After the tragic death of three American service members in Jordan due to a drone attack by an Iran-backed Iraqi resistance group, President Joe Biden must respond. At one level, this tragedy is no shock; Iran-based groups – not even counting the Houthis, who are going after shipping in the Red Sea region – have attacked American forces in the region more than 100 times over the past several months. But since Americans died in this attack, a response is required.
The trick, however, is to respond in a way that leaves Iran with few natural next steps to escalate, and perhaps limited incentive to try. The last thing the U.S. needs is another war in the Middle East. And for all the trouble Iran creates, it has been known to date to avoid direct attacks on the United States and to attack American interests only indirectly, by proxy. None of that is to say that Iran is ruled by a bunch of nice guys. But Iran does its strategic calculations carefully, and we must too.
A quick review: Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran’s proxies have attacked the U.S. and its people many times, but with three notable cases: in Beirut in 1983, where Hezbollah killed 241 Marines on a single day; in Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, where 19 Americans perished and nearly 500 were injured; and in Iraq, during the years from 2003 on, where an estimated 600 U.S. service members were killed by Iranian-back groups (out of a total of some 4,500 American deaths overall).
So this is nothing new – yet it is also brand new, given current circumstances. It also comes after Iran has apparently been seeking retaliation against those in the chain of command when former President Donald Trump understandably ordered the killing of the terror mastermind Qassem Soleimani in early 2020.
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Biden said early Tuesday he has reached a decision about how to respond, but offered no further details. I would sketch out the options in roughly this way:
- Damage Iran’s oil economy, either by disabling some oil tankers or damaging infrastructure in Iranian ports needed to load up ships with oil or gas. Done minimally at first, this signals to Iran that we are now prepared to strike them directly without taking big risks of civilian deaths and without necessitating a big attack all at once. In fact, we need not even acknowledge our role.
- Strike isolated command posts in the region for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Quds Force, Iranian state security forces, at places where we know Iranian operatives are present. Syria might be the best place for such an attack, given that the country remains a Wild West territory of sorts, and since we have no relationship to protect with the government there.
- Start to share intelligence with more governments around the world about what Iran is doing in the region. The goal of such a move would be to reestablish maximally punitive sanctions on Iran at a time when some governments in Europe and Asia have resumed trade with the nation (as they were allowed to do under the 2015 nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – that the United States has abandoned even as most others have not).
- Sink Iranian ships or destroy isolated aircraft at remote airfields. This approach, too, can be started small, with the implication that it could expand if Iran retaliates against us.
All of these options are worthy of consideration. The quality of target sets should factor into any decision, as should estimates of likely civilian casualties. However, I do not have enough information about either to feel confident in offering a specific recommendation.
But I would conclude by offering a word of caution and restraint: Things can get much worse with Iran than they are now, and so while we need to be resolute, we also should be restrained.