Biden, determined to avoid regional war, seen as unlikely to strike inside Iran

After 3 US troops killed in Jordan, president has to respond with force, but he also has elections coming up, and is working to hammer out a hostage deal in Gaza

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden speaks at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, SC, on January 28, 2024. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
US President Joe Biden speaks at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, SC, on January 28, 2024. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

As he headed to southern Florida — in the dominion of his likely challenger Donald Trump — Wednesday to raise funds for his embattled campaign, US President Joe Biden told reporters he had decided how to respond to Saturday’s deadly drone attack that killed three US soldiers.

Though he was evasive about how the US would retaliate, Biden offered a hint at the scale of the response, saying that the US does not need a wider war in the Middle East.

His National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, added on the flight south that “multiple” actions were being considered.

“It’s very possible that what you’ll see is a tiered approach here, not just a single action but potentially multiple actions,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The scenes contained all the elements of the bind in which the president finds himself after the incessant Iran-backed attacks on US troops in the region finally cost American lives.

Biden is facing an uphill election battle that is looking increasingly challenging. Almost all major polls in January put Trump ahead in a general election matchup, and the last time Biden was in a tie with his likely challenger in the RealClearPolitics polling average was in October.

A protester calling for a ceasefire in Gaza interrupts US President Joe Biden during an event on the campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Virginia, January 23, 2024. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Progressives and Arab Americans are already furious at the president for his steadfast support of Israel even as Palestinian civilian casualties mount in Gaza.

The last thing Biden needs is to be blamed for getting America involved in another Middle East war. Both parties have a growing isolationist wing, and there is no appetite even among more centrist voters for anything that looks like another potential Iraq or Afghanistan war.

At the same time, Biden is already suffering barbs from GOP lawmakers over his alleged weakness in the face of over 150 attacks by Iranian proxies since October 7.

Moreover, the White House’s approach to Iran has come apart. The administration was eager to put a lid on the Iran nuclear issue by reaching some sort of renewed JCPOA. When that proved to be out of reach, the administration reached a series of deals and arrangements with Tehran to ease tensions and allow the US to focus on Russia and China.

Yet respond Biden must. The question is how to do it in a way that projects strength while avoiding war… and puts him in a better position to win come November.

What was Iran’s role?

Republicans placed the blame for the deadly attack squarely on Iran, and called for the president to retaliate against the Islamic Republic directly.

Some Iran experts see the strike on US troops at Tower 22 on the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border as part of a campaign closely orchestrated by Tehran.

“Iran has perfected the ability to, whenever the United States is pressuring it in one area, escalate in another, unexpected area,” said Blaise Misztal, vice president for policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

“Thus, with increasing US strikes against the Houthis in Yemen in response to their attacks against shipping in the Red Sea, Tehran had one of its militias open up an altogether new battlefield — Jordan.”

Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US strikes on Yemen outside Sana’a on Monday, January 22, 2024. (AP Photo)

Other observers aren’t convinced that the orders for the drone strike came directly from Tehran.

“This wasn’t politically approved,” said Ori Goldberg of Reichman University. “I don’t know that this was even an intentionally lethal strike.”

“[Iran] have a lot to gain from not appearing militantly hostile,” he continued. “The more Israel is engaged in Gaza, the more the Iranians can get brownie points for being responsible adults, at least in this context. But they’re also trying to figure out what the hell is happening. Is there going to be a normalization? What’s the status of the Palestinians going to be like? And I think one of their bigger mysteries is how and why the US is doing what it’s doing.”

Raz Zimmt, an Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed that “Iran generally doesn’t stand behind concrete actions. It’s not that every action needs Iranian approval.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi waves to the crowd during the funeral ceremony of the victims of a bomb explosion in the city of Kerman about 510 miles (820 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, January 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

At the same time, he said, “it stands behind a certain type of policy.”

That policy is the use of violence by proxy groups and the threat of escalation on multiple fronts to pressure Washington to stop Israel’s campaign against Hamas, and, more importantly, drive US forces from the region.

“On the strategic level, this could be Iran sending a very clear message to the United States that if the situation heats up and escalates further, Iran will not hesitate to go directly after US troops as it did in this latest attack,” said Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at The Soufan Center.

Who to hit?

Whether or not Iran ordered the attack itself, it still leads an axis of dangerous armed groups funded and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows a military base known as Tower 22 in northeastern Jordan, on Oct. 12, 2023. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Misztal, like prominent Republicans, argued that Biden must strike Iran itself.

“So long as the United States only targets Iran’s puppets, Tehran will continue gladly fighting to the last Arab, sacrificing Hamas, Houthi, or Kataeb Hezbollah fighters to die for its cause, while it remains unscathed,” he said.

“Now that three US servicemembers have been killed — a red line that no US president can or should ignore — Washington must adopt Israel’s strategy and go directly after the Iranian masterminds pulling the strings.”

Clarke agreed that the only way for the US to meaningfully change Tehran’s behavior would be an attack on Iranian soil.

This handout photo provided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via Sepah News shows Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers taking part in a military drill near the island of Abu Musa, off the coast of the southern Iranian city of Bandar Lengeh. (Sepah News/AFP)

But he doesn’t think that will happen, with Biden trying to avoid a major escalation.

“The United States is likely going to respond with attacks on IRGC infrastructure in the region, and is likely going to tout the number of IRGC personnel killed, the warehouses destroyed, the ammunition put out of use, and make a very public showing of that,” said Clarke.

Zimmt, the INSS scholar, predicted that there would be an unusually firm response in Syria and Iraq, but not in Iran itself: “It will be something that sends a message to Iran and its militias, not something that will force Iran to respond in an election season.”

Concurring that Biden would not order “a significantly robust response,” Goldberg, of Reichman University, offered a surprising reason.

“True, American blood has been shed, but the American presence there is not something they’re particularly eager to advertise,” he maintained. “They don’t want to draw a lot of attention to the fact that there are Americans there.”

Israeli soldiers operate in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip in an undated photo released by the military on January 30, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The decision in Washington can’t be made without considering the impact it might have on US goals surrounding the conflict in Gaza that set off the recent escalation by Iran’s proxies from Yemen to Syria.

Biden and his team have been working hard to hammer out a far-reaching ceasefire deal that would see all the Israeli hostages held in Gaza eventually released in exchange for a long pause in the fighting that they are sure to try to turn into an end to the war.

Iran could well react to a response that crosses its red lines by doing everything it can to urge Hamas to keep fighting, accompanied by increased Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border.

There can be no calm in the region without Iran’s endorsement, Tehran will signal to the US.

“The response will be substantial in a way that corresponds to the American losses,” said Shibley Telhami, Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, “but not so big as to engender a major escalation, particularly one that could jeopardize what is emerging as a ceasefire agreement that all sides want, and certainly the US wants.”

“They will keep their options open for a long-term strategic response,” he continued, “and this one, in the short term, will be more tactical in nature, but substantial enough.”

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