It is to be hoped that three days of U.S. strikes on targets associated with Iranian-backed terror groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen will be sufficient. After months of gradually escalating chaos unleashed by Tehran throughout the region, including attacks on international shipping, President Joe Biden finally felt that he had no choice but to respond.
After the Jan. 28 terrorist attack in which a drone piloted by an Iraqi group allied to Iran killed three American soldiers at a remote outpost in Jordan, Biden ordered three days of strikes at various Iranian proxies. But the retaliation came five full days after the Americans were slain, following a lengthy decision-making process in which it became clear that Washington was telegraphing its punches. Iran was clearly safe, and though its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases in the neighboring countries that Tehran occupies were targeted along with some of their local proxies, the strikes carried out by U.S. and British warplanes came after sufficient warning for the terrorists to flee to safety. So, it’s far from clear whether or not this was the strong message that was needed.
Even after American blood has been spilled and direct American interests—freedom of navigation in sea lanes where oil is shipped around the world from the Middle East—it would appear that the Biden administration hasn’t entirely gotten over its fixation with avoiding a confrontation with an Iranian regime that seems to believe that the current administration is a pushover.
This is a problem not just because of the danger that it poses to U.S. troops and assets or the threat to the shipping lanes. The perception of American weakness and the encouragement that has given Iran was in no small measure responsible for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the threat of the conflict spreading should its Hezbollah auxiliaries and other terrorists seek to expand the war.
While that threat should not be discounted, the question of how to avoid starting a bigger conflagration is not as simple as a policy based on a belief in avoiding antagonizing Tehran even when its leaders are unleashing mayhem.
Biden’s defenders say his critics want a war. Since former President Barack Obama began his pivot away from traditional U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia in pursuit of a rapprochement with Tehran, advocates of a soft approach to this regional menace try to frame the issue as one of a simple binary choice between a war with the Islamic Republic or an attempt to make peace with it. Indeed, that was more or less what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was saying when he said the administration’s goal was to avoid a “wider regional war” rather than to confine hostilities to those between Israel and Hamas.
Discarding lessons that Trump learned
But the notion that America’s options with Iran are that limited is simply not true, as former President Donald Trump showed.
Trump was always ambivalent about continued American involvement in the Middle East. This was rooted in his accurate analysis of the disastrous nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—and his neo-isolationist mindset has always scared many friends of Israel and is regarded as dangerous by the foreign-policy establishment. However, during his presidency, there were three significant exceptions to that formulation. One was his consistent support for Israel. The second was his commitment to destroy the ISIS terrorists that had seized much of Iraq and Syria after Obama’s decision to abandon Iraq. The third was his recognition that Iran was an enemy state that needed to be told its quest for regional hegemony would not be tolerated.
Trump’s historic support for Israel and the crushing of ISIS are a matter of historical record not open to debate. His stance on Iran remains controversial, and the Democratic critique of it is at the core of the current debate about Biden’s policies.
Trump withdrew from Obama’s catastrophic 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and dealt severe blows not to Iranian proxies but to Iran itself.
Democrats claim that Trump’s withdrawal from Obama’s deal discarded a useful tool in whose absence Tehran moved closer to getting a nuclear weapon. That’s not true. Contrary to Obama’s claims that he had solved the problem, the pact with Iran merely kicked the can down the road on the issue and actually guaranteed that the Islamist regime would build a nuclear weapon since its weak provisions expired with this decade. Trump rightly understood that sooner or later, an American president was going to have to scrap it, reassert crippling sanctions and force the Iranians to choose between the destruction of their economy and an agreement that would end their nuclear ambitions. Had he been re-elected—or if Democrats like Obama Secretary of State and current Biden climate czar John Kerry not disgracefully colluded with the Iranians as part of a plan to wait out Trump—his “maximum pressure” campaign might have succeeded.
Just as important, Trump was unafraid of taking out Iranian terrorists such as Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC, in January 2020. While Trump’s critics feared that the strike would lead to a war with Iran, the opposite was true. Iran blustered, but it also stood down. Trump’s willingness to hit America’s enemies hard while stopping short of a George W. Bush-style war, coupled with his unpredictability, turned out to be a recipe for a safer and more peaceful world. Regardless of what you might think of Trump, that’s something that the wars launched against Ukraine and Israel on Biden’s watch make all the more apparent.
