Tiptoeing past Armageddon: U.S. and Iranian forces' dangerous battlefield dance

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sgt. Rick Hurtado/U.S. Marine Corps, Hadi Mizban/AP, AP(2).
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sgt. Rick Hurtado/U.S. Marine Corps, Hadi Mizban/AP, AP(2).

WASHINGTON — On Feb. 1, 2017, exactly 12 days after President Trump’s inauguration, then-national security adviser Mike Flynn strode to the White House lectern to deliver a 101-second statement that excoriated Iran for its “destabilizing behavior across the entire Middle East.” Criticizing the administration of President Barack Obama for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn was blunt. “As of today,” he said, “we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

Almost 16 months later, on May 21, Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, struck an even harsher tone. “We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and we will crush them,” he said. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”

In the war of words, Iran responded in kind. “America is the No. 1 enemy of our nation,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in November. “Any retreat by Iran will make America more blatant and impudent,” he said. “Resistance is the only option.”

But on the ground in Iraq, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen, where thousands of U.S. soldiers are juxtaposed with those of Iran and its proxies, neither side has matched its bellicose rhetoric with any significant military action against the other. The very few military confrontations are the exceptions that prove the rule: Each side seems determined, for its own reasons, to avoid provoking the other. “We’re pretty good at staying out of each other’s way,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at New America and former director for Iraq on the National Security Council.

This situation has led to bizarre contradictions in U.S. policy: In 2007 the U.S. government designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the leader of its Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, as supporters of terrorism. But Soleimani makes frequent trips to Iraq and Syria to negotiate with government leaders in each country and to reinforce the morale of his troops, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the United States’ most elite special operations forces, who apparently have no orders to apprehend him or any of his subordinates. In Iraq, some of his proxy forces drive around in U.S.-made M1 Abrams tanks given to them by the United States’ notional ally, the Iraqi government.

Gen. Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, center, in Tehran, Iran, in 2016. (Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Gen. Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, center, in Tehran, Iran, in 2016. (Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Indeed, for all the Trump administration’s criticism of Obama’s policy toward Iran, say current and former government officials, on the ground very little has changed when it comes to countering what the U.S. government terms Iran’s “malign activity,” which has seen Iran gain leverage in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon through the use of proxy forces. The Trump administration might employ fiery rhetoric against Iran, but its actions are “exactly the opposite,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who split from the regime of Bashar Assad in 2013. Like other observers, including members of the Trump administration, Barabandi has been frustrated by the president’s failure to order actions that match his administration’s words.

Similarly, the IRGC and its proxy militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have made repeated threats against U.S. forces in the Middle East but have only followed them up with lethal action on very rare occasions (and even those are sometimes disputed). It wasn’t always this way. At the height of the Iraq war, while American attention was mostly focused on Sunni insurgents, the IRGC and its proxies killed more than 500 U.S. troops from 2005 to 2011, often using explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, a particularly lethal type of improvised explosive device. In response, U.S. special operators went after the networks that funneled these bombs to the militias, killing numerous IRGC facilitators by using a so-called Xbox device, a reverse-engineered IED designed to leave no telltale traces of U.S. involvement.

But U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, and by the time they returned three years later, the situation had changed. Faced with a marauding Islamic State group that had seized a large swath of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and was now threatening Baghdad, the U.S. military found itself uncomfortably on the same side as the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq against the Sunni extremists. At the same time, the Obama administration was wary of upsetting the ongoing negotiations toward a nuclear deal with Iran by antagonizing Tehran.

U.S. Marines in Iraq fire a howitzer at an ISIS infiltration route, March 18, 2016. (Photo: Cpl. Andre Dakis/U.S. Marine Corps)
U.S. Marines in Iraq fire a howitzer at an ISIS infiltration route, March 18, 2016. (Photo: Cpl. Andre Dakis/U.S. Marine Corps)

The result was what an Obama national security official called “an uneasy truce” on the ground in Iraq and Syria. It has continued until now, according to current and former government officials and other observers, for four main reasons on the American side: a perceived need to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State; a desire to avoid antagonizing Iran in any way that would jeopardize the Iranian nuclear deal; the absence of legal authority to militarily attack Iran and its proxies; and a fear that the Iranians might respond by attacking U.S. forces in Iraq or Syria, prompting a cycle of escalation that could result in a full-scale war with Iran’s sizeable armed forces. From Iran’s perspective, its regional strategy is already succeeding, something that a conflict with the United States would place at risk.

