The United States increasingly is embroiled in a high-stakes standoff with Iran, reminiscent of the early Cold War or pre-World War I gunboat diplomacy. Last week, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian addressed the U.N. General Assembly and walked right over President Biden’s red line against widening the Israel-Hamas conflict. “American statesmen: We don’t welcome the expansion of war in the region, but if the genocide in Gaza continues, they won’t be spared from this fire,” the Iranian official said. At the same time, Iran-backed proxies were crossing Biden’s other red line—against targeting U.S. forces—by continuing their attacks on U.S. bases around the Middle East.
As Israel’s Gaza operation unfolds, Biden will face mounting pressure to persuade Iran’s leaders to back down, precisely by convincing them that he will not. Success, however, will entail more than just amassing carrier strike groups and fighter squadrons in Iran’s front yard. Iran’s clerical regime today is fully confident that it can triumph in what is fundamentally a “competition in risk-taking, characterized not so much by tests of force as tests of nerve,” as Thomas Schelling, the doyen of such brinkmanship, put it. Credibility and clarity matter just as much as capability in these circumstances, but here the United States is straining under serious deficits.
At this point, seeking to cool tensions and avert escalation with olive branches and assuaging tones will only embolden Iran further. And President Biden is quickly running out of time to change tack and head off a major conflagration.
Unfortunately Iran’s belief in its deterrent edge, or escalation dominance, over the United States in this sharpening confrontation is incredibly well-founded, which makes it both harder and more imperative for the president to force Iran to reevaluate this self-assurance. As with the contests of wills that defined U.S.-Iran relations in the decades before the Iranian revolution, Tehran is willing to court head-on conflict because it has every reason to think we will blink first.