Middle East Stability Requires a Strategic U.S. Response
It shouldn’t be business as usual after an attack that killed U.S. troops in Jordan.
The attack that claimed the lives of three U.S. troops and wounded at least another 34 in the northeastern part of Jordan this weekend raises the specter of a broader regional war, something the United States has sought to avoid since Hamas started its war against Israel last October 7. President Joe Biden issued a statement condemning the attack, saying “we know it was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq” and threatening to hold those responsible to account “at a time and manner of our choosing.”
A chronic and persistent threat
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
Iran and its network of regional partners and proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, among other places, has been seeking to push America out of the region for years. A long shadow war, captured in great detail in David Crist’s book, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, has played out between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Recent public reports and testimonies, including last year’s posture statement by General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, and the Global Threats Assessment issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2023, have pinpointed Iran as the most destabilizing actor in the region. These assessments have highlighted the role Tehran plays in undermining global security. Last year’s global threat assessment reads almost like a message from a fortune teller:
Iran will continue to threaten U.S. persons directly and via proxy attacks, particularly in the Middle East. Iran also remains committed to developing surrogate networks inside the United States, an objective it has pursued for more than a decade.
Nor is Tehran a threat just in the Middle East. Iran has exported its kamikaze drones to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine—drones now used by Iran’s proxies against U.S. troops in Jordan—and helped Moscow establish its own production lines. Iran also supplies Yemen’s Houthi militants with the anti-ship missiles and drones they’ve used to attack international shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in recent weeks and months, and Iranian personnel reportedly helped the Houthis plan and execute their attacks. That’s in addition to Iran’s long-standing willingness to carry out terrorist attacks and assassinations overseas, including in the United States, both on its own and through proxies like Hezbollah.
A new U.S. policy on Iran is long overdue.
The key question now is not if, but when and how, the United States will respond. In order to be effective, any U.S. action in response to this latest escalation should answer the central strategic question: how can American actions shape events in the region to its benefit and the benefit of its partners rather than simply reacting to events driven by adversaries in the region?
A strategic response, rather than a tactical and reactive one, is the best course.
Steps to restore deterrence without sparking a wider regional conventional war
When confronted with previous attacks on American bases by Iran and its proxies, the Biden administration has resorted to tit-for-tat retaliation against, for instance, warehouses used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its militia allies. As has become painfully evident, these limited strikes have not “restored deterrence” against Iran and its proxy groups in any meaningful way. Nor are they likely to do so in the current regional environment: it appears that the regime in Tehran sees the war in Gaza as an opportunity to push the United States out of the Middle East.
The so-called “Axis of Resistance,” the network that Iran has constructed over decades, appears to be taking action to put as much pressure on the United States as it can without directly confronting America’s vastly superior military—whether it’s the Houthis targeting international shipping in the Red Sea or Iraqi and Syrian militias attacking American troops deployed in those countries to fight terrorists. That means that neither tit-for-tat strikes, one-off assassinations of key leaders, nor even wider-ranging strikes like those conducted against the Houthis since the start of the year, will restore deterrence vis-à-vis Tehran.
There are no true “goldilocks” options available here. Attempts to fine-tune the American response to be somehow just right will probably prove too much for those opposed to any action against Iran and not enough to deter the regime in Tehran from further attacks. America has bent over backwards to avoid escalation with Iran and its partners, only to see that axis escalate repeatedly with little real cost beyond some replaceable weapons and, occasionally, a militia commander.
But there are steps the United States can take that don’t amount to continued, futile tit-for-tat strikes or launching a direct attack against Iran itself.
1. Targeted military strikes against militia leadership, others supporting them, and their capacities to attack.
First and most dramatically, the United States could mount strikes against deployed Iranian forces and allied militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen that go well beyond the previous tit-for-tat strikes or the current air campaign against the Houthis. After Sunday’s attack, there is a strong and legitimate argument for self-defense. These strikes should not be limited to militia commanders but instead include leaders and other members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps deployed to advise and assist these proxies. Targets should also include known drone production facilities and ballistic missile launch sites, and possibly Iranian military vessels aiding Houthi attacks against international shipping.
These strikes should be sudden, swift, and disproportionate, hitting as wide a range of targets as hard as possible in a limited period of time. They should not be drawn out over time or limited in initial scope but aim to do as much damage as possible in a short time. Graduated military pressure only gives Iran and its proxies time to become habituated to such strikes, leaving the United States more committed militarily to the Middle East but no better positioned than it is now.
As it conducts these strikes, the United States should step up force protection measures for its troops across the region. The militias who conducted this past weekend’s attacks appear to have exploited some vulnerabilities in the air defense system at the U.S. base, and force protection measures based on the lessons learned from any mistakes made at Tower 22 this past weekend should be implemented as quickly as possible.
Above all, though the United States should not fear escalation—it’s Tehran that needs to fear escalation with the United States.