Whether this lull will survive the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement remains to be seen, however.

The Islamic State fight

The Islamic State’s unexpected surge into Iraq in 2014, when it came within 15 miles of Baghdad’s airport, served to focus minds in the White House and the Pentagon. From then on, “the fight against the Islamic State took priority over rolling back Iranian influence in Iraq or even in Syria,” said a former senior defense official. “Escalating with Iran would have undermined our ability to be successful at the counter-ISIL mission in Iraq, in particular, as well as Syria,” said an Obama National Security Council official, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.

The Iranian nuclear deal

At the same time as it was trying to roll back the Islamic State, the Obama administration was engaged in delicate negotiations with Iran that led to the multilateral nuclear deal, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Attaining that deal became such a high priority for some in the Obama administration that they were reluctant to take any action that might have jeopardized it, according to the former senior defense official. “The State Department under John Kerry was so protective of the deal that they were reluctant to push back on Iran in other places,” he said. “The places where Iranian influence was greatest — Syria and Iraq — we weren’t about to take steps to constrain them.”

President Obama speaks during a news conference about the just-concluded Iran nuclear deal on July 15, 2015. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Obama speaks during a news conference about the just-concluded Iran nuclear deal on July 15, 2015. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Others described more of a balancing act to keep the negotiations on track without appeasing Tehran. “Understanding where we were with the JCPOA, no one in the Obama administration wanted a military conflagration with Iran,” said the Obama National Security Council official. However, the former NSC official said, “this whole idea that we held back for fear of rocking the nuclear deal is incredibly overblown.”

But this restraint extended beyond the July 2015 signing of the nuclear deal. It also extended beyond the Iraq-Syria theater to Yemen, where the Quds force, which combines intelligence and special operations functions, was advising and supplying Houthi rebels in their war against the internationally recognized government. It was there that “many” officials thought the U.S government could have taken a stronger line, according to the former senior defense official.

This was particularly true in the fall of 2016, when the Houthis fired missiles at the USS Mason and a logistics vessel called the HSV-2 Swift that had been leased by the United Arab Emirates. “We found it very difficult to get the White House to take these attacks as seriously as they should,” the former senior defense official said. “It really took the intervention of senior Department of Defense officials to impress upon the White House that this was a big deal.” Another former Obama administration official acknowledged “some long conversations” as policymakers tried to balance the risks of letting the Houthis “fire on U.S. ships and get away with it” with the risk of firing back and being seen as escalating “because everyone knows the Houthis are in some ways a proxy force of the Iranians.”

Armed tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2016. (Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP)
Armed tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2016. (Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP)

“There was a desire to be proportionate, which, by the way, is also what international law requires,” said the Obama National Security Council official. “Certainly, there were those who thought it wasn’t worth it.”

Ultimately, another U.S. Navy destroyer launched several Tomahawk cruise missiles at three Houthi radar sites. But no U.S. special operations forces were sent into action against the Houthis, said the former senior defense official, and there is no sign that has happened under Trump. Across Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, however, U.S. special operators were hard at work helping the Saudis in their war with the Iranian-backed Houthis. The New York Times reported in May that about a dozen Special Forces soldiers had deployed to Saudi Arabia in late 2017 to help locate and destroy ballistic missiles with which the Houthis were attacking Saudi cities. But a retired U.S. special operations officer said the effort was larger than just one small team and involved operators from the United States’ most elite special ops units, sometimes called the “tiered” units, helping to prepare their Saudi counterparts. “We’ve got a very great presence in Saudi,” he said. “We’re helping them under the table. The Saudis are sending in their best troops. Our tiered units are working very closely with them in terms of combat prep” before they cross into Yemen.

A still image from a video purportedly showing the launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s King Khaled Airport. (Photo: Houthi Military Media Unit via Reuters)
A still image from a video purportedly showing the launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s King Khaled Airport. (Photo: Houthi Military Media Unit via Reuters)

The law

Even if Trump or Obama wanted to use U.S. forces to attack the Quds force and its proxies in the Middle East, no legal authority exists that would allow that, according to several former government officials. Because the Islamic State evolved from al-Qaida in Iraq, both presidents have claimed that the war against the Islamic State is covered by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed in the days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which permits the U.S. military to use armed force against those responsible for the attacks and any “associated forces.” But it does not cover the Quds force, Hezbollah or any other Shiite militant groups.

