American Troops Seen as ‘Sitting Ducks’ in Mideast While Biden Administration Dithers Over Iranian Deterrence

After U.S. personnel in the region are victimized, the White House deputy national security adviser insists America will respond ‘to establish deterrence in these situations, and to hold these groups accountable that continue to attack us.’

Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge/U.S. Navy via AP
The guided-missile destroyer USS Carney at Souda Bay, Greece. Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge/U.S. Navy via AP

Many have long assumed that American casualties would be the trigger for a strong response to Iran-orchestrated Mideast aggression, yet now that U.S. personnel have been victimized, will President Biden act militarily to deter further attacks?

Two Navy SEALs missing since January 11 amid an operation to seize Iranian arms bound for the Houthis in Yemen have been confirmed dead. “We regret to announce that after a 10-day exhaustive search, our two missing U.S. Navy SEALs have not been located and their status has been changed to deceased,” the Pentagon’s Central Command said Sunday. 

Also, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia over the weekend conducted the largest attack to date against an American base in Iraq. Several Iraqi and American personnel at the Al-Asad air base were seriously injured in an attack that included multiple ballistic missiles and rockets. Some suffered what Centcom described as traumatic brain injuries. 

“I don’t think we should be waiting for Americans to be killed,” the policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, Jason Brodsky, tells the Sun. Unless deterrence against Iran’s proxies and Tehran itself is reestablished, he says, “our troops are sitting ducks” across the Mideast. 

“You can be assured that we are taking this extremely seriously,” the White House deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer, told ABC News on Sunday, referring to the Al-Asad base attack. America, he added, will respond “to establish deterrence in these situations, and to hold these groups accountable that continue to attack us.”

For now, Washington has been careful to avoid an uptick in the violence, responding eight times to more than 150 attacks on American targets in Iraq and Syria. The Biden administration “does not want an escalation during an election cycle,” a senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Jonathan Schanzer, tells the Sun. Such an escalation “would not be popular among progressives,” he says.

Yet, Mr. Schanzer notes, Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are intensifying attacks on America and its allies, and Iran itself is striking American targets and launching missiles at Pakistan. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arms, finances, and trains these proxies, Tehran is attempting to keep plausible deniability about its responsibility for the escalation.   

“From the very beginning of the Israeli genocidal war in Gaza, which followed the October operation, we gave warnings if the attacks, the war crimes, and genocide against Gaza and the West Bank do not stop, the war will spread out,” the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday. “It doesn’t mean that we wanted to play a role in this enlargement.”

The White House initially abetted the Iranian attempt to maintain public distance, however implausible, from its proxies. After the October 7 Hamas atrocities, Washington officials spread the word that the U.S. has no indication that Iran was “directly” involved in the attack. 

Since then, the administration has been more willing to point fingers at Tehran. “The IRGC Quds Force and Iran-aligned militia groups pose a significant threat to the Middle East region,” the Department of State said in a statement Monday, as it imposed new sanctions on the Shiite Iraqi group Kataib Hezbollah and some Iraqi businessmen. 

Yet, even if the U.S. will strike the militias responsible for the missile attack in Iraq, and even as it strikes Houthi targets in Yemen with increased frequency, Washington for now is careful to avoid direct hits on IRGC targets inside Iran.   

“We’re twisting ourselves into pretzels” to ignore Iran’s responsibility for the Mideast violence, Mr. Brodsky says. “We self-deter. The entire Mideast policy is based on fear of escalation, and that’s not a strategy. Sometimes we have to escalate to de-escalate.”

In 2020, America killed the IRGC Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, and Iran was under “maximum pressure” due to onerous, tightly enforced sanctions. Yet, at that time Iran was far less aggressive in the region than it is now. A more cautious approach, coupled with backroom attempts at negotiations with the Islamic Republic, seem to have led to sharpened attacks. 

This week, the Iranian foreign minister, is expected to arrive at New York for United Nations meetings. In 2020, in contrast, the state department denied an entry visa for the foreign minister at the time, Javad Zarif, who asked to address the UN.

While no American official is expected to meet with Mr. Abdollahian, his presence on American soil while Iran and its proxies increasingly sharpen their Mideast attacks signals business as usual, rather than added pressure on Tehran to cease its malign regional activities.  

The policy of the current administration is to “bend over backward to appease the Iranians,” Mr. Schanzer says. Part of it is a “quixotic hope that a deal can be made” over Iran’s nuclear arms race. There is also an “orthodoxy, since the Obama years, that engagement with the regime, and standing down in the face of aggression, will work.”

The New York Sun

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