Twenty-five years ago, on June 25, 1996, a huge truck bomb exploded in the Khobar Towers building complex near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, home to 2,000 US military personnel. The bomb killed 19 American airmen and injured more than 500 other American and non-American citizens, most of whom were responsible for enforcing Saddam Hussein’s no-fly zone over Iraq. The US government concluded that Iran orchestrated the bombing, creating a group – Saudi Hezbollah – to carry it out. In addition to increasing the cost of the American presence in the region, the bombing of the Khobar towers embarrassed Iran’s Saudi rival by highlighting its military ties with the United States, ties that put angry Saudi clerics and influential activists like Osama bin Laden, among others.
The Khobar Towers were the worst Iranian terrorist attack on a US facility since the early 1980s, when Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah killed nearly 300 US Marines, diplomats and others in a series of attacks against American installations, ultimately driving out the United States country. After Khobar, the Clinton administration exposed Iranian intelligence agents in many countries, leading them to be expelled and considered military strikes. But Tehran’s use of a Saudi proxy created confusion over who was responsible and helped Iranian leaders pretend they had clean hands. Partly due to a lack of Saudi cooperation, it took more than two years for the United States to conclude that Iran was responsible, and by then the blood had cooled.
In 1997, another complication arose when Mohammad Khatami, a reformist interested in improving ties with the United States, was elected President of Iran. US officials viewed Khatami as a genuine, albeit fragile, reformer and feared that a military strike would strengthen Iranian hard-line supporters and undermine the moderates – a concern that persists to this day.
Tehran would focus on using militant proxies in war zones to gain influence and counter Iran’s enemies – an approach that would prove to be much more successful.
After the Khobar Towers, Iran learned to modulate its violence in ways that were often more deadly but less risky for the mullahs’ regime. The post-9/11 US counterterrorism deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have created a target-rich environment. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring of 2011, Tehran would focus on using militant proxies in war zones to gain influence and counter Iran’s enemies – an approach which would prove to be much more fruitful.
Iran exploited Iraq’s weakness after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, flooding the country with intelligence and paramilitary forces and supporting a range of groups, becoming the country’s most important foreign power. From 2005 to 2011, nearly 200 American soldiers died from a type of deadly explosive device that Iran supplied to Iraqi Shiite militias. Several hundred Americans have also died from Iranian-made rockets. Due to the low-level nature of each attack, however, and the seemingly constant losses inflicted by other enemies in Iraq, including groups linked to Al-Qaeda, Iran’s responsibility rarely made the headlines. .
Proxies are cheap and efficient, an important consideration for Iran, which is a middle-income country with weak conventional forces. In Lebanon, Iran dumped weapons and training into Hezbollah, creating an “Iranian divide” on the border with Israel, as one Israeli analysis puts it. Iran provided tests, designs, and other know-how for Hamas to build its own rockets, using pipes, castor oil, and other materials readily available in Gaza. The rockets that bombarded Israel in the latest skirmish were Iranian designs. These ties allow Tehran to be a player on the Israeli-Palestinian scene, despite its geographic remoteness and Hamas’s reluctance to openly associate with the world’s leading Shiite power at a time of heightened sectarianism in the Middle East.
When civil war erupted in Syria after 2011, Iran feared the fall of the Assad regime, one of its few allies, and sent its own forces, thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and tens of thousands of Shiite recruits from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. fight. More than 500,000 Syrians died, but Assad won, defeating rebels backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries and making Syria another base on the Israeli border for Iranian forces.
Iran has also not completely abandoned more traditional terrorism. In 2011, Iran attempted to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, and in 2012, Lebanese Hezbollah, under Iranian leadership, bombed a tourist bus in Bulgaria, killing five people. Israelis. After the United States killed the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, in 2020, Iran reportedly considered trying to assassinate the American ambassador to South Africa. In 2021, an Iranian cell in Ethiopia unsuccessfully plotted to attack the UAE embassy there.
Iran secretly employs its own forces to supplement its use of proxies. In 2019, Iran used limpet mines to attack Saudi, Norwegian and Emirati tankers in the Persian Gulf. In September of the same year, drones and cruise missiles launched from Iran struck the oil processing facilities of Abqaiq and Khurais, at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, albeit its allies Houthis in Yemen claim the credit.
Across the greater Middle East, Iran’s proxies provide it with a network of forward-deployed military assets, giving it greater influence and a greater deterrent capacity than Tehran had in 1996, when ‘it relied more on traditional terrorism. Planners considering the consequences of a US or Israeli military raid on Iranian nuclear facilities and similar scenarios should consider rocket strikes on Israel from Hezbollah in Lebanon, attacks on a US military outpost in Iraq, a Houthi strike against Saudi infrastructure or a terrorist strike against an American or allied installation far from the Middle East. For most of these threats, the use of proxies allows Iran to claim that it is not responsible, complicating any US response.
Iran has paid a heavy price for its power across the Middle East.
Proxy forces also give Iran influence over regional governments. In Afghanistan, Iran even supplied weapons to its longtime enemy, the Taliban, to ensure its influence should the US-backed regime fall after the withdrawal of US troops.
But Iran has paid a heavy price for its power across the Middle East. Twenty-five years after Khobar, the Iranian economy continues to suffer from sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies in response to the regime’s nuclear program and support for terrorism. Tehran’s support for proxy militant groups has alarmed and alienated regional powers, as well as European states that might otherwise be skeptical of US efforts to isolate Iran. Last year, these factors contributed to the decision of Israel and the United Arab Emirates to sign the Abrahamic Accords and establish diplomatic relations.
The Khobar attack did not drive the United States out of the Middle East. Successive presidents have worried more about the endless instability and risks to US forces there, all exacerbated by Iran, than about a dramatic terrorist attack like that of Khobar. After 25 years, the region remains locked in a moving and obscure conflict, with Iran constantly striving to undermine U.S. allies and expand its influence, while restraining itself from the kind of direct aggression that could unleash a large-scale American response.
-Mr. Byman is a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of “Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism” and, more recently, of “Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad”.
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