“We don’t have an AUMF that allows us to actually do anything militarily to confront Iran or its proxies,” said Matthew Levitt, an expert on Iran’s proxy forces at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Our allies don’t understand that: ‘You’re there, you’re capable but you won’t act for some technical legal reasons?’”

The absence of legal authority meant that the United States could only act against Iran or its proxies in self-defense or to defend its Kurdish allies, said the former senior defense official.

It was that self-defense factor that allowed the strikes on the Houthis’ radar sites, as well as what U.S. sources said were the only U.S. strikes on what some call “the Iran Threat Network” in Iraq or Syria in recent years, at Tanf in eastern Syria. Twice in May 2017 U.S. aircraft struck pro-Assad regime troops, first when a column of vehicles entered an exclusion zone around a small U.S. special ops base at Tanf, and then again when troops from the column fortified a position near the base, according to the Washington Post. The pro-regime troops included Quds force operatives, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and militias from Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group, said Michael Pregent, who spent four years in Iraq for the Defense Intelligence Agency studying Iranian penetration of the Iraqi government. “Hezbollah and the Iranians, they try to test the Americans,” Barabandi said.

Hezbollah and Syrian flags flutter on a military vehicle in Qalamoun, Syria, in 2017. (Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)
Hezbollah and Syrian flags flutter on a military vehicle in Qalamoun, Syria, in 2017. (Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

The U.S. government saw the move as an attempt to secure nearby border crossings, part of Tehran’s effort to secure a so-called “land bridge” connecting Iran with Lebanon through Syria and Iraq. This is something that has concerned the Defense Department since Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war. Under Trump, the small outpost at Tanf “is now quite clearly a hedge against Iran,” said the Obama National Security Council official. The land bridge issue was a particular worry at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which commands U.S. military forces in the Middle East. “CENTCOM was constantly coming in and saying, ‘We want to make sure that we can prevent a land bridge through Iraq all the way into Syria from Iran,’” said another Obama administration official.

The softly-softly approach toward Iran frustrated some officials at Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive headquarters that runs the United States’ most sensitive special ops missions, according to current and former government officials.

The military still seethed over the hundreds of American casualties the Quds force had inflicted at the height of the Iraq war, according to several former officials. “I know lots of guys who are very bitter, going back to the early 2000s,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Quantock, who finished his career in 2017 as Central Command’s director of intelligence. “The first thing out of their mouths is, ‘The blood of American soldiers is on these guys’ hands.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I got that, and I am empathetic with that, absolutely. But the reality is this is now a different time, and in this particular theater, they are a friend of a friend.’”

Quantock said he had seen no media reports that U.S. special operations had been conducting “lethal” missions against Iran and its proxies. “There’s a lot of operators who would love to do that,” he said, but it would require a presidential finding, “and frankly I would be surprised if that was actually occurring.”

Fear of Iranian response

Another reason that U.S. policymakers have been reluctant to approve missions against the Quds force and its proxies is fear of what Iran would do in response. “There are times when people will suggest a very reasoned, very limited action that frankly won’t really make Hezbollah raise much of an eyebrow, and you’ll have someone in the room scream bloody hell, so there can be a tremendous, tremendous overreaction,” Levitt said.

“For years there’s been an exaggerated fear of an Iranian response to anything we do,” said a former Trump administration official. “The premise has been that if we were to sanction bank accounts, arrest individuals, or by chance kill actual Iranians as collateral damage in Yemen or Syria, that Iran would respond by killing or kidnapping Americans in Iraq or somewhere else, or that we could start a war with Iran. So regardless of the behavior they were involved in, they were given a pass.”

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, right, in Iraq. (Photo via Twitter)
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, right, in Iraq. (Photo via Twitter)

However, not all such fears are unfounded, according to Levitt. “Iran has a very long history of carrying out retribution attacks or attacks to put pressure on countries for the release of jailed comrades, and so on,” he said.

There are roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria, figures that are dwarfed by the number of Shiite militia members in Iraq and Syria. The average estimate of Iranian proxy forces in Syria is 70,000, and the lowest is 30,000, according to Barabandi. U.S. intelligence finds keeping track of these groups “very, very difficult,” said Quantock. “Our ability in terms of looking into that country and to discern all the various groups is not great.”

In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Shiite militias have thoroughly penetrated Iraq’s regular security forces, according to Pregent, the former DIA analyst. There “was always kind of a real concern for the safety of our own forces there,” said an Obama administration National Security Council official. That concern was well placed, according to Pregent. “Our guys are outnumbered a hundred to one,” he said. “If you go after these militias, the militias will be able to hit you very easily because they are with you.”

