Iran’s Supreme Leader speaks during a graduation ceremony for armed forces officers at the Imam Ali Academy in Tehran, October 10, 2023

The US message to Iran’s Supreme Leader came in two parts.

From October 17 to October 25, Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq had carried out 16 drone and rocket attacks on bases with US personnel. One contractor died of a heart attack, and 21 troops suffered light injuries.

Last Wednesday, US President Joe Biden sent a note to the Supreme Leader. He summarized, “My warning to the ayatollah was that if they continued to move against those troops, we will respond, and they should be prepared.”

But on Thursday, the militias fired another three volleys at US positions. So that night, US F-16 fighter jets struck a weapons depot and an ammunition store, used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the militias, in northeast Syria near the Iraq border.

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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized:

If attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people….

We continue to urge all state and non-state entities not to take action that would escalate into a broader regional conflict.

The American messages had been delivered loudly and clearly. But will Ayatollah Khamenei, his Revolutionary Guards, and his officials heed them?

The Hamas-Israel Catalyst

The immediate context for the militia attacks was Hamas’s ground assault inside Israel on October 7. Of the more than 1,400 people killed, more than 1,000 were Israeli civilians and foreign nationals.

Sources differed on whether the Revolutionary Guards and/or Iran’s leadership had advance notice of the deadly assault. However, most analysts agree that Tehran provides essential support in funding, weapons, intelligence, and operational and logistical advice to Hamas.

Whether or not they knew Hamas was going to attack, Iranian officials appeared to be taken back by the scale of the mass killing. They tried to contain the fallout with strident denials of any involvement. The Supreme Leader insisted in a public address on October 10, “Those who say that the recent saga is the work of non-Palestinians have miscalculated.”

But if the Iranian regime gave any indication that they did not fully back the killing, then its proclaimed position as the leader of the “Axis of Resistance” would be shaken.

So Tehran stepped up its rhetorical offensive with daily assurances of alliance with Hamas and daily threats against against Israel, the US, and the “West”.

In his October 10 address, Ayatollah Khamenei said, “”We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack.” Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib pledged “a harsh, destructive, mortal and annihilating revenge for the Zionist regime and its advocates”.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told the UN General Assembly on Thursday — after Biden’s message to the Supreme Leader but before the US strikes in Syria — that America “would not be spared from the fire” if Israel continued attacks on Gaza.

There is no evidence that the regime has followed up the rhetoric with planning — for example, through Lebanon’s Hezbollah or the Houthi insurgency in Yemen — for a wider war against Israel or in the region.

However, the Qods Force, the Revolutionary Guards branch for operations outside Iran, supervises as well as funds and equips the militias in Iraq and Syria. So it is almost certain that Iran’s leaders have authorized the more limited response against American personnel and positions.

Did Khamenei Listen?

A clue to the regime’s response to the US message came in the coverage — or non-coverage — of the American strikes by Iranian State media.

For hours, there was silence across the regime outlets. Finally, English-language site Press TV mentioned the US missiles. However, the brief reference came in an article which lauded further attacks on American positions, “Large Blasts Heard Inside US Military Bases in Syria, Iraq”.

The indications are that the regime — having been cautioned by Saudi Arabia as well as the US — does not want a regional war. The Supreme Leader came to power after the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians — including up to 30,000 executed by Iran’s leaders — perished. He pulled back from war in Afghanistan in 1998 after the Taliban killed 10 Iranian diplomats. He shook his fist, including token attacks on bases with American persoonel, but avoided a showdown afte the US assassinated Iran’s leading commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

With Israel now starting a ground offensive into Gaza, accompanying its bombing that has killed more than 8,000 people in the Strip, Tehran can turn its initial defense over Hamas’s mass murders — “this is the work of Palestinians themselves,” Khamenei said — into political offense, calling for the world to unite against the Israelis.

But the regime will not publicly declare its aversion to armed confrontation. On October 15, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian announced, “We have conveyed our message to Israel through its allies that if they do not cease their atrocities in Gaza, Iran cannot simply remain an observer.” Two days later, Khamenei expanded the point: “If the crimes of the Zionist regime continue, Muslims and resistance forces will become impatient, and no one can stop them.”

And so on Sunday, three days after the American strikes, Press TV headlined, “Simultaneous Attacks Hit 3 US Bases in Syria”.

The drone and rocket show of the militias, overseen by the Revolutionary Guards, must go on.

From that show may come the regional war which no one wants. If one of the militia assaults causes significant casualties among US personnel, the always-circling kettle of hawks in Washington — among activists, lobbyists, and legislators — will demand escalation. That could further unsettle a fractured Syria and a perpetually unstable Iraq. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, settling for skirmishes on Israel’s northern border so far, and its Iranian interlocutors could risk wider attacks.

The Biden Administration was at great pains to say that Thursday’s strikes had nothing to do with the Israel-Gaza violence. That, of course, is a facade.

While American tensions with Iran are rooted in the soil of post-2003 Iraq and the Assad leadership’s devastation of Syria from 2011, the Supreme Leader and his allies will seize maximum advantage from deadly Israeli operations in Gaza. Only a halt to those operations will curb the maneuvers of Khamenei and his commanders — including the lobbing of rockets at the “US occupation forces”.