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DETERRENCE DEBATE

Top Foreign Affairs lawmakers hopeful Iran, Hezbollah deterred from joining war

‘Once the ground phase begins in Gaza, that's what we'll be watching very closely is how effective it is, how Iran is reacting to this, and whether they will authorize their proxies to light up,’ Rep. Michael McCaul said

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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) leaves the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building following news interviews on Capitol Hill on October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Following a classified briefing on Iran yesterday, the top leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee conveyed measured optimism about U.S. and Israeli deterrence of Iran and Hezbollah, but also warned that the situation is volatile and still developing, and escalation remains a distinct possibility.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he believes that the administration’s deployment of carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf has provided deterrence, and that “the hope” is that Iran and Hezbollah will stay out of the conflict.

“Once the ground phase begins in Gaza, that’s what we’ll be watching very closely, is how effective it is, how Iran is reacting to this and whether they will authorize their proxies to light up,” McCaul told Jewish Insider.

He anticipated that the ground operation could last months and is likely “relatively imminent” given the positioning of Israeli and U.S. forces.

Regarding Iran’s role in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, McCaul said that, “while I believe they’re always complicit with their proxies, whether they instructed this, I think has been called into question by the intelligence that’s been publicly reported.”

Ranking Member Greg Meeks (D-NY) told JI he was not “comfortable” with the situation in the Middle East, but praised the administration’s efforts.

“I would not say that I’m comfortable. I’m saying that we are doing — the administration 24/7 is doing everything that it can to deter,” Meeks said. “Whether it is successful or not in the long run? I can’t, I don’t know. But they are doing and sending and having dialogue to make sure that — to the best of their ability — to deter them from engaging in the fight.”

Unlike McCaul, other Republicans who attended the briefing said they believed that Iran and Hezbollah were not deterred.

“I don’t see any” deterrence coming from the administration, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) told JI, “nor have I heard any consequences that have been communicated to the Iranian regime.” He said that the administration has not given Iran anything to “fear” if it continues to attack U.S. and Israeli personnel through its proxies.

Waltz said that the U.S. needs to crack down further on Iran’s access to funds and added, “I think the world saw deterrence restored when we took out [Gen. Qassem] Soleimani. Do you think the current head of the Quds Force is afraid to travel right now? I don’t think so.”

Rep. Darrell Issa agreed. “I have no confidence in this administration’s willingness [to maintain deterrence],” Issa told JI.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) told JI he expects that Iran, Hezbollah and its proxies are going to continue to “step over the line, one step at a time,” testing the U.S. and Israel’s boundaries and coming “as close to the cliff as possible.”

In that, he continued, there’s a risk of unintended escalation if an attack turns out to be more deadly than intended, prompting a more aggressive Israeli response than anticipated.

“They can miscalculate the kinetic effect of what they do. They can miscalculate Israeli response to their kinetic action. And when you decide to play on the edge of the cliff, you may fall off,” Sherman said. “So there’s certainly a possibility of a two front war. I don’t think Iran wants one, but I think they want the bravado.”

He said he didn’t know, and that it shouldn’t be assumed, that Iran is directly coordinating the actions of its proxies — including a cruise missile attack by the Yemeni Houthis seemingly aimed at Israel last week — but said that the attempted strike was “certainly consistent with [Iran’s] philosophy.”

And, he added, even if Iran is not directly responsible for authorizing its proxies’ attacks, that is “morally irrelevant” because “every day of the week, Hamas says, ‘We want to kill as many Israelis as possible.’ Iran gave them the guns. That’s enough to convict them in any court of law.”

Some Democrats were generally positive about the strength of the current U.S. deterrence.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) told JI that “it’s hard to predict the future,” but highlighted the presence of  the U.S. carrier groups.

“The United States has the most awesome military in the world, and any country that wants to engage in malignant behavior is going to have to understand that the United States continues to stand with Israel,” Lieu said.

Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) told JI that he’s “never confident” but that he “trust[s] that we’re doing everything we can” to deter Iran and Hezbollah. Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) told JI he thinks the “administration is doing everything that they should be doing” and is “sending a strong message.”

Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA) told JI that her “understanding is that Iran certainly doesn’t care if its proxies engage, but does not want to engage directly with us.” She highlighted a need to keep a close watch on Iran, as well as China and Russia, during this war “who are also very interested in the increased destabilization.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who voted against the original Iran nuclear deal, said his views on the deal and efforts to revive it are unchanged.

“My position on the JCPOA is clear,” Schumer said at a Democratic leadership press conference yesterday. “It didn’t have enough to deter Iran from funding terrorism and I still believe that.”

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