As the U.S. readies retaliatory strikes after three American troops were killed in a drone attack by an Iran-backed militant group, President Joe Biden is facing a turning point in the Middle East conflict that carries significant risks of escalation and heavy election-year political consequences.
The debate inside the White House is tense, according to a U.S. official, as the administration weighs options that some believe will send a clear message to Iran-backed proxy groups to stop the attacks while others fear they could trigger broader fighting in the region that the Biden administration has strenuously sought to avoid.
At the same time, Biden is under pressure from many Republicans to act even more forcefully — with some calling on him to strike directly inside Iran.
Biden said earlier this week he’d already decided how to respond to the deadly attack in Jordan. He did not elaborate but laid blame on Iran for providing weapons to the militant groups, many of which are labeled terrorist organizations by the U.S.
Still, Biden made it clear what his bottom-line considerations were. “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for,” he told reporters.
‘Politics, of course, plays a role’
Since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict, Iranian-backed groups have launched more than 160 attacks on U.S. military bases and assets in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, and have targeted international shipping vessels in the Red Sea.
Iran has denied involvement in the deadly strike in Jordan, though a U.S. official said the battlefield forensics showed the drone used in the attack was an Iranian-made Shahed drone.
“We have a strategic problem with Iran but we lack a strategic solution,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The choices that any administration and every administration have faced since the Iranian Revolution are fraught,” Miller told ABC News. “They are not between good and bad policies. They’re between bad and worse policies.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday the administration’s preparing a “multi-tiered response” that aims to weaken the groups’ capabilities. A U.S. official familiar with the plan said the retaliatory strikes will unfold across several days and hit multiple countries, including Iraq, Syria and possibly Yemen.
The key question, experts said, is whether the administration can calibrate the strikes to successfully deter Iran and its proxies without plunging the region into the “wider war” Biden wants to avoid.
“The pattern of the past few years has demonstrated that Iran always retaliates in kind and from that point on, there are risks that tensions could spin out of control despite the fact that neither side actually wants any further escalation,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, told ABC News. “But they are in a game of chicken that neither side can afford to blink first.”
Biden’s decision making is made complicated even more by the impending election, observers noted, in a year when more Americans are saying foreign policy should be a top issue.
Former President Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner for his party’s nomination, has said last weekend’s deadly attack on U.S. troops is a result of “Biden’s weakness and surrender,” calling into question his role as world leader and commander in chief.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell hit Biden over the seeming delay in responding to the Jan. 28 attack — which some have said could be due to the fear it will interfere with ongoing negotiations for a temporary cease-fire deal in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages.
“Right now, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether President Biden might take longer to respond to the Iran-backed strike that killed U.S. soldiers in Jordan than he did to finally approve long-range fires for Ukraine,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech. “The administration’s pubic obsession with avoiding escalation at all costs only signals to our adversaries that indeed authorities can take what they want by force.”
Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security and a former Defense Department official, told ABC News Biden is on a “tightrope” when it comes to how to respond.
“He’s in a politically tough spot because policy would compel him to think about this and act with a scalpel,” he said. “But this being an election this year, and this being probably the premier foreign policy issue Republicans are lining up to cudgel him with, he can’t let policy be the only consideration here. Politics, of course, plays a role.”
Lord said the fallout of the president appearing to not have acted strongly enough could be “incredibly damaging” despite the nuances involved.
“It basically gets down to bumper stickers of: Is the president tough enough on Iran? Is he an appeaser? Is he doing enough to constrain or to show them we can’t be pushed around?” Lord added.
The White House, however, denied Biden was taking politics into consideration.
“He’s not looking at political calculations, or the polling, or the electoral calendar as he works to protect our troops ashore and our ships at sea — and any suggestion to the contrary is offensive,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier this week.
‘When has war been kind to an American president?’
Meanwhile, some Democrats in Congress are advising caution. Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a veteran, said his colleagues calling for a direct conflict with Iran are “playing into the enemy’s hands.”
“We must have an effective, strategic response on our terms and our timeline. Deterrence is hard; war is worse,” he said in a statement.
Miller, a former State Department diplomat, said: “You have to ask yourself the question: When has war been kind to an American president?”
A new survey from Quinnipiac University showed an overwhelming majority of voters (84%) are concerned about the U.S. being pulled into a wider war after the Hamas terror attack on Israel in October and Israel’s resulting bombardment of the neighboring Gaza Strip.
And during years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, polls showed the American public grew tired of the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Biden has said he was an Iraq War critic, but even though he insistened on pulling American troops out of Afghanistan, he’s still paying a political price for the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.
“Wars do not help American presidents, certainly not in the polls,” Miller said. “So, I think the administration, from the beginning, has been extremely careful — its critics say too careful — in dealing with Iran.”
Vaez, with the International Crisis Group, also noted a war involving Iran would be different than past conflicts in the region.
“Iran is a much bigger and stronger country compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. A war with Iran would make conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan look like a walk in the park,” he said. “And I think the administration is fully aware of all of this, and it really is not seeking another military entanglement in the Middle East. And that is why it’s proceeding with a high degree of prudence. But the main point is, at the same time, they’re locked into this escalatory cycle.”
ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, Anne Flaherty and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.