WASHINGTON — This was the day that President Joe Biden and his team had feared for more than three months, the day that relatively low-level attacks by Iranian proxy groups on U.S. troops in the Middle East turned deadly and intensified the pressure on the president to respond in kind.
With three U.S. service members killed and two dozen more injured by a drone in Jordan, Biden must decide how far he is willing to go in terms of retaliation at the risk of a wider war that he has sought to avoid ever since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas touched off the current Middle East crisis.
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Until now, the president had carefully calibrated his responses to the more than 150 attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. forces in the region since Oct. 7. He essentially ignored the majority that were successfully intercepted or did little to no damage while authorizing limited U.S. strikes focused mainly on buildings, weapons and infrastructure after attacks that were more brazen, most notably against the Houthis in Yemen who have targeted shipping in the Red Sea.
The first deaths of U.S. troops under fire, however, will require a different level of response, U.S. officials said, and the president’s advisers were in consensus about that as they consulted with him by secure videoconference Sunday. What remained unclear was whether Biden would strike targets inside Iran itself, as his Republican critics urged him to do, saying he would be a “coward” if he did not, as one put it.
“The question Biden faces is whether he just wants to react to events in the region or whether he wants to send a bigger message that attempts to restore a sense of deterrence that just hasn’t existed in the region for months now,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who worked in national security positions under President Bill Clinton.
“I’m sure they’re looking for some kind of Goldilocks response here,” he added, meaning “not too hard” that it provokes a full-fledged war, “not too soft” that it just prolongs the conflict “but something that seems just right.”
Biden gave no indication about his thinking but vowed to respond in some fashion.
“The three American service members we lost were patriots in the highest sense,” he said in statement. He added: “We will strive to be worthy of their honor and valor. We will carry on their commitment to fight terrorism. And have no doubt — we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing.”
The attack in Jordan was not fundamentally different from what U.S. forces have seen for more than three months, except that it was more successful. Administration officials and intelligence agencies were trying to determine Sunday whether it represented a deliberate attempt by Iran to escalate the conflict or was meant to be the same kind of limited attack its proxies have been mounting but in this case happened to actually kill Americans through luck.
U.S. officials have said for months that they did not believe Iran wanted a direct war with the United States and Sunday had not changed that assessment publicly. But at the same time, officials said, Iran has used its proxy forces to keep up the pressure on the United States and Israel as Israel continues to pound Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
One senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said Sunday that the United States did not believe that Iran was intending to start a wider war with the attack in Jordan. But he cautioned that analysts were still gathering and evaluating the information available to determine whether Iran ordered a more aggressive attack or a militia group decided to do so on its own.
While a wider conflict could serve Iran’s purposes, U.S. officials have long thought that Tehran understood that a direct war with the United States would be deeply damaging. The Jordan attack came at a time when some U.S. officials had been exploring the idea that Iran might be on the verge of trying to rein in some of its proxy forces, a theory that may be dashed by the Jordan attack.
Complicating Biden’s decision is the possibility that ramping up the fighting with Iran could make it harder to wind down the fighting in Gaza. CIA Director William J. Burns met in Paris on Sunday with Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials to try to broker a deal in which Israel would halt its military campaign against Hamas for roughly two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages seized on Oct. 7. The Biden administration is likewise trying to negotiate a separate agreement to avoid a fuller conflict between Israel and another Iranian-backed militia, Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon.
Republicans wasted little time Sunday blaming Biden for the deaths of the troops in Jordan, maintaining that his failure to take more devastating action in the past three months left Iran and its proxies confident that they could act with impunity.
“The entire world now watches for signs that the president is finally prepared to exercise American strength to compel Iran to change its behavior,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said flatly: “Hit Iran now. Hit them hard.”
Republicans argued that Biden had emboldened Iran by appeasing the mullahs of Tehran. They cited his efforts to negotiate a new agreement with Iran curbing its nuclear weapons program and a deal securing the release of five imprisoned Americans in exchange for helping Iran access $6 billion of its own oil money that had been promised to Tehran for humanitarian purposes through a policy approved under former President Donald Trump. That money was frozen days after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which is backed by Iran.
“He left our troops as sitting ducks, and now three are dead and dozens wounded, sadly as I’ve predicted would happen for months,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East. Anything less will confirm Joe Biden as a coward unworthy of being commander in chief.”
As for Trump, now the front-runner for the Republican nomination to challenge Biden for his old job, he claimed on social media Sunday that “this attack would NEVER have happened if I was president, not even a chance.” In fact, Iran and its proxies did attack U.S. and allied interests during Trump’s presidency, and at one point Trump called off a retaliatory strike that he deemed excessive. He did later order a strike that killed a top Iranian general, but when Iran responded with missile strikes that injured but did not kill U.S. troops, Trump ordered no further action.
Biden has ordered military strikes on several occasions in the past few months, including on Christmas Day. Just hours after a drone strike by Iranian-backed militants injured three U.S. service members, one critically, Biden ordered airstrikes in Iraq in response. He also ordered the U.S. military to target a militia commander blamed for the attack; U.S. forces carried out the order on Jan. 4 with a drone strike in Baghdad that killed the commander, Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari.
Until Sunday, the only U.S. military deaths in the region since Oct. 7 came not under fire but during an operation in the Arabian Sea to interdict Iranian weapons to the Houthis. Two Navy SEALs were declared dead last week after one fell overboard and the other dived in to try to save him. A civilian contractor in Iraq died in October after suffering a heart attack while sheltering from a feared drone strike that did not actually happen.
Biden was informed about the attack in Jordan on Sunday morning in South Carolina, where he was spending the weekend campaigning before its Democratic primary. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with the president, along with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer.
Later in the day, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris joined a secure virtual discussion with Austin, Sullivan, Finer and other advisers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Gen. Charles Brown, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence.
The president addressed the matter later during a stop at Brookland Baptist Banquet Center in West Columbia, South Carolina.
“We had a tough day last night in the Middle East,” he told the crowd. “We lost three brave souls in an attack on one of our bases.” After a moment of silence, he added, “and we shall respond.”
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