Outside the White House on Tuesday, Joe Biden walked over to the cameras to say that he had finally decided on the US response to a deadly attack on its troops in Jordan, after two days of talks with his national security team.
But the US president tempered that message with another: that he was not seeking a broader conflict in the region.
“I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for,” Biden told reporters.
The drone attack that killed three American service members on Sunday, which the US has attributed to an Iranian-backed militia, was a moment American officials had feared since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out in October.
It has raised the stakes in terms of Washington’s involvement in the Middle East, piled political pressure on Biden in an election year, and highlighted the struggles of US policy in the region during this crisis and throughout his administration.
Biden’s team is looking to balance three different objectives as it calculates its response, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the CSIS think-tank in Washington.
“One of the strategic goals is to prevent an open-ended region-wide war that would occupy years and billions of dollars. One of the objectives is deterring Iran from its many efforts to grow its power in the Middle East and push the US out of the Middle East. One of the goals is to create a Palestinian-Israeli settlement that lowers the temperature in the region,” Alterman said.
“Ideally, you do all three of those. The administration is not 100 per cent confident that any single action it takes will do any of them.”
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, warned on Monday that the Middle East was at its most “dangerous” juncture since the Yom Kippur war between Israel and its neighbours in 1973. At the same time, he said, “we’re going to defend our people, we’re going to defend our personnel, we’re going to defend our interests”.
Biden and his team have vowed to respond more forcefully to Sunday’s drone strike than they have to any of the other more than 160 attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria in recent months. Blinken said the US response “could be multi-levelled, come in stages, and be sustained over time”.
That response is expected to begin in the coming days, US officials said, and to feature multiple strikes aimed at a wider set of targets than the US has struck so far. The US may choose other responses that are not immediately apparent as well, including cyber attacks or covert operations.
US officials have considered striking Iran directly but most analysts do not expect that to happen.
“I think it is unlikely that they will target Iran directly but of course, the low- hanging fruit at this point is to target the pro-Iranian militias or other Revolutionary Guard points in Iraq or Syria,” said Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, a think-tank. “I don’t see the response to be one that targets any bases in Iran.”
Current and former officials said the US would look to strike militia leaders, Iranian personnel in Syria or Iraq, and assets outside of Iran.
“This won’t be a single attack, so there will probably be several rounds. I think it has to be a very robust attack action . . . the question is, what are the specific objectives?” said a former senior US military commander in the Middle East. “Presumably they are to degrade the ability of the Shia militias and IRGC Quds Force to carry out further such attacks, disrupt their capabilities to do so and contribute to restoration of deterrence. Although that’s awfully hard.”
Republican defence hawks on Capitol Hill are demanding an aggressive military response, and GOP presidential rivals including Donald Trump and Nikki Haley are blaming Biden for being weak on Iran. But many Democrats have also grown frustrated with the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and fear deeper involvement in the region.
“As a nation that’s just come out of 20 years of war, as a veteran of the global war on terrorism, I can attest to the fact that the last thing we need right here is to enter into another long-term war in the region,” Mikie Sherrill, a Democratic congresswoman from New Jersey, Navy veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Tuesday.
The US has already involved itself more deeply in the regional strife than it hoped to by striking Iranian-backed Houthi targets in Yemen in response to attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. At the same time, it is trying to negotiate a new pause in the Israel-Hamas war to allow for the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza.
“Part of the challenge is to try to address them all separately, while understanding how a response in one theatre will impact the response in another theatre. You have multiple conflicts all coming together and being activated at the same time,” Khurma said.
Biden and his national security team want to signal to Iran and its proxies that the costs of hitting American troops in the region are too high for them to continue.
At the same time, Biden has struggled to craft an effective strategy towards Tehran since the start of the administration. Initially he hoped to renegotiate the nuclear deal agreed under Barack Obama and abandoned by then-president Trump, but by 2022 those efforts had faded, and tensions have since been rising.
“[Biden] had a strategy towards Iran. That didn’t elicit the Iranian response he wanted. And now there is no obvious way to frustrate the Iranian conviction that they’re winning and the Americans are losing,” said Alterman.
Aside from military options, there are other ways that the US could put pressure on Iran, but in many cases those have second- and third-order effects that could prove harmful, particularly in an election year, analysts said. For example, the US could sanction all of Iran’s oil exports, but that would mean taking millions of barrels of oil off the market, which could raise petrol prices for American drivers.
The US has also allowed Iraq to pay Iran for electricity and could block those payments. That, though, would turn out the lights in parts of Iraq, increasing friction between Washington and Baghdad as they begin to negotiate the future of US forces in the country.
“The reason it’s so hard for the president is there are absolutely no good options,” said Alterman: “Most of the options are different degrees of bad.”