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ANALYSIS: The logic behind Iranian moves in the Middle East

Tehran prefers to strike directly at weak enemies, while acting against stronger ones through proxies. Is this distinction sustainable?
The effort by the US and its allies to contain and ultimately roll back the gains made by Iran in the region over the last half decade is currently taking shape, and is set to form the central strategic process in the Middle East in the period now opening up.

New sanctions on the export of Iranian oil are due to be implemented from November 4. Israel’s campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria is the most important current file on the table of the defense establishment. The US appears set now to maintain its assets and its allies in Syria as part of the emergent strategy to counter Iran. In Iraq, the contest between Iran-associated forces and those associated with the US is the core dynamic in the country, with the independent power on the ground of the Iran-associated Shia militias the central factor. In Yemen, the battle of attrition between the Iran-supported Ansar Allah (Houthis) and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition is continuing, with limited but significant gains by the latter.Iran’s response is also becoming clear. At the present time, Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities appear to be the preferred instrument for Tehran to express its defiance.

Notably, for the moment at least, Iran appears to be erring on the side of caution in its choice of targets. This phase is unlikely to last, however, assuming the US is serious in its intentions.

In the early hours of Monday, October 1, the Fars News Agency, associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, reported that the IRGC had fired a number of Zulfiqar and Qiyam ballistic missiles at targets east of the Euphrates River in Syria. The strike came in response to an attack on an IRGC parade in Iran’s Arab-majority Khuzestan province on September 22.

According to Fars, the missiles fired were decorated with slogans including “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” and “Death to Al Saud.”

It is noteworthy, however, that the missiles were not directed at any of the aforementioned enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rather, the IRGC targeted the Hajin pocket, a small enclave east of the Euphrates still held by Islamic State. This was in response to a claim of responsibility by ISIS for the September 22 attack. (A somewhat more credible claim was made by the Ahwaziya, or Ahvaz national resistance, an Arab separatist group in Khuzestan.) Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani later tried to frame the attack as a response to American threats, because of the close proximity of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to the area targeted.
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