2. Cyberattacks and covert action against the Iranian network across the region.
This overt effort should be complemented by a covert campaign intended to disrupt and sever the communications, finance, and supply networks that have enabled Iran to construct its team of proxies across the region. By necessity, these actions won’t be seen or noticed by the public—cyberattacks tend to come to light only after they’ve happened, for instance, and covert action typically only becomes immediately apparent if something goes terribly wrong. Such measures can’t substitute for direct military action in the way many in America’s policy debates have hoped over the past decade, but they’re still a necessary component of any realistic strategy to take down Iran’s network of regional proxies.
3. Steps to shore up and reinforce allies in the region.
Any covert campaign will likely rely heavily on America’s partners in the region—in this case, Jordan and Iraq as well as Syrian Kurdish and Arab partners in the country’s northeast. Israel, too, would likely play a major role in covert action. It has already conducted strikes against these same networks in recent weeks, even with its ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza and efforts to defend its northern border against Hezbollah.
Beyond intelligence cooperation, the United States should take visible steps to reinforce America’s regional partners. Deployment of additional air defense systems to Jordan and the Gulf, for instance, or surging fighter jets for joint exercises can send important positive signals. So can steps, such as visits by top American military commanders like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
4. Increased efforts to fight the media and propaganda wars and battle of ideas.
Iran and its partners have an aggressive messaging apparatus that spreads propaganda in the region and around the world, one that has some reach into America’s own media and think tank debates. Wittingly or not, a number of participants in these debates echo Tehran’s ideological claims about American involvement in the region and suggest that it’s best if the United States leaves as soon as possible. This propaganda puts forward the risible notion that Iranian meddling in countries across the Middle East is somehow “natural,” with the implication (sometimes outright stated) that Tehran is somehow entitled to suzerainty over the region—just as many American commentators echo Russian claims that the Kremlin is entitled to a sphere of influence that includes Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
The United States must do a better job to combat these false claims more directly, mainly by putting forward a credible narrative of Iranian meddling that highlights the destructive role Tehran has played in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza. It should emphasize that Tehran’s geographic location makes it all the more necessary for other, relatively smaller regional states to seek the help of an external balancer like the United States. Though these efforts should not lead with America’s liberal values—indeed, they should remain coldly realist in nature—those values should not be left behind.
5. Make the case against Iran public at the United Nations and other international organizations.
The United Nations remains a largely ineffective body, especially when it comes to countering Iranian meddling across the Middle East. Indeed, since October 7 UN organizations in Gaza have come under justifiable scrutiny for their role in propping up Hamas—to the point where some of their employees face credible accusations of outright participation in that day’s atrocities. Likewise, UN peacekeepers deployed in southern Lebanon after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah have not prevented Hezbollah from militarizing the border region and firing into Israel.
Still, the UN has its geopolitical uses. The United States could call on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution similar to the one passed (with abstentions from Russia, China, Mozambique, and Algeria) earlier this month condemning the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. It might propose an Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Iran and its network of proxies, something that would examine publicly available information and reports about Iran’s policy to destabilize the Middle East.
At very least, it’s worth attempting to embarrass Tehran’s main diplomatic backers on the global stage.
These recommendations have implications for the bigger global picture as well.
First and foremost, the United States needs to display a greater sense of urgency in rebuilding its defense industries. Even after almost two years of war in Ukraine, the United States and its allies still struggle to supply Kyiv with adequate numbers of artillery shells and air defense missiles for the NATO-standard howitzers and Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries they’ve acquired. Meeting Ukraine’s needs—assuming House Republicans choose to remove the dagger they still hold ominously over Kyiv’s back—and providing adequate defenses for American troops and partners in the Middle East will take more defense production capacity than is apparently currently available in the United States.
Nor will a retreat under fire by Iran and its militia allies, as some think tank voices and commentators recommend, help improve America’s global position. As with the ongoing Congressional debacle over aid to Ukraine, an American retreat from the Middle East after a relatively minor Iranian pressure campaign would create the impression worldwide that America is a paper tiger. It’s not hard to see what message that might send to Xi Jinping as he contemplates whether or not to invade Taiwan, for instance, or understand that Vladimir Putin’s already-low opinion of American resolve would sink even lower.
In terms of domestic politics, backing down in the face of Iranian attacks would probably not play well with the American public. According to the most recent YouGov/Economist tracking poll, 55 percent of Americans (including 46 percent of Democrats) see Iran as an enemy and an additional 22 percent (including 28 percent of Democrats) view Tehran as unfriendly to the United States. A majority of Americans (52 percent) also back recent air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen as well, though a good number (31 percent) remain unsure about the right course of action.
Ultimately, though, foreign policy decisions can’t be outsourced to public opinion surveys, important as they are in informing these choices. The United States needs to step back from its passive, reactive approach to Iranian aggression in the Middle East and start taking action to change Tehran’s strategic calculations. It will be difficult given the complexities of the region today, but it’s necessary to prevent matters from deteriorating even further and against America’s interests.
To do that, President Biden should order a strong and comprehensive response to the Iranian-backed militia’s attack against American soldiers posted to the territory of a long-standing partner of the United States.