What is Iran's endgame?

Tehran seeks to supplant US and Saudi Arabia as dominant power in Middle East while forcing Israel to end Gaza war

Iranian protesters are carrying a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-U.S. and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in Tehran
An Israeli flag is burned during an anti-US and Britain protest outside the British embassy in Tehran on 12 January
(Image credit: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A deadly drone attack on a US military base in Jordan has threatened to ignite the tinderbox of tensions in the Middle East and provoke direct confrontation between the US and Iran. 

Rishi Sunak has urged Iran to "de-escalate" after a missile attack on the Tower 22 outpost killed three US troops and injured 34 others. Joe Biden blamed "radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq" for the "despicable" attack and promised to retaliate.

Iran's Foreign Ministry has denied any involvement, calling such accusations "baseless" and a "conspiracy" by those "interested in dragging the US into a new conflict in the region to intensify the crisis". But the strikes have sparked "calls for a firm response against Iran", said The Wall Street Journal, as Iranian-backed militant groups and proxies across the Middle East known as the axis of resistance have "targeted Americans". 

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Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei said this month that the "resistance must keep its strength up and be ready, not falling for the enemy's tricks, and, God willing, wherever possible, deliver a blow", with the aim of forcing Israel to end its war in Gaza. But American officials believed Tehran recognised that a direct war with the US "would be deeply damaging", said The New York Times, and would rein in its proxies, including powerful militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemeni Houthi rebels. That theory may have been "dashed by the Jordan attack".

What did the commentators say?

Iran knows that outright war with the US would "cost it dearly", said Simon Tisdall in The Guardian. But since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, "an escalating, four-month spiral of violence, principally involving pro-Palestinian, Iran-backed militias, has been inexorably building".

Iran's leaders have expressed their support for Hamas and condemnation of Israel, but Tehran was "content" for its proxies "to lead the military response", said the Financial Times, with strikes against Israel, US forces and commercial shipping in the Red Sea

But in recent weeks, a series of attacks against Iran and senior proxy leaders "appear to have compelled Iran to up the ante", including an Israeli air strike that killed Hamas's deputy political leader, Saleh al-Arourir, in Beirut, and an Islamic State suicide bombing less than 24 hours later that killed almost 100 Iranians (for which Iran initially blamed both the US and Israel).

Iran launched missile attacks on various anti-Iranian terrorist groups in neighbouring Iraq, Syria and – in a dramatic escalation – nuclear-armed Pakistan. "Involving Pakistan and Erbil [northern Iraq] sends a message directly to the Israelis and the Americans," an Iranian official told the FT. "The message is 'don't mess with Iran, and finish the war in Gaza'."

Iran's ultimate aim is to "drive American troops out of their bases in Iraq, Syria and the Gulf", said Tisdall, and replace the US and Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the Middle East – while strengthening Tehran's allegiances with China and Russia. The war in Gaza, and the US's backing of Israel, "afforded an unmissable opportunity to advance that objective".

The "regional instability" created by Iran's proxy forces also enables the regime to "reinforce their hold on power" domestically, said Jawad Iqbal in The Spectator, and "deflect from the growing problems at home". Tehran "demands loyalty" from Iranians by constructing the illusion the country is "under growing threat from a range of sinister forces".

What next?

It is unclear whether the attack in Jordan was "a deliberate escalation by Iran and its local ally, Iraq's Islamic Resistance militia", or "another random, opportunistic drone strike", said Tisdall. But either way, "Biden is under huge pressure to hit back directly at Tehran". And in the run-up to the US election, he "may not be able to resist such pressure". 

The concern, according to Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group, is that "Tehran will turn to another avenue to up the stakes with the US – its nuclear programme". 

A December report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had increased its rate of production of uranium enriched up to 60% purity, close to weapons grade. "I'm afraid Iran's nuclear calculus could change," Vaez told the FT.

Ultimately, Iran's endgame is its own self-preservation, said Sanam Vakil, Middle East programme director at Chatham House. "Iran's number one priority is Iran, and we should never forget that," she said. "Iran will not mobilise its own forces unless it is directly hit."

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