It was Groundhog Day on Friday, both in Washington and in Iran. In a much-welcome move, President Joe Biden finally struck back against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose drone strike had killed three U.S. troops and injured 34 more.
Yet even in doing so, the Biden Administration’s has clearly failed to shake its escalation paralysis.
The U.S. Air Force hit 85 militia targets backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). B-1 bombers flew directly from U.S. locations to hit Syrian sites in Bukamal, Deir al-Zour, and Mayadeen, as well as Al-Qaim in Iraq. Strikingly, not one of those targets was in Iran itself.
Unfortunately, this means that three of America’s finest are dead, and the White House is effectively continuing to play Kabuki theater.
Performative art is not going to deter let alone end Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s asymmetrical war against the U.S. And extremely unhelpful is Biden’s decision to telegraph in advance whenever U.S. military strikes are forthcoming.
As Hudson Institute fellow Michael Pregent noted on X, “targets of opportunity are not static.” By giving the IRGC and its sponsored militias nearly a week of time and space, CENTCOM allowed its targets of opportunity to become empty buildings.
Friday’s attacks began while Biden was attending the transfer of the remains of Sgts. William Rivers, Kennedy Sanders, and Breonna Moffett at Dover Air Force Base. But they were far more about messaging than deterrence.
The Biden Administration is trying to present Iran with a deconfliction off-ramp. That narrative was quickly in evidence on Capitol Hill on Friday. Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), appearing with Bret Baier on Fox News, tellingly stated that many of Iran’s proxies “go off” on their own, echoing Tehran’s own implausible denial of responsibility.
This is unlikely to work. Hitting empty buildings and leaving Iran and the IRGC unmolested will not change Khamenei’s calculus. Already, according to a report Saturday in the Jerusalem Post, the Islamic Resistance “targeted the al-Harir air base hosting U.S. forces in northern Iraq.”
Biden’s White House cannot grasp that its every effort to de-escalate the conflict with Iran only leads to further escalation. Rather than waiting to see whether Khamenei emerges and sees his shadow, Biden needs to take a page from the Gerasimov Doctrine and boldly escalate the conflict with Iran in order to effect a change in his behavior.
How many more Americans will be killed or wounded in the Middle East before Biden and his national security team realize that their escalation fears and resulting policy paralysis are the problem, painting targets on the backs of U.S. forces stationed in the region?
Iran not only wants war but already is at war with the U.S. And it is already the wider war that Biden says he does not want. Washington’s unwillingness to acknowledge this is not going to change the reality on the ground.
Nor is Khamenei operating in a vacuum. Iran’s assault against U.S. national interests in the Middle East is deliberate. It is part and parcel to Tehran’s growing military and economic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Oct. 7 massacre in Israel should have been a wake-up call for Biden, especially as it served as cover for Putin’s counteroffensive against Ukraine in Avdiivka two days later. Hamas was not just attacking Israel and its civilians; it was, at the calculated behest of the IRGC, challenging American resolve to defend itself and its allies across multiple war theaters.
Putin’s faltering war in Ukraine has forced him to widen the battlefield in order to buy time and space. Iran and its IRGC are doing it for him in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, and in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Consequently, the Kremlin needs Khamenei to widen his attacks against the U.S., not stop them.
It is simply foolish to pretend otherwise.
Iran will simply leverage its mercenary proxies to do its bidding. They are just a tool in the toolbox, and expendable.
Biden and his national security team are being played by Putin and Khamenei. Biden does not want to attack targets inside Iran directly. Fear of a “wider war” in the Middle East constrains the White House from taking decisive action, so it limits its strikes to “safe” targets with few casualties.
Yes, Putin and Khamenei are goading the U.S. into a fight, but that is because Moscow and Beijing win either way. It is time for Biden to courageously upset that calculus and hit IRGC targets within Iran. Escalating in order to de-escalate is Biden’s only way out of this conundrum.
The White House should take a page from the Israeli playbook. An Israeli airstrike on Friday killed IRGC military advisor Saeid Ali Dadi in Syria. As with the airstrikes of Dec. 25 and 29, there were no warnings beforehand and no apologies afterward. Such action would also serve an even greater imperative: deterring if not destroying Iran’s march toward a nuclear breakout and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Khamenei warned via back channels last week he would hit back if Iran itself were attacked. This is evidence that he is betting on Biden not to act. He is using the overtime that Biden affords him to achieve the ultimate check on America’s ability to deter and contain Iran.
If Tehran gets there, then Biden’s Groundhog Day in Iran last Friday will become a permanent one. And, if so, it will create an ongoing national security threat, imperiling U.S. forces, allies and interests in the Middle East for decades to come, if not the U.S. mainland itself.
On Friday, Iran itself went unpunished by Biden — and Khamenei’s nuclear weapons program remains intact. No amount of administration messaging is going to change either reality.
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