February 5, 2024 - 7:00am

The inevitable has happened. After an Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI) drone strike killed three US servicemen on 28 January, America struck back at the IRI’s patron, Iran. 

On Saturday, the United States (along with the UK) hit targets linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and its proxy militias in Iraq and Syria. Beyond the obvious, the strikes were interesting in several regards. First, they were heavily telegraphed and done at 5pm local time to give the Iranians a chance to get their people out. They were also wide-ranging, targeting 85 facilities. The message was threefold: US deaths will not go unavenged; we can strike you with power and reach; and finally, we seek no escalation. 

Iran claims 40 people died in the strikes, though this has not been independently verified. The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-backed umbrella organisation of armed groups, claimed the dead included 16 of its members — both fighters and medics. The Iraqi government earlier said civilians were also killed in the strike.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani also got involved. The attacks, he said, represented “another adventurous and strategic mistake by the United States that will result only in increased tension and instability”.

Since the beginning of the current Gaza war following the 7 October attacks, Iranian proxies from Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen have been attacking Israel and other Western targets across the region. On Saturday, Britain joined the United States in a third wave of retaliatory strikes against Tehran’s client groups. This time they were pitted against the Houthi terror group, which has been busy trying to strangle global shipping over the past few months. Reports are that fighter jets and ships were used to hit over 30 targets in ten locations. These included weapons storage facilities, missile systems, launchers and other capabilities, which gives a sense of just how potent Iran’s various proxies are.

More strikes will come. Washington cannot allow Iran’s various tentacles to kill its people without a response – and one that makes it utterly clear that Iran itself will pay a heavy price for murder. Seeking to de-escalate while striking your enemy may seem an unwise strategy, but the truth is that Washington has no choice. If it doesn’t respond, if it lets terror go unanswered, then that terror will only grow. And we cannot allow the Houthis to interrupt international commerce without paying a heavy economic price that we are simply in no position to afford.  

But the more time rolls on, and the more that each hits the other, the greater the chance that escalation might come anyway. It’s not what anybody wants, but then mass wars rarely are. 

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)