Biden’s election meant a return to Obama’s appeasement policy with the Iran portfolio headed by Tehran apologist Robert Malley. He helped pack the administration with fellow travelers, though he has since lost his security clearance due to what may have been his sharing of American secrets with his Islamist negotiating partners.
Still, the repercussions of the pivot back to the futile quest for a rapprochement with Iran were more far-reaching than an unserious approach to the nuclear threat or the failure to help Iranians seeking to overturn their tyrannical Islamist overlords.
Obama’s nuclear deal enriched and empowered Iran to the point where it felt free to pursue regional hegemony with abandon, including by backing Houthi terrorists in Yemen against that country’s government and Saudi Arabia. Among Biden’s first acts was to reverse Trump’s policy that supported the Saudi war against the Houthis. Freed of that pressure, the Houthis are not only a bigger threat than they were several years ago but are now able to shoot Iranian missiles at Israeli targets, in addition to ships traversing the Horn of Africa into the Red Sea.
While Trump’s sanctions led Iran to cut back funding of terrorism, as even The New York Times was forced to admit in 2019, the relaxing of those sanctions by Biden was a gift to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and various Iraqi forces allied with Tehran. The Iranians and their allies were also clearly convinced that Biden’s feckless pursuit of a new and even weaker nuclear deal, as well as the disgraceful rout of Americans during Biden’s skedaddle from Afghanistan, was the best gauge of U.S. strength and will. It’s hardly a stretch to conclude that the unspeakable atrocities of Oct. 7 were made possible by certain assumptions in Tehran and Gaza about the United States. They must have believed that an attack on Israel was a more plausible strategy under a weak U.S. president.
It is to be hoped that Biden and his foreign policy team have drawn the correct conclusions from the disasters that they have presided over abroad and understand that appeasing Iran leads only to more bloodshed. They do appear to have repented, at least in part, their animus for the Saudis that characterized their approach to Mideast policy, if only because the Ukrainian war made Middle Eastern oil more important.
Hamas survival equals victory for Iran
But a few airstrikes taking out no major Iranian assets won’t restore the deterrence that Trump achieved and which was foolishly discarded. More to the point, the Iranians fully understand the implications of current Biden administration policy efforts to scale back Israeli efforts in the war against Hamas and to pressure Jerusalem to agree to a ceasefire that would allow Iran’s ally to emerge from the conflict without being fully defeated. Should such a deal, brokered in no small measure by Iran’s ally Qatar, be made, it might free the remaining Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. Yet it would also constitute a major strategic victory for Tehran.
With Hezbollah threatening Israel from the north and the Houthis running wild in Yemen, Iran has other cards to play as it seeks to enhance its hold on the region and to further endanger Israel and humiliate the United States. At this point, an administration that was serious about stopping Iran would understand that Israel’s eradication of Hamas—and to do so without Hezbollah doing much to help their Islamist allies in Gaza—would be a devastating blow to Iran’s status in the region. Tehran’s strength has rested on, in Lee Smith’s accurate characterization, as being “the strong horse” in the Middle East that was destined to defeat the Americans and around which Muslims should rally lest they be stuck backing the losing side.
The only way to convince the region to unite against Iran is for the West to start acting like it wants to defeat the Islamist tyrants. That was the impression that Trump’s actions gave, and the same would happen if Biden stopped trying to hamstring Israel’s campaign to eliminate Hamas. Yet if Biden is determined to stop the war before that happens and to be content with meaningless gestures to restrain Iran, it will be clear even to Arab states that loathe Tehran that as long as Biden is in the White House, the ayatollahs are indeed that strong horse to be feared and obeyed.
Biden’s post-Oct. 7 strong statements of support for Israel and his commitment to allow arms and ammunition to continue to flow to Israel despite the opposition of much of his party to the Jewish state was to his credit. But it doesn’t erase the fact that his policies made this crisis and the horrible losses suffered by Israel possible. If his desire to win back his left-wing intersectional base leads to policies—however much they will be spun as rooted in sympathy for suffering Palestinian civilians or a desire to free Israeli hostages—that will leave Hamas still standing when the shooting stops, then he will be handing Iran a triumph that may even eclipse Obama’s nuclear deal as a gift to a regime that hates the West and America as much as it does Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.