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Iran is calling Biden’s bluff

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President Joe Biden’s military show of force — the armada parked off the Israeli coast in the East Mediterranean Sea — is seen by Iran and its proxies as no more than a static display. Its deterrence value, the supposed muscle behind Biden’s “don’t” warnings, has been largely ignored. 

Hezbollah militants continue to fire rockets and anti-tank missiles into Israel from Lebanon and the West Bank; Shia militias are attacking U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria; and Houthi rebels in Yemen are firing missiles towards Israel — including shooting down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over international waters. Late Wednesday, the USS Thomas Hudner, a U.S. Navy destroyer operating in the Red Sea, “shot down a drone from Yemen” and was forced to do so in “self-defense.”

The U.S. response — now three air strikes, on Oct. 27Nov. 9 and Nov. 12 — struck targets in eastern Syria that were used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated groups. The first two strikes destroyed empty buildings — in essence, an urban revitalization program for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

No casualties were reported, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that “The United States is fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities. We urge against any escalation.”

Iran did not get the message, however, as four more attacks against U.S. bases followed. This led to the airstrikes Sunday evening which, as the New York Times reported, “most likely killed or injured an undetermined number of people at the sites.” As of last Thursday, there had been at least 56 attacks on U.S. forces since Oct. 17, resulting in 59 service members being ‘injured’ — White House-speak for “wounded in action” — and one contractor dying.

As this continues to unfold, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, warns of “harsh consequences…if an immediate cease-fire doesn’t take place in the Gaza Strip and the rapid attacks by the U.S. and the Zionist regime continue.” He added that “if the war is not stopped, responsibility for the situation spiraling out of control lies with the U.S., Israel and those who support war crimes.”

The threat of a broader regional conflict by means of proxies is Iran’s equivalent to Russia’s nuclear escalation threats. It is also producing the same effect: U.S. inaction.

The Biden administration’s escalation paralysis has metastasized to the Middle East. Israeli and Palestinian citizens, along with U.S. service members manning bases in Iraq and Syria, were paying the price while Biden was spending another weekend at his Delaware beach house.

Iran continues to call Biden’s bluff. Whatever message his administration thinks it is sending Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran is not having the intended effect. The oft-cited analogy of “playing checkers on a chessboard” is still very much relevant — same board, different pieces, different moves. The White House seemingly does not understand why Iran is not pliantly responding to its messaging game as designed. 

The answer is simple. The Iranians do not believe that Washington will take decisive action against Iran. It may attack their proxies — also known as martyrs — but not Iran itself.  

The Biden administration continues to muddle its own military brinkmanship messaging by sending the wrong diplomatic and economic signals. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday “extended by four months a sanctions waiver that will allow Iraq to continue to purchase electricity from Iran.” It also “gives Iran limited access to the proceeds to buy humanitarian goods.” 

As a result, Tehran now has access to $10 billion on one side of the ledger, to utilize for domestic needs, which in turn frees up $10 billion so that it can continue to fund Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and other IRGC-funded and controlled Iranian proxies currently attacking U.S. forces throughout the Middle East.

It is time Washington changed its messaging. Embedded IRGC forces may be the best place to deliver that message, in light of the 56 attacks that have now taken place against the U.S. Hitting empty buildings in Syria and Iraq will not change the paradigm, nor will it cause Khamenei and the IRGC to change their calculus when it comes to calling Biden’s bluff. 

Attack the source — the cancer, not the place where it metastasizes.

For decades now, Iran has essentially operated with impunity in the Middle East. Through the IRGC, Tehran has contributed to the deaths of thousands of Israeli civilians at the hands of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah — and effectively held U.S. citizens hostage in Iran while supporting Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. 

Other than economic sanctions and strikes on empty buildings, Khamenei has paid only a small price for destabilizing the region and rupturing U.S. efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Most ominously, Tehran’s accelerating march toward a nuclear weapon and the capability to deliver it goes on unabated. 

It is time Biden and his principal advisers on his national security team — Defense Secretary Austin, Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan — exact that price.

They must assume an active defense by striking Iranian proxies hard and unapologetically, when they present a threat, not after they have already attacked. And probable cause must be good enough for protecting our service members manning remote bases in Iraq and Syria. 

As evidenced by the U.S. targeting and killing Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of Iranian forces, during a visit to Iraq, a bloody nose is the only response Iran understands, and precisely the response the U.S. must deliver. U.S. messaging must now exact a price. It can no longer be business as usual in the Middle East.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army Colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014. Mark Toth is an economist, entrepreneur, and former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis.

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