Biden fires a warning shot at Iran
After just one month in power, President Biden has used deadly military force in response to Iranian-sponsored attacks on Americans in Iraq. The strike, which is said to be by F-15 jets, apparently attacked buildings owned by Iraqi Shiite militia groups along the Iraqi-Syrian border. It is worth pausing to note that the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite groups and not the Iraqi government control that part of the border. In other words, Iran and its agents control a route from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon, where the largest Iranian agent, Hezbollah, is located. The borders have been deleted. The Biden strike is a message to Iran, a warning shot against continued attacks by militias Tehran supports. According to press releases, Biden was presented with a number of options and chose one of the softest ̵
1; a limited strike in Syria rather than Iraq. There is a logic in this choice. First, US attacks inside Iraq would likely complicate the lives of Prime Minister Kadhimi, whom we generally support, and incite forces hostile to any US presence – not least the Iranian-allied militias – to demand that all US forces expelled. Second, if further Iranian-sponsored attacks require Biden to hit Iranian-backed forces again, this limited strike would allow him to say he tried patience and restraint, and they failed. But the strike in Syria and by Iranian proxies could also send messages that Biden does not intend: that the United States will never hit Tehran’s agents inside Iraq, and that it will never hit Iran. If that is what the Iranian regime emits, they will cause militias to strike again and again; they will not be deterred because they will see the attacks as almost free. The law of average suggests that these continued attacks will sooner or later kill Americans. That is when the president will face the need to punish Iran and really create deterrence; simply attacking its agent will be insufficient. One of the key functions of the Shiite militias in Iraq is to allow Iran to attack US forces, while by absorbing any sanction, Iran keeps Iran safe. If there are a series of attacks that harm Americans and eventually kill one or more, the kind of limited response from the United States that we saw last week will not be enough. That does not mean World War III, and it does not mean American bombers over Tehran, but it does mean that Biden must consider beating Iranian assets instead of usable proxy groups. Meanwhile, there was zero progress on the nuclear negotiating front last week. On the contrary, Iran did not agree to participate in the EU-sponsored negotiations that the United States has agreed to participate in, it restricted the access of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to Iran and threatened to enrich uranium to 60 percent. Nuclear power requires an enrichment of no more than 5 percent; the only use of uranium enriched to 60 percent is to prepare a nuclear weapon. The least that can be said about President Biden’s second month of power is that we see some dreams of a speedy return to the Iran nuclear deal from 2015, also known as the JCPOA, and a quick solution to US-Iranian confrontations is disintegrating before our eyes. The president’s refusal so far to lift sanctions and his willingness to use force against Iranian delegates suggest a more realistic assessment of Iran than many feared. There will no doubt be many deep discussions, even debates, within the administration about what the next step should be. The administration’s willingness to return to the JCPOA if Iran complies with it again has not moved the Islamic Republic an inch. Similarly, the administration’s reversal of the designation of the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist group and its decision to halt the sale of “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen was met with zero flexibility by the Houthis – who have carried out further terrorist attacks since the policy changes. Along the way, the administration faces an even greater challenge than what to do in attacking Americans in Iraq. President Biden has already decided that they will be met with force, and it must be assumed that if the attacks continue and escalate, so will the counter-attacks. But what about Iran’s expulsion of nuclear inspectors in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the “Additional Protocol” to the JCPOA (which allowed snap inspections)? What about 60 percent enrichment if it really happens? How far down the road towards building a nuclear weapon will the administration be willing to let Iran go? It’s a hypothetical question today, but if Iran continues, it will soon stop US officials at night. Biden is the fifth US president in a row, in my view, to say that Iran would never be allowed to build a nuclear weapon. Unless Iran changes course, he could be the first to have to prove it.