Pressure mounting for Biden to bomb Iran – Asia Times

Pressure mounting for Biden to bomb Iran - Asia Times

US President Joe Biden had hoped to avoid direct participation in the Israeli-Hamas war, even while wholeheartedly supporting Israel’s goal of defeating and destroying Hamas.

Instead, the US is now involved militarily along two fronts trying to deter Iran-supported militias from firing on American troops based in the region and on ships traversing the Red Sea.

The US will be hard-pressed to exit quickly either arena amid the raging Gaza war, which Israeli officials have estimated will last through 2024. With no near-term exit in sight, the US is left trying to deter Iran-backed adversaries by bombing them. And so far, it’s not working.

Over the weekend, a drone launched from Iraq by an anti-US militia sponsored by Iran flew into Jordan, struck a small US Army base there and killed three American soldiers while injuring over 30 others.

Meanwhile, Iran-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen who for a month have been trying to sink commercial and military ships in the Red Sea, the gateway to the Suez Canal which provides a key trade route between Europe and Asia, have opened another US military front as it tries to protect the region’s shipping.

It is not just random militias that Biden has to take into consideration. The militias in Syria and Iraq harassing US forces as well as the Houthis attacking Red Sea shipping, are all sponsored militarily by Iran, a US adversary since the 1970s.

First, Biden must decide how to respond militarily to the drone attack and hope that response deters rather than motivates more attacks. Since October 7, when Hamas invaded Israel, there have been several attempts by roaming Iranian-backed militias to hit US forces stationed in Iraq and Syria.

However, none until the weekend had resulted in the deaths of Americans. In response to those non-lethal attacks, Biden had only to order up low-intensity drone and missile strikes that took a limited toll on enemy forces in what could be characterized as a kind of phony war scenario.

Now, he arguably has to kill someone. On January 30, Biden tried to talk tough about how the US might respond while remaining vague about the likely scope. Queried whether Iran was to blame for the drone assault that killed US troops in Jordan, he answered curtly, “Yes.”

US President Joe Biden has broadly supported Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s war effort. Image: NBC Screengrab

Then he suggested the response would be limited. “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I am looking for,“ he told reporters at the White House as he prepared to depart for two election campaign events in the state of Florida.

Later he said Iran may or may not have been responsible: “I do hold them responsible, in the sense that they’re supplying the weapons to the people who did it.” Then, when asked if Iran’s link to the attack had been well-established, he answered, “We’ll have that discussion.”

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House, followed up by suggesting that some sort of limited retaliation, rather than a big bomb response, was on the way.

“It’s fair for you to expect that we will respond in an appropriate fashion and it is very possible that what you’ll see is a tiered approach here, not just a single action, but essentially multiple actions,” he said.

Such a response is unlikely to lower the American political temperature; campaigns for the November 5 election have already entered a feverish pitch.

Biden’s political opponents quickly criticized his approach to retaliation even though it was left vague. Former president Donald Trump, Biden’s likely opponent in this fall’s election, harshly criticized him.

“This brazen attack on the United States is yet another horrific and tragic consequence of Joe Biden’s weakness and surrender,” said Trump.

“The entire world now watches for signs that the president is finally prepared to exercise American strength to compel Iran to change its behavior,” added Mitch McConnell, the top Republican member of the US Senate.

If the Gaza situation wasn’t headache enough, American naval combat in the Red Sea has so far failed, after several weeks of trying, to deter attacks by the Houthis.

The Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping is the first time the route to the Suez Canal has been blocked since the 1967 Middle East War when Egypt closed the canal for eight years.

Almost all commercial shipping that would normally pass through, to and from the Suez Canal has now been routed to a much longer and costlier trajectory around the Cape of Good Hope in far southern Africa.

The current blockage represents a challenge to the long-standing, self-declared US role as international caretaker of major maritime routes worldwide. The US first took up the chore, if rather prematurely, even before it achieved independence from Great Britain.

“Since 1775, America’s Navy has maintained freedom of the seas. Not only for our nation, but for our allies and strategic partners,” reads an explanation on the official US Navy website.

“We recruit, train, equip and organize to deliver combat-ready Naval forces while maintaining security and deterrence through sustained forward presence. It means we’re here to keep our shipping lanes open, so your packages can cross the ocean without interruption from bad actors.”

The Houthis seem unimpressed, so far. And the economic repercussions of disrupted trade flows are already being felt far and wide. Allied Europe fears the added distance from Asia will make imports costlier, feeding inflation.

Exports to Asia are also blocked, making its goods more expensive abroad and possibly reducing already low continental economic growth. Notably, neither China nor India, both of which trade abundantly with Europe, are joining the US-led anti-Houthi flotilla, known as “Operation Prosperity Guardian.”  

Unlike the US, China places the solution not in defending freedom of the seas but in resolving the Gaza war. “A speedy end to the conflict in Gaza will help ease the situation in the Red Sea,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on January 30.

China has naval ships moored at Djibouti, situated at the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, at a base inaugurated in 2017. A pier was constructed four years later to accommodate aircraft carriers. China describes the functions of the base as supporting humanitarian and anti-piracy missions.

India said its focus was not on the Red Sea but rather on the Gulf of Aden where pirates are taking advantage of the international focus on the Houthis and not on the piracy menace in the Gulf of Aden. “Houthis and piracy are disconnected, but pirates are trying to use this opportunity while the West’s efforts are focused on the Red Sea,” an Indian naval official told reporters this week.

Yet, in December, an Indian naval vessel rescued a pair of merchant ships hit by strikes from land near India’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Indian officials described the weapons used as Shahed 136 drones made in Iran but declined to blame Iran.

On January 17, India responded to a drone attack on a Marshall Island-flagged cargo vessel in the Gulf of Aden with nine Indian crew members aboard.

While publicly refraining from criticizing Iran, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made a quick visit to Tehran on January 29 to raise the sea security issue with the government, according to Indian press reports.

The Marlin Luanda on fire in the Red Sea. Picture: @FFEAU_ALINDIEN / X Screengrab

The US solution to the Houthi problem mirrors the one Washington prefers to apply to Iran’s proxies north of Israel: bombardment. The only debate within the Biden administration is whether Iran, as the sponsor of the Houthis and militias in Syria and Iraq, should be bombed directly instead of its proxies.

European and Arab governments, on the other hand, prefer a ceasefire in Gaza that would  rob the Iran-backed groups of their declared rationale for attacking the US or blocking the Red Sea.

“The US and the EU, together with the UK, must urgently press for a ceasefire to prevent a broader regional conflagration,” wrote the European Council on Foreign Affairs, a pan-European think tank.

However, Hamas is also calling for a ceasefire. The militant group is clearly looking for a way to end the massive casualties and destruction of Gaza infrastructure inflicted by Israeli bombing and save itself from being fully obliterated. 

Israel has refused a ceasefire while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has predicted the war will go on until year’s end. Presumably, that calendar would possibly force the US to keep bombing Iran-backed militant organizations, if not Iran itself, for at least the next 11 months or until someone gives in.