The US has intelligence that Iranian-backed militia groups are planning to ramp up attacks against US forces in the Middle East, as Iran seeks to capitalize on the backlash in the region to US support for Israel, according to multiple US officials.
The militia groups have already launched multiple drone attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. But the US now has specific intelligence that those same groups could escalate even further as the war between Israel and Hamas continues.
There are “red lights flashing everywhere,” a US official in the region told CNN. Officials said that at this point, Iran appears to be encouraging the groups rather than explicitly directing them.
One official said Iran is providing guidance to the militia groups that they will not be punished – by not getting resupplied with weaponry, for example – if they continue to attack US or Israeli targets.
On Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said there is “a very direct connection between these groups” and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and he said the US is “deeply concerned about the potential of any significant escalation of these attacks in the days ahead.”
A senior defense official echoed that concern on Monday. “We see a prospect for much more significant escalation against US forces and personnel in the near term,” the official said. “And let’s be clear about it. The road leads back to Iran.
Iran funds, arms, equips, and trains militias and proxy forces all across the region. … We are preparing for this escalation, both in terms of defending our forces and being prepared to respond decisively.”
Iran supports a number of proxy militia groups in countries across the region through the IRGC-Quds Force, and Tehran does not always exert perfect command and control over these groups. How willing those groups are to act independently is a “persistent intelligence gap,” noted one source.
But, Kirby said, “we know that Iran is closely monitoring these events and in some cases, actively facilitating attacks and spurring on others who may want to exploit the conflict for their own good,” he said. “Iran’s goal is to maintain some plausible deniability here, but we are not going to allow them to do that.”
Asked by CNN on Monday whether Iran is directing the groups, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “Whether they’re directing them or they’re not, these are militias that they have sponsored and they’re responsible for.”
A senior State Department official separately told CNN that the US and its partners are “all on the same page that sending a clear message to Iran – that it should not seek to take advantage of the situation and groups that are under its control or influence should not seek to take advantage of this either,” and if Tehran does so, “that could have very escalatory and dire consequences.”