Biden administration officials are trying to “forcefully deter other attacks while also not further inflaming a smoldering region”
(Image credit: Illustration by Stephen Kelly / Getty Images)
published 30 January 2024
American officials have spent the last few months warning against the possibility of a “wider war” in the Middle East. The deaths of three American soldiers in Jordan may prove a critical moment in that effort.
National security hawks are urging President Joe Biden to launch an attack on Iran, which backs the militias that launched the deadly drone attack in Jordan. “Hit Iran now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote this week on social media. “Hit them hard.” (Iran, for what it’s worth, denied direct involvement in the attacks.) Politico reported that Biden administration officials are trying to figure out how to maintain a tricky balance with a response that “forcefully deter other attacks while also not further inflaming a smoldering region.”
Iran-backed militias have attacked other U.S. bases in the region since the Israel-Hamas war began in October, Reuters observed, but never to such deadly effect. But Biden has avoided targeting Iran directly “out of fear of igniting a broader war.” That’s the biggest risk at the moment, observers say. “When you do things overtly you represent a major escalation for the Iranians,” said the Center for a New American Security’s Jonathan Lord.
Subscribe to The Week The Week provides readers with a wide range of perspectives from 200 trusted news sources.
Try 6 Free Issues
Sign up for The Week’s Free Newsletters From our daily WeekDay news briefing to an award-winning Food & Drink email, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.
From our daily WeekDay news briefing to an award-winning Food & Drink email, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.
This means that Biden’s options “range from the unsatisfying to the highly risky,” The New York Times reported. “There are no good choices, but the deaths and wounds of so many U.S. troops and SEALs demand a strong response,” said one retired admiral. The U.S. and Iran have long been rivals, but have spent decades avoiding a direct war for fear of a never-ending “cycle of strikes and counterstrikes once an all-out conflict began.” The attack in Jordan may have triggered that cycle.
“The sorry truth is that these casualties are the result of the President’s policy choices,” The Wall Street Journal editorialized. Iranian proxies have attacked American targets more than 150 times since the Israel-Hamas war started in October, inviting only “limited airstrikes” in response. The best choice now is to use “devastating force” against Iranian military and commercial targets. Will Biden make that decision? Maybe not. “The president has put his anxieties about upsetting Iran and risking escalation above his duty to defend U.S. soldiers abroad.”
“Has the point of no return been reached?” Simon Tisdall asked at The Guardian. A military attack by the U.S. in Iran would have devastating ripple effects — prolonging the Gaza fighting, bringing Iran-backed Hezbollah into the war against Israel, and more broadly destabilizing the region. It’s in nobody’s interest to see that series of events. “Direct American military retaliation against Iran itself would be a disaster.”
“Fortunately, Biden is thinking carefully” about the U.S. response, David Ignatius argued at The Washington Post. Any retaliation would aim to reduce the threats against U.S. forces. Attacking Iran, meanwhile “would risk a much wider war.” The best way to end those threats would be to “broker a deal” that ends the fighting between Israel and Hamas. What’s clear: Biden faces hard choices. “He’s likely to take decisive action, but think hard about the consequences of the option he chooses.”
What next?American officials are trying to signal balance. “We’re not looking for another war, but we absolutely will do what we have to do to protect ourselves,” said the National Security Council’s John Kirby. But it’s clear they hold Iran responsible for the attack. “We’re mindful” of Iran’s “destabilizing behavior,” Kirby said, as well as “the influence that they have in the region.”
The response is coming soon. On Tuesday morning, Biden told reporters he holds Iran responsible for the Jordan attack — and that he has made a decision about how to respond. “They’re supplying the weapons to the people who did it,” he said, but added: “I don’t think we’re looking for a wider war in the Middle East, that’s not what I’m looking for.”
To continue reading this article…
Create a free account
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Already have an account? Sign in
Subscribe to The Week
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more with a subscription to The Week.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Unlimited website access is included with Digital and Print + Digital subscriptions.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us
A free twice-daily digest of the biggest news stories of the day – and the best features from our website