Even before the drone strike that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan on Sunday, the Biden administration was planning for a moment just like this, debating how it might strike back in ways that would deter Iran’s proxy forces and send a message that Iran would not miss.
But the options range from the unsatisfying to the highly risky.
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President Joe Biden could order strikes on the proxy forces, a major escalation of the whack-a-mole attacks it has conducted in recent weeks in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. So far, those attacks have put a dent into the abilities of the Iranian-backed groups that have mounted more than 160 attacks. But they have failed, as Biden himself noted 10 days ago, to deter those groups.
Biden could decide to go after the Iranian suppliers of drones and missiles, perhaps including inside Iranian territory, which poses a much higher risk. His first targets could well be members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, many of whom are based in Syria and Iraq. Depending on how these strikes are conducted, it could open another front in the war, with a far more powerful adversary, and trigger Iran to accelerate its nuclear program.
In short, it would force Biden to do everything he has been trying so far to avoid.
There are options in between, officials say, and strikes could be combined with back-channel messaging to the Iranians that they should absorb the hit and not escalate. Such signaling has been successful before, including after the U.S.-ordered killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of its powerful Quds Force, in 2020. Then, as now, there were fears of an all-out war in the Middle East that would pit the United States and its allies against Iran and its proxies. Both sides backed away.
But the brew of political pressures, military calculations and regional fragility is quite different today from four years ago, even though evidence suggests that Iran does not want to engage directly in war either, especially when its own economy is weak.
“There are no good choices, but the deaths and wounds of so many U.S. troops and SEALs demand a strong response,” said James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who now works for the Carlyle Group, a global investment firm.
“A multiday air campaign against all proxies, coupled with a ‘last chance warning’ to Iran is warranted,” he said. “The Pentagon should be creating options that go directly against Iranian weapons production facilities, naval assets and intelligence systems in case the mullahs want to go another round. A strong offensive cyberattack would be another viable option, either alone or in conjunction with kinetic strikes.”
Because Iran has been an adversary for so long, across eight presidencies, there is no shortage of such options. The United States has identified the major drone-making factories, and their overseas suppliers, that are fueling the Russian attacks in Ukraine and supplying Hezbollah, the Houthis and other proxy groups. (It is not yet clear whether the drone, or drones, that killed the Americans in Jordan on Sunday were Iranian made, but that was the working assumption of U.S. officials.)
U.S. forces have mapped out strikes on Iranian missile sites and air bases in case a conflict broke out between Iran and Israel. There was even a detailed cyberattack option against Iran, code-named “Nitro Zeus,” to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid. That plan was shelved in 2015 after Iran and six other nations struck a nuclear deal. Israel has conspicuously practiced bombing runs, simulating attacks on the Natanz nuclear enrichment site and its deep-underground alternative site, called Fordow.
But no one pulled the trigger on these plans for a reason: Neither the U.S. nor Iran could see a way out of the cycle of strikes and counterstrikes once an all-out conflict began. And while U.S. officials were certain the United States would ultimately prevail, the potential for damage done to U.S. allies, particularly Israel, seemed hard to imagine. Even President Donald Trump pulled back from a planned strike.
None of those considerations was reflected in the social media posts and news releases issued Sunday by Republicans who have criticized Biden’s responses so far as too calibrated. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called for “crippling costs” for Iran, “not only on front-line terrorist proxies, but on their Iranian sponsors who wear American blood as a badge of honor.” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, demanded strikes on the Revolutionary Guard, its military elite — and the guardians of the nuclear program.
“Time to kill another Iranian general, perhaps?” Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, also of Texas, wrote on social media Sunday, recalling the Soleimani attack. “That might send the right message.” Crenshaw is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, where he lost an eye in a blast.
Such calls have an undeniable political appeal, especially at the start of an election year, and no one was more vocal than Trump — who made no mention of his own qualms about killing Iranians and escalating a conflict when he was in office. Even Biden’s own aides acknowledge that whatever they have been doing so far to “restore deterrence,” to use the military’s phrase about their effort, has failed at the objective.
But it is not yet clear who, exactly, Biden aims to deter. U.S. intelligence officials say that while Iran provides weapons, funding and sometimes intelligence to its proxy groups, there is no evidence that it calls the shots — meaning it may not have known in advance about the attack in Jordan.
The Iran-backed militias that call themselves the Axis of Resistance claimed responsibility for the attack on the outpost in Jordan, saying it was a “continuation of our approach to resisting the American occupation forces in Iraq and the region.”
A spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said at a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Monday that the militias “do not take orders” from Iran and act independently. It is a convenient argument, one that preserves some sense of deniability for Iran.
But the speed at which Iran tried to distance itself from the strike, rather than embrace it, underscored that the downside of using proxies is the same as the upside: Iran will be blamed for everything the militias do, even acts the Iranians believe are too provocative.
“This is the inherent risk in Iran’s proxy-war strategy,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It has been brilliantly successful, but only if the retaliation focuses on proxies and not on Iran’s own territory. Now there is a real risk of things getting even more out of hand in the region.”
Biden is running out of middle-ground options. Sanctions have been exhausted; there is barely a sector of the Iranian economy that the United States and Europe are not already punishing, and China continues to buy up Iranian oil. He could approve “strike packages” against a variety of proxies, but that would embolden some of them, and give some of them the status they crave as legitimate U.S. enemies.
And, following Stavridis’ suggestion, it could look to cyberattacks, more stealthy, deniable ways to make a point. But the lesson of the past decade of cyberconflict with Iran — in both directions — is that it looks easier in the movies than in reality. Gaining access to critical networks is hard, and having lasting impact is even harder. The most famous American-Israeli cyberattack on Iran, aimed at its nuclear centrifuges 15 years ago, slowed the nuclear program for a year or two but did not put it out of business.
And that is Biden’s challenge now: In the middle of an election, with two wars underway, he needs to put Iran’s sponsorship of attacks on Americans out of business — without starting another war.
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