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The White House knows Iran is behind the deadly attacks on its troops, but how will it respond?
Iran has emboldened its terror proxies in the region and now the U.S. faces a serious dilemma of whether to stay put and respond or pull out, a move some believe would be ‘catastrophic.’
Addressing the media on Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that the White House believed Iran was, at least in part, behind this week’s deadly drone attack on U.S. troops stationed in Jordan, connecting at least some of the dots between the rising tensions threatening to destabilize the Middle East and the militant Islamist regime that sits in Tehran.
While the president – as well as National Security Council Communications Coordinator John Kirby, who briefed the press a day earlier – seemed to stop short of blaming Iran directly, the U.S. administration has made clear that it will respond to the attack in which three service members were killed, although when, where and how is still unclear.
What has become clear, however, is that Iran, which immediately denied any connection to the incident, has allowed small sectarian terror groups to become increasingly emboldened through funding, training and arming them. And, if such deadly attacks continue, the U.S. will face the thorny dilemma of whether to confront Iran directly or step back from the region to protect its troops.
“Iran can no longer hide behind its proxies,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told Jewish Insider. “Everybody knows who is really behind these attacks and, in some ways, Iran is not even working to hide it any longer.”
Iran’s overarching goal, said Guzansky, was to “become a hegemonic power in the region.” The regime, he said, which follows the Shia branch of Islam, has proxies in almost every Shia community in the Middle East from Iraq to Bahrain and Yemen to Lebanon and Syria, as well as links to some non-Shia terror groups, such as Hamas, that might not share Iran’s religious beliefs, but do share its fundamentalist ideology.
A research paper recently published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal found at least 19 separate terror organizations, including Hamas and Kataib Hezbollah, the Iraqi militia said to be behind the attack in Jordan, linked to Iran in some way.
Most of the terror groups listed in the report, which was penned by Joe Truzman, a senior research fellow at the D.C.-based think tank, appear to be Palestinian, and many operate somewhere along Israel’s border or inside Gaza and the West Bank territory it controls.
“I believe the White House understands the extent of Iran’s involvement,” Truzman told JI. “Nevertheless, they are hesitant to explicitly accuse Iran as it would then necessitate a potential military response from the U.S. whenever a significant incident occurs, and the White House has consistently conveyed its preference to avoid engaging in a war with Iran.”
Indeed, when asked by reporters this week if a direct link between the attack in Jordan and Iran had been established, Biden replied: “We’ll have that discussion.” Additionally, when the president was questioned about how the U.S. might respond, he simply said: “We’ll see.” And on the threat of a wider war in the region, Biden replied: “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
In Kirby’s press briefing on Monday, he also played down the links between Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and the U.S. military presence in the region, saying troops were stationed in Iraq, Jordan and Syria as part of a “counter-ISIS mission,” and that it is “unrelated to our efforts to support Israel and to prevent a wider conflict in the region.”
“By refraining from directly implicating the regime in the attacks and instead stating that the groups it supports are responsible, affords the White House some flexibility in formulating its response to these attacks without potentially starting a war with Iran,” noted Truzman, adding, however, that “Iran is deeply engaged in the current conflict, with its fingerprints evident as the regime’s proxies and network of clients play active roles in all the arenas presently involved in fighting.”
He listed the major players in the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” as Hamas, which Israel is actively engaged in fighting in Gaza following its Oct. 7 mass terror attack; Hezbollah, which continues to fire projectiles, missiles and armed drones from Lebanon into northern Israel; Iraqi militias, which have also tried to target Israel; and the Houthis in Yemen who – thanks to Iran’s backing – have been able to disrupt global shipping routes and launch attacks on both Israeli and U.S. targets.
“Most of the organizations involved in attacking Israel and the United States have ties to Iran,” Truzman stated. “Iran is leveraging its proxy groups and supported organizations to exert pressure on Israel, the United States, and, to some degree, the global community.”
He said Iran’s objective is “to create enough instability in the Middle East to force Israel into accepting a lasting cease-fire, ultimately safeguarding Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.”
But the White House’s reluctance to engage in direct conflict with Iran could boomerang, warned Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).
He said that the administration’s “constant pleas for deescalation have not been reciprocated by the ‘Axis of Resistance.’”
“The Iranian leadership does not fear the Biden administration given its repeated insistence that it does not seek conflict,” Brodsky said. “That invites the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to push the envelope with mostly deniable operations, inviting the risk of a catastrophic success for Iran, which could result in mass casualties and make war more likely not less likely.”
Brodsky added that it was “time for a decisive American response.”
“Iran’s regime operates via plausible deniability – that enables it to benefit from the violence of its proxies and partners but to disclaim responsibility and avoid costs,” he continued.
Kirby, for his part, vowed a U.S. response to the weekend attack on its troops, telling reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. will “respond on our own time, on our own schedule,” later adding, “the first thing you see will not be the last thing.”
Brodsky explained that while each of the individual terror proxies had their own “local agenda” and did not necessarily receive “orders” from Tehran, yet Iran’s “continuing flow of funds, material, and training are effectively a green light for its Axis of Resistance to continue destabilizing various regional battlefields.”
“Iran’s military doctrine focuses on asymmetric warfare to protect its leadership and to compensate for its lack of conventional military capabilities after years of sanctions,” he said.
“The U.S. and its allies must pierce that veil of deniability to deter the Iranian leadership,” Brodsky added. “That requires a direct response to Iranian provocations on targets in Iran.”
While it still seems as though most major players – Israel, the U.S. and even Iran – are looking to avoid a direct conflict, INSS’ Guzansky said that “there may be a point when they [the West] say enough is enough, ‘let Iran taste something.’”
“They are facing a real dilemma of how to respond and deliver a clear message without escalating the situation,” he said, adding that perhaps action will be taken against Iranian targets outside of Iran, such as its intelligence-gathering ships that are working to help the Houthis or other Iranian sites.
“Iran also has an interest to lower volume or to maintain a medium flame,” added Guzansky, warning that a U.S. pullout from the region would be “catastrophic.”
Jewish Insider’s senior national correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed from Washington.