has fudged in assigning responsibility. Tehran denied the Indian Ocean attack, repeating its mantra that Hamas operates independently in warring against Israel. Nevertheless, India deployed guided-missile destroyers to the region, and seeks more evidence on the vector of the attack.

Just after Christmas, however, Iran committed the classic “Washington gaffe” – i.e., telling the truth accidentally – when the Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly described Hamas’s barbaric assault as “one of the acts of revenge for the assassination of General [Qassem] Soleimani by the US and the Zionists”. Hamas immediately denied the linkage, no more credibly than the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ subsequent effort to walk back its revealing “revenge” declaration.

The critical truth here is that Iran has directly committed an act of war against what it believed was an Israeli target. While hardly comparable to Hamas’s barbarity, Hizbollah and Houthi attacks, or Iran’s own massive arms and intelligence support, Tehran has now crossed the line of armed hostilities. The West’s operating assumption should be to expect more of the same. Iran has, for example, recently threatened shutting down commercial shipping across the Mediterranean. It is Iranian belligerence driving potential escalation, not Western self-defence.

The Biden administration, much of the media, and Iran’s propagandists will probably continue ignoring the reality of who is calling the shots in this conflict. But the evidence is growing inexorably that October 7 was intended to draw Jewish blood to implement Soleimani’s “ring of fire” strategy, with Iran pressing Israel on multiple fronts, directing operations via terrorists and state actors it has armed, trained, and financed.

Iran’s near-term objectives remain opaque. Was Hamas’s brutal surprise attack a one-off gambit, to see if Israel’s government collapsed; to assess Western support for Israel; to block an Israeli-Saudi exchange of full diplomatic relations; or some combination? Was Iran waiting to see if Israel became bogged down militarily in Gaza, and then decide its next step? Or was Hamas simply the first Iran surrogate to launch? Hizbollah has fired rockets and mortars ever since, forcing Israel to evacuate civilians from a two-kilometer-wide strip along the Lebanon border. While Hizbollah has not yet initiated a full-fledged attack, it has husbanded its arsenal, perhaps awaiting the opportune moment.

Both Houthi and Shia militia attacks have been met with only feeble and ineffective Western responses. Neither Hamas, nor Houthis, nor Iraqi militia have yet prompted the US or Israel to retaliate directly against Iran. Obviously, Tehran does not feel pressured enough to restrain its expendable surrogates, proving that the West has not established conditions for deterrence, thereby potentially cooling the conflict down. The White House and its media stenographers repeat endlessly that they do not want the current hostilities to spread, but Biden’s non-strategy, based on hope, will not succeed.

Only if Israel, America, Britain, and others show they possess the resolve and capability to impose significant costs on Iran, as punishment for its aggression, will they persuade the ayatollahs that proceeding further will bring them intolerable pain. Very likely, only direct military force, applied against critical targets inside Iran, will impose such costs, proving to Tehran it has miscalculated not only about Israel, but on President Biden and the West more generally. That is why the evidence of a direct Iranian attack on a commercial ship in the Indian Ocean is potentially so important.

It has been clear for years that overthrowing the mullahs, replacing them with some other form of government that enjoys the support of Iran’s citizenry, is central to decreasing insecurity throughout the Middle East. Arab funding of terrorist actions against Israel is hard to find today, especially as full, open diplomatic relations with Jerusalem continue to expand. If Iran’s line of credit to the likes of Hamas, Hizbollah, the Houthis, and other barbarians disappears, their ability to survive except in remote Afghan encampments will palpably decrease.

That is the outcome Washington and London should seek. Instead of pushing Israel for more “pauses”, “truces”, “ceasefires” or the like, allow Jerusalem to achieve its legitimate objective of eliminating Hamas as a military and political force. That is one sure way to convince the ayatollahs their gambit has failed, and their own end may be near.

This article was first published in The Telegraph on December 28, 2023. Click here to read the original article.


Ambassador John Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. He served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2005-2006. He was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001 to 2005. In the Reagan Administration, he was an Assistant Attorney General.