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The Perils of Strategic Incoherence
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The Perils of Strategic Incoherence

The Biden administration has been on a war footing with Iran and its proxies militarily while it appeases the regime diplomatically.

President Joe Biden speaks from the Roosevelt Room at the White House on December 6, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

As Israel contemplated its response in the days following the Hamas attack of October 7, President Joe Biden weighed in to forestall the possibility that the Iranian regime might try to save Hamas in Gaza by expanding the crisis to other fronts. “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: Don’t,” Biden warned. It was a message he reiterated two weeks later when he privately warned Iran’s supreme leader not to attack U.S. troops in the region. To bolster the message, Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin moved two carrier strike groups and a Marine expeditionary unit to reinforce the U.S. military posture in the Middle East. 

Nevertheless, the Iranian regime today is doing exactly what Biden warned it not to do: waging an escalating war against the United States and its allies across the entire Middle East. Biden’s attempt to deter Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards clearly failed, but why? And what can be done now to restore U.S. deterrence against the Iranian regime?

First, let’s recap where this Tehran-fueled confrontation stands. Were the Gaza battle not capturing the world’s attention, headlines from the Middle East would be filled with news from Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah and other Iranian-directed proxies are fighting an intense border war with Israel from both Lebanon and Syria, exchanging rocket fire and airstrikes on a scale not seen since 2006. The clashes have repeatedly shut down the Damascus airport, where Israeli airstrikes against IRGC targets have become routine.

Further east, Tehran’s Iraqi militant proxies have attacked U.S. troops or diplomatic facilities in Iraq and Syria more than 80 times since October 7. Until late November, the muted U.S. response consisted of a handful of airstrikes against empty militia buildings in eastern Syria that caused no casualties. Since then, the Pentagon’s retaliatory strikes have hit the IRGC’s proxies harder, killing a number of militants in both Syria and Iraq, but the IRGC-backed attacks against U.S. targets haven’t slackened.

On the other end of the Arabian peninsula, the IRGC is ramping up a proxy war via the Houthis as well. On land, the IRGC has used the Houthis to launch Iranian ballistic missiles at Israel several times since October 7. Most of these were intercepted by missile defenses in Saudi airspace and did no harm, but it has been a different story  at sea. The Houthis have conducted a string of attacks in the most strategically important shipping route connecting Asia and Europe. On December 3rd they fired missiles at three commercial cargo ships in international waters in the Red Sea, then falsely claimed the targeted ships were Israeli-owned. When the U.S. Navy destroyer Carney responded to the three vessels’ distress calls, the Houthis launched Iranian killer drones in the direction of the Carney, which shot them down. 

All of these attacks are designed to create pressure to allow Hamas to survive Israel’s offensive in Gaza. For weeks, senior regime officials and their most potent proxies have been threatening to “expand” the conflict if Israel’s offensive against Hamas did not stop. Iran’s foreign minister said on November 10 that “expansion of the scope of the [Gaza] war has become inevitable.” And just three days before the December 3rd missile and drone attacks, both the Houthis and an Iran-sponsored Iraqi militant group threatened to ramp up attacks against the U.S. and Israel if the Israelis resumed their offensive against Hamas after a temporary cease fire. 

Tehran’s message has been clear: If the West does not compel Israel to halt its pressure on Hamas, then the Iranian regime will make the United States, its European allies, and the global economy pay the price. 

It’s also clear that the Biden administration’s warnings, even when accompanied by significant U.S. military reinforcements, failed to deter Khamenei and his regime from cascading military confrontations across the region. Deterrence succeeds only when the party being warned is sure that acting will bring costs too heavy to be borne, and in this case Iranian leadership apparently believes Biden won’t impose such costs on Tehran. 

In truth, Biden has seriously undermined his own deterrence efforts by sending Iranian leaders mixed messages. In the military domain, the Biden administration has been on a war footing toward the Iranians and their proxies. But in the economic and diplomatic domains, Biden and his government are strangely stuck in October 6 mode.

The most glaring example is in sanctions enforcement—or lack thereof. The same Iranian regime that is attacking U.S. forces daily is simultaneously getting de facto sanctions relief from the Biden team, which has loosened enforcement so far that the Iranians are reportedly able to sell between 1.4 million and 2 million barrels of oil per day. Contrast that with the final months of the Trump administration, when Tehran struggled to sell 250,000 per day. At the same time IRGC proxies are attacking Red Sea shipping lanes with impunity, Tehran’s “shadow fleet” of tankers is delivering oil to illicit buyers—including well more than 1 million barrels a day to China. 

This misguided laxity has left Iran flush with cash: When Biden took office, Iranian foreign currency reserves were under $5 billion and the regime was near financial collapse, but now by some estimates those reserves total more than $60 billion. Add to these figures the fact that the Biden team continues to authorize Iraq to transfer payments of billions of dollars to Tehran and we reach the inescapable conclusion that Biden has no intention of bringing the Iranian regime under economic pressure.

The story is similar on the diplomatic front, where the Biden administration has done little since coming into office—and virtually nothing since October 7—to organize Tehran’s international isolation. Just eight days after the Hamas attack on Israel, the administration inexplicably chose not to prevent the expiration of a longstanding U.N. arms embargo on Tehran–even after the Islamic Republic intervened in the Ukraine war by supplying Russia with missiles, drones, and other weaponry to use against Ukrainian cities.