“They are surrounded by Shia militias, and they are sitting ducks,” agreed Entifadh Qanbar, a former member of the Iraqi air force who now lives in the United States and has long been involved in Iraqi politics. “Washington realizes that. They know that they could be killed at any minute.”

Iran presents a particular challenge for U.S. policymakers, according to Levitt. “It’s difficult to deal with an adversary that is very calculating, very rational but willing to assume risk, very aggressive,” he said.

Iran also enjoys “profound” advantages when operating in the Middle East, according to a former Trump administration official. These include its proximity to the main battlefields and its “deep knowledge of local actors, customs and language,” he said. “But most importantly, their ideological commitment and perception of strategic interest keeps them focused on achieving their objectives. All of these things are absent on the American side. We have larger resources, better tradecraft [espionage methods] and high-end technology, but that pales in comparison to the advantages of the Iranians on this terrain.” In addition, he said, “they’re willing to be ruthless and committed to achieve their objectives, and everyone knows it.”

Lebanese Hezbollah fighters fire at a position of the Islamic State group in Syria’s Qalamoun region in 2017. (Photo: Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua via Zuma Wire)
Lebanese Hezbollah fighters fire at a position of the Islamic State group in Syria’s Qalamoun region in 2017. (Photo: Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua via Zuma Wire)

Central Command’s efforts to deter Iran are grouped under Operation Spartan Shield, according to several former military officials. These have included activities to prevent the Iranians from closing the Strait of Hormuz, operations to support Israel (handled by U.S. European Command) and the United States-Gulf Cooperation Council allies, and operations against Iran’s “malign activity” in the region, according to a former Pentagon official. “The vast majority of all this stuff is preparatory and passive, but you could always scale it up to be more aggressive,” said another former senior defense official.

Public references to Spartan Shield mention only conventional force deployments (and never identify Iran by name), but military sources suggest that Joint Special Operations Command also has a role. In recent years, one of JSOC’s most secret units, an intelligence outfit sometimes known as Task Force Orange, has had the global mission of countering malign Iranian activity. Current and former military officials indicated that was still the case. (Central Command did not respond to emailed questions from Yahoo News about Spartan Shield.)

But Spartan Shield’s success at deterring Iran’s malign activity is open to question, given the spreading influence of Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in recent years. The United States finds it easier to deter the Iranian conventional threat to U.S. partners in the Gulf, such as Qatar and Bahrain, than to deter Iran’s “unconventional threat,” Quantock said. “It’s pretty hard to deter,” he said.

Why Iran is eager to avoid conflict with the U.S.

The occasional Houthi missile, possible EFP strike or Hezbollah probe aside, Iran and its proxies have not attacked U.S. forces in the Middle East since the United States returned to Iraq in 2014. The reason for that is simple, observers say: Iran is on the way to achieving its goals in the region, converting Iraq into a satellite state, exerting control over Lebanon via Hezbollah, and keeping Assad in power but beholden to Tehran. Picking a fight with the United States “doesn’t do anything for that plan,” said an Obama administration official. “It may inhibit the plan.”

In 2011, when the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, “Iran’s pieces don’t fit the game board,” said Norman Roule, who until September was the national intelligence manager for Iran and is currently a senior adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran. “With the collapse of Assad [in the wake of the Arab Spring], the Yemen imbroglio and of course the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, suddenly Iran’s pieces do fit.”

Supporters of Iraqi Hezbollah brigades march with portraits of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Baghdad, 2017. (Photo: Hadi Mizban/AP)
Supporters of Iraqi Hezbollah brigades march with portraits of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Baghdad, 2017. (Photo: Hadi Mizban/AP)

Those “pieces” consist mainly of Qassem Soleimani’s Quds force and the proxy forces it has built up. Of those surrogates, one stands above all the others: Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran has nurtured since the early 1980s into a force that can now play a leadership role in conflicts from Syria to Yemen. While the once-feared terrorist capabilities of both Quds force and Hezbollah have “rusted on the vine” in recent years, according to Levitt, the groups’ real competitive advantage is in what the U.S. military calls unconventional warfare: building and directing effective proxy forces to subvert enemy governments.

Iran’s capabilities in this regard exceed those of China and Russia, according to Roule. “They all practice different types of gray-zone activities, but Iran is by far the most advanced and regionally impactful,” he said. “Iran is manipulating the futures of nations. China is just building rocks” (a reference to Beijing’s efforts to extend its influence by constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea).

