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Attacks Heighten Fears of a Wider War for the Middle East and U.S. - The New York Times - 03.01.24

The killing of a top Hamas leader in Lebanon and mysterious twin explosions in Iran heighten fears of a regional war that could draw in the United States.


American, Israeli and Lebanese officials insist that few parties want Israel’s war in Gaza to become a wider conflict that engulfs the Middle East.


But the assassination of a top leader of Hamas in Lebanon on Tuesday, and the deaths of scores of people in mysterious twin explosions in Iran on Wednesday, threatened to bring the Middle East — and the United States — closer to the brink of a regional war, which the Biden administration has tried to stave off since Hamas’s deadly attacks against Israel on Oct. 7.


Just hours after the bombs went off in Iran, the United States and 12 of its allies issued a written warning to another militia group in the region, the Houthis of Yemen, who have been mounting near-daily missile, drone and seaborne attacks on commercial vessels.


So far the United States has held back from retaliating against Houthi bases in Yemen, in large part because it does not want to undermine a fragile truce in Yemen’s civil war.

But now Biden officials are signaling that their patience is running out.


“Let our message now be clear: We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews,” White House officials said in a statement issued on Wednesday, a day after the shipping giant Maersk announced it would pause operations in the Red Sea.


“The Houthis,” the statement continued, “will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”


The warning — also signed by Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands — stopped short of threatening military strikes. Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy sank three Houthi boats, killing all the crew members, when they fired on American helicopters coming to aid a Maersk cargo ship.


On Monday, Iran’s navy announced the deployment of a flotilla of warships to the waterway. On the same day, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian of Iran expressed “gratitude and appreciation” to a Houthi official visiting Tehran for the group’s support for Hamas, the government-run IRNA news agency reported.


A senior Iranian official said dispatching the warships, which join an Iranian spy ship already in the region, was meant to signal that Iran is supporting the Houthis and to raise the stakes. But the official said Iran has no plans for the warships to engage in a confrontation with U.S. naval vessels in the waterway.


President Biden has said he wants to avoid direct military attacks on the Houthis to avoid escalating a Middle East conflict.


“We remain incredibly concerned, as we have been from the outset of this conflict, about the risk of the conflict spreading into other fronts,” Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday.


Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group, has pledged that Tuesday’s killing of Saleh al-Arouri, the Hamas leader, in a Beirut suburb, would not pass without a response. A key ally to Hamas, Hezbollah exercises de facto control over Beirut’s southern suburbs where the explosion occurred and has been engaged in escalating clashes with Israeli forces for months.

 

The circumstances surrounding the blasts at a memorial for Iran’s former general, Qassim Suleimani, in Kerman, Iran, were murkier. While Iran was quick to blame Israel, European and American officials said they doubted that the Israelis conducted the strike: Most of their actions against Iran have been highly targeted, from taking out the chief architect of Iran’s nuclear program to blowing up specific nuclear and missile facilities.


Three senior American officials and one senior European official said on Wednesday that the Islamic State or another terrorist group was a possible perpetrator. While there is some intelligence that points to Islamic State involvement in the attack, the officials cautioned the assessment is preliminary and no final conclusions have been drawn.


“It is entirely possible that one of the Israeli proxy groups let an attack get out of hand,” Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who writes often about Iran, said on Wednesday.


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a statement on Wednesday blaming the attack on the nation’s “malicious and criminal enemies,” but stopped short of naming any group or country. Mr. Khamenei vowed that Iran’s enemies should know that “this tragedy will have a strong response.”


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Attacks Heighten Fears of a Wider War for the Middle East and U.S
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An earlier version of this article misstated the number of countries that jointly issued a written warning to the Houthi militia group against further attacks on ships. The United States was joined by 12 of its allies, not 11.


When we learn of a mistake, we acknowledge it with a correction. If you spot an error, please let us know at nytnews@nytimes.com.Learn more


Eric Schmitt is a national security correspondent for The Times, focusing on U.S. military affairs and counterterrorism issues overseas, topics he has reported on for more than three decades.


Julian E. Barnes covers the U.S. intelligence agencies and international security matters for The Times. He has written about security issues for more than two decades.


Helene Cooper is a Pentagon correspondent. She was previously an editor, diplomatic correspondent and White House correspondent.


David E. Sanger covers the Biden administration and national security. He has been a Times journalist for more than four decades and has written several books on challenges to American national security.


Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York, and Michael Crowley from Washington.


A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 5, 2024, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Fears of Wider War Grow In Middle East, and U.S.. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


President Biden has said he wants to avoid escalating a Middle East conflict. Credit...Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times



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