Nor has the Biden team mobilized an international coalition since October 7 to isolate Tehran for its more than 15 years of funding, arming, training, and guiding Hamas to wage war against Israel. Quite the contrary: President Biden and his senior officials have instead taken pains to publicly absolve the Iranian regime of responsibility for October 7. Despite years of Iranian material support of all kinds for Hamas, Biden said he saw “no clear evidence” of Tehran’s hand in Hamas’ attack, sounding more like a prosecutor trying to meet a burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt in a courtroom than a U.S. commander in chief acting on common sense in the real world.

The result of this mismatch between U.S. military pressure on one hand and economic and diplomatic non-pressure on the other is strategic incoherence. It makes no sense for the Biden administration to be at war with Tehran’s troops and proxies, but to leave Tehran’s revenues and political relations untouched. The incoherence has left our allies confused about U.S. intentions, skeptical that the administration has a workable plan for stabilizing the region, and hedging against the possibility that Biden and his team might eventually cave to Iranian pressure. Khamenei and his generals, meanwhile, are emboldened to continue their military pressure campaign without fear of serious consequences.

What’s really driving our allies’ discomfort, though, is not the possibility that the Biden administration has no plan for the region, but that they do have one—and that it involves a return to President Obama’s ill-conceived pursuit of detente with the Iranian regime through a nuclear deal or something approximating one. From its first weeks in office, the Biden administration has been seeking a reprise of the 2015 nuclear deal, making a long string of unilateral concessions and smaller “de-escalation” deals to entice the Iranians into cooperation again. Biden and his team reversed Trump’s terrorism designation of the Houthis, turned a blind eye to Tehran’s illicit oil sales, pushed for regional energy deals that would benefit the Assad regime and Hezbollah, and greenlit cash transfers to Iran under the cover of a deal to release U.S. hostages. 

These concessions in the pursuit of detente were the main element of Biden’s policy toward Iran and the entire region right up to October 6. Israel and other U.S. Middle Eastern allies must now consider the frightening possibility that October 7 has not changed Biden’s goals at all. There is no plausible explanation for Biden’s reluctance to enforce sanctions on Iranian oil sales since that day other than that he and his administration are keeping the door open for a return to a deal with Tehran—as soon as the Gaza crisis quiets down. 

The Iranian regime appears to have come to the same conclusion and is now dangling the idea that the nuclear deal can be revived. On December 1, Kamal Kharrazi, a former foreign minister who is a close adviser to the supreme leader, told France24 that “If [the other parties to the JCPOA] reverse course, we will return too. We’re ready to return to the JCPOA if the US and Europe return to their commitments.” 

Kharrazi’s closeness to Khamenei means this was not a random statement, but an enticement: If Washington will compel Israel to stop its campaign against Hamas, Iran will return to talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. It’s a carrot to the regime’s sticks: If Washington will not compel Israel to stop, then Tehran will attack U.S. troops and diplomats, open additional fronts against Israel, and disrupt the Asia-Europe economic lifeline. 

It’s an offer that would turn back the clock not just to October 6, 2023, but all the way to October 2015, when the JCPOA was adopted. And in this disingenuous Iranian arrangement, all that’s required from Biden is to bring Israel’s campaign against Hamas to a close. It may well be an offer the Biden team, which is staffed at its most senior levels by the 2015 nuclear deal negotiators themselves, finds too good to reject. That gives Biden an incentive to compel the Israelis to stop sooner rather than later, so the White House can capitalize on an Iranian offer that may have an expiration date.

Back in Israel, the gap between U.S. and Israeli intentions appears to be wider than it has been in decades. The world after October 7 will never be the same for Israelis, and the Israeli population appears to have concluded it cannot survive as a nation if Hamas continues to exist. Israelis also appear to have concluded that they cannot live in safety with the Iranian regime at any of their borders, and something must finally be done about that problem. Many of the more than 250,000 Israelis displaced since October 7 are from northern Israel, where the border war with Hezbollah and the IRGC rages. Once operations in Gaza wind down, the pressure on the Israeli government, however it may be constituted, to do something serious to enable these people to return to their homes will become irresistible. At that point, the Israeli security imperative to do something further against the Iranian regime and Hezbollah will collide with a Biden administration that is unwilling even to sanction Tehran.

One can sympathize with the Biden team’s forlorn wish that Middle Eastern affairs were not in the headlines, not on the president’s desk, and not a perpetual constraint to a U.S. pivot to somewhere else. The siren call of detente is captivating. But this is an October 6 dream in a post-October 7 world. The nuclear deal never made much sense before October 7: It was fatally flawed by giving the Iranian regime indigenous uranium enrichment, giving its restrictions expiration dates, and taking terrorism and missile sanctions off the table as long as Tehran complied with nuclear monitoring. But in the post-October 7 world, a nuclear deal—or any normalization deal—with Tehran would be not just unwise, but reckless. For almost three years, the Iranian regime has pocketed the Biden administration’s goodwill measures only to fuel escalating wars in both Europe and the Middle East. It is Khamenei who has deftly used a combination of pressure and incentives to deter the United States, not the other way around, and he and his regime are not done erasing red lines. 

The Biden administration hasn’t yet woken up to the inescapable reality that if the United States and its allies do not restore deterrence against the Iranian regime that made Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias, and the Houthis into the regional monsters they’ve become, then the next October 7 is just around the corner. The Middle East is drenched with gasoline and the Iranian regime is striking matches. The absence of a coherent, U.S.-led international pressure campaign to compel Khamenei to stop will only lead to a broader war. Detente without deterrence is nothing more than appeasement, and we all know how that story ends.

Joel Rayburn, a historian of the Middle East and former diplomat, is the founder and director of the American Center for Levant Studies.