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U.S. and Israeli confrontations with Iran-backed militias have increased

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The past few weeks, from Syria and Lebanon to the Red Sea and even into Iraq, there have been confrontations between the United States or Israeli troops and militias backed by Iran.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

They have intensified because of Israel's war against Hamas, as the death toll there in Gaza balloons over 20,000 people. And despite U.S. pressure to ratchet it down, Israeli officials say the war is likely to last, quote, "many months." And this week, things escalated when U.S. troops were injured in Iraq and the U.S. carried out airstrikes on the militia that claimed responsibility.

KHALID: Joining us now from Istanbul to discuss all of this is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morning.

KHALID: Peter, let's step back for a moment and describe the bigger picture here. Iran has backed militias all around the Middle East. Why does it do that?

KENYON: Well, this has been one of Iran's preferred ways of projecting its influence in the region. I mean, you don't see Iranian forces being shipped out in large numbers to conflict areas in the Mideast, but what you do see are Iranian-funded militia groups - in action, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, various militias in Iraq and, to some extent, Hamas. Now, Hamas is, of course, in a war with Israel after Hamas members killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7. Iranian officials like to talk about the Axis of Resistance. They mean groups that are fighting to reduce or, if possible, eliminate the American military presence in the region. And it's an arrangement that lends Tehran influence without it getting directly involved in the fighting.

KHALID: So there have been a lot of incidents lately. There seems like there's almost daily shelling or airstrikes between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanon border. So what is it that specifically occurred in the last few days that has folks concerned about escalation?

KENYON: Well, in addition to the attacks from Hezbollah in the North, Israel just identified three soldiers killed in Gaza, and Palestinian officials said six people were killed in a drone strike in the West Bank. Beyond that, this recent drone attack on a U.S. base in Erbil in northern Iraq critically wounded a U.S. serviceperson. And also recently, Iran says Israel killed one of its senior commanders in Syria. Headlines in Iranian media have been filled with official comments vowing revenge for that.

There's also another factor here. That's the threat to shipping in the Red Sea and beyond. Rockets and missiles have been launched at tankers Iran says are linked to Israel. It led some firms to send their vessels all the way around Africa, rather than the more direct Red Sea route. And it led the U.S. to send warships to the region to quell the rocket fire and deter others from getting involved. That has some companies considering returning to the Red Sea.

KHALID: All right. So are there mechanisms or negotiations of some sort to keep this all from spiraling out of control?

KENYON: There are certainly plenty of calls for talks. So far, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no interest in having negotiations right now. He's been warning that the Israeli military could do to Beirut in Lebanon what it's doing in the Gaza Strip if Hezbollah decides to increase cross-border attacks into Israel.

Probably the main deterrence to escalation now is the worry that things could get out of control. The U.S. already has a couple thousand troops in Syria, some 900 in Iraq, doesn't need to see things heating up. Even Iran, which talks a lot about getting other countries involved in the conflict, hasn't forgotten it's surrounded by Gulf Arab states with ties to the U.S. So all sides have something to lose. No one's entirely in control of events. Each attack brings pressure for a response, and the risk of escalation is very real. Diplomats are looking for some means of preventing that.

KHALID: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thanks so much for your reporting.

KENYON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX LABAND'S "PIETERMARITZBURG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 26, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this audio story incorrectly stated that a U.S. service member was killed at a base in northern Iraq and that the U.S. responded with a strike in Syria that killed an Iranian commander. In fact, no U.S. service member was killed in northern Iraq and it was Israel that Iran claims fired an air strike into Syria, killing an Iranian commander.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.