The Quds force has recruited and trained Shiite militias from as far afield as Afghanistan to fight in Syria while also deploying Hezbollah trainers to Yemen. They “have managed to develop, arm, train, influence [and] direct a transnational Shia contingent that is capable of fighting on different battlefields, disconnected battlefields, against different opponents, simultaneously,” Roule said. “No other state is able to do that.”

The Trump administration

The Trump administration’s national security team took office in January 2017 determined to be tougher on Iran than the Obama administration had been. Many members of the new team were military veterans who had served in Iraq during the years when Iranian attacks on U.S. forces were at their peak. These included retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, as well as his successor, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as well as Army Col. Joel Rayburn and retired colonels Mike Bell and Derek Harvey on the National Security Council staff.

“The former military guys, if there’s a unifying theme, it’s disdain for how the Obama administration handled Iran in particular,” said an Obama national security official. Another former Obama administration official said that the veterans’ criticism of Obama was unfair, “but I can understand how, if you’ve spent several of your formative years in Iraq and had your friends killed by Iranian elements or Iranian-manufactured weapons, you would think that President Obama was being naive about the nature of the threat.”

For their part, the incoming team found themselves working with career civil servants who did not share their alarm, said a former Trump administration official. “It is far worse than I had imagined,” he said. “There was a mindset that Iran was not really the problem, the Gulfies were the problem in the region.”

The Trump administration immediately amped up the rhetoric, as exemplified by Flynn’s Feb. 1, 2017, statement. However, for all the tough talk, on the battlefields of the Middle East there was very little change from Obama’s hands-off policy when it came to the Quds force and its proxies. “The new administration, no matter how much they talked against Iran, they dealt with the reality on the ground,” said Barabandi. He placed “100 percent” of the blame on the Obama administration. “They just closed their eyes and let Iran expand in Syria,” he said. “They didn’t ask any price for it; it was really a free ride. It was the same in Iraq.”

President Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence in background, after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, May 8, 2018. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence in background, after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, May 8, 2018. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On May 8, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, his predecessor’s signature diplomatic achievement and the cornerstone of official U.S. policy toward Iran. Trump’s decision “absolutely … should lift the constraints” from U.S. forces when it comes to confronting the Quds force and its proxies, said Pregent, who was executive director of Veterans Against the Deal. But for that to happen, “you have to replace passive-aggressive bureaucrats with carnivores,” the former Trump administration official said.

Some observers doubt that the awkward de-facto armistice between U.S. forces and Iranian-controlled militias in Iraq and Syria can last much longer. The close proximity of the forces and their mutual distrust will likely lead to a conflagration sooner rather than later, according to retired Army Col. Ike Wilson, who served as chief of the Commander’s Initiatives Group at Central Command from 2013 to 2016. “There’s going to be either an intentional or more likely an unintentional direct engagement of some sort,” he said. “I just think it’s inevitable.”

Meanwhile, the question remains: What will Iran do with its massive proxy army once the Islamic State has been defeated and the remaining pockets of resistance to Assad are wiped out? It is a question that has the Middle East on edge. The Trump administration is counting on Russia to use its influence to get Iran to withdraw its forces, including Hezbollah and other proxies, from Syria. Observers consider that prospect unlikely. “Neither Russia nor Assad can expel Iran,” Pregent said. The Quds force, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias have taken more than 2,100 casualties in Syria. “The only way Iran can legitimize its war with Syria [with its own people] is by going to war with Israel,” Barabandi said. To forestall that eventuality, Israel has launched a series of airstrikes against Quds force and Hezbollah bases in Syria. But Barabandi doubts that airstrikes alone will eliminate the threat Iran’s proxy army poses to the Jewish state. “Even Israel can’t kill 70,000 people,” he said.

Likewise, powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq may soon be getting restless and looking for new battlegrounds. “If you’re Kuwait, you’ve got to wonder: What will happen to Kata’ib Hezbollah in the future?” said Roule.

“You could make a very strong case that we are ceding the region — maybe handing it on a silver platter — to Iran,” said Levitt. “And at the end of the day the effect of our invasion of Iraq and fighting all these Sunni jihadists will have been to have removed all of Iran’s checks and balances and regional adversaries and empowered a regime that is, in the long run, a much bigger threat to U.S. interests.”


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