Biden should know by now why his message to Iran isn't getting through



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A “tiered approach” is how National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the U.S. response to the Jan. 28 attack against Tower 22 in Jordan. That attack, carried out by the Iran-backed Islamic Resistance in Iraq, killed three American soldiers and wounded another 40.  

President Joe Biden’s goal is to “degrade” the group’s ability to attack American troops and facilities, while sending a “strong signal to their backers,” namely Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

According to Pentagon Press Secretary Major General Pat Ryder, the initial tier of the air strikes on Feb. 2 included “more than 85 targets that Iran’s IRGC and affiliated militias have used to attack U.S. forces. The facilities struck included command-and-control operation centers, intelligence centers, rockets, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicle storage and logistics and munition supply chain facilities.” The general added that 80 of the 85 targets were “destroyed or functionally damaged.”  

Casualty account figures vary. According to the Middle East Institute, “of the 34 confirmed fatalities, all were locals, except four Afghan members of Liwa Fatemiyoun (an Afghan Shi’a force founded and supported by Tehran). In a separate report, the head of Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said “23 people were killed in the Syria strikes, all rank-and-file fighters.”

Contrary to Ryder’s announcement, Hussein al-Mosawi, spokesperson for Harakat al-Nujaba, one of the main Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, said the targeted sites in Iraq were mainly “devoid of fighters and military personnel at the time of the attack.”

Of note, not one of the 85 targets was in Iran, and not one member of the IRGC was a casualty. Conversely, in a single airstrike hours before the U.S. response, Israel killed IRGC military advisor Saeid Ali Dadi in south Damascus — their third airstrike against IRGC targets in Syria since Christmas.  

Israel has repeatedly made clear it “will not allow Iran to expand its presence.” Tuesday evening, it backed that up by striking “Shuyrat airbase and several locations on the outskirts of Homs, Syria,” killing two Hezbollah fighters. No forewarnings, just steel on target, removing the threat from the battlefield.

Groundhog Day was another day of empty messaging for the Biden administration. And the message, having been received, was promptly ignored as Iranian proxies launched at least three more suicide drone attacks against U.S. bases. The drones were supposedly intercepted.

That does not include the Houthi response to joint U.S.-United Kingdom strikes in Yemen. Houthi rebels continue to fire anti-ship ballistic missiles at commercial shipping and U.S. Navy ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and recently employed subsurface vessels. Houthi rebels have used subsurface vessels successfully against the Saudi Navy in their war against the Saudis.

A fourth attack occurred on Monday that resulted in six U.S.-backed fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) being killed in a drone strike on the U.S. base at al-Omar oilfield in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province. Eighteen were wounded in the attack. While no American casualties were taken, it was an American base.

The common denominator in all cases is Iran.

So the only message Iran seems to be getting loud and clear from the airstrikes conducted last Friday is that the White House is reluctant to strike targets inside Iran. Their proxies? Yes, but not Iran directly. Therefore, Iran’s response was to launch still more attacks through its proxies. Although Iran respects the capabilities of the U.S. military, it does not fear Biden, the man who would be responsible for giving the order to escalate.

When Biden and his spokespersons say they “do not want a war with Iran,” or they “do not want to widen the war in the Middle East,” Tehran believes them. That is the only message Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hears — everything else is noise. For Iran, it is part of the cost of doing business to have the U.S. target its proxies in northern Iraq and southeastern Syria. They are simply tools in Iran’s toolbox, to be discarded when their usefulness is complete.

What seemingly is not at risk are the instruments of war that Iran maintains within its own borders — IRGC facilities and leadership, the Shahed-136 UAV production facility in Esfahan, nuclear facilities weaponizing uranium, and oil production facilities funding their proxies. And even some senior leadership of these proxy groups does not make the target list.

Conspicuously missing from the list of targets are Abu Fadak Al-Mohammedawi, chief of staff of Iraq’s Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Forces (Iraq’s equivalent of the IRGC) who likely ordered the attack on Tower 22, and Abdul Malik al-Houthi in Yemen.

It was not until Wednesday night that the U.S. targeted Abu Baqir al-Saadi and Arkan Al-Alawi in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. They were leaders within Kataib Hezbollah and were likely involved in the decision to strike Tower 22 on Jan. 28.

Biden and his National Security team need to get out of the messaging business with Iran. They are now 0 for 3 at effective messaging. The next tier of the “multiple actions” described by Kirby must hit closer to home for the message to resonate in Tehran. Washington must quit swatting at flies and start hitting nails on their heads. General Michael E. Kurilla and his team at U.S. Central Command are the hammer. The other instruments of national power can be applied post-strike to reinforce the message.

Iran is already preparing for the next tier. Biden needs to change his calculus. Iran likely believes he lacks the political will to take them on directly during a president election campaign. It is time for the president to prove them wrong before the next U.S. soldier is killed or wounded.

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy. 





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