What Biden's Military Options Against Iran Look Like

What Biden’s Military Options Against Iran Look Like

President Joe Biden has vowed to retaliate after the deaths of three U.S. personnel in a drone strike on a Syria border post in Jordan marked the first fatalities of a months-long campaign by Iran-backed militias lashing out in protest of Israel’s ongoing offensive nearly 300 miles away in Gaza.

As top U.S. officials draw up plans for how and when to strike back, former senior military officials with firsthand experience of conflict in the Middle East outline to Newsweek what may come next, while warning of the potential consequences of miscalculations that could spark the very kind of all-out war both Washington and Tehran say they seek to avoid.

Joseph Votel, a retired U.S. Army general who previously served as head of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Forces Command, told Newsweek that U.S. officials now are likely “analyzing and evaluating leadership, command and control and supply chain targets associated with the specific militia that orchestrated this attack.”

Members of Iran’s security forces parade during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in Tehran on September 22, 2023.

The attack, conducted Sunday at the Tower 22 base that sits along a U.S.-enforced demilitarized zone between Jordan and Syria, was claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. This coalition of Iran-backed “Axis of Resistance” militias, which is believed to include the likes of the Nujaba Movement, Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada, Ashab al-Kahf and others, has defied previous U.S. warnings and strikes, pressing on with new operations even after the stern threats issued in the wake of the deadly drone attack in Jordan.

In addition to considering ramping up operations against these non-state actors, however, the Biden administration was also likely “looking at direct Iranian targets like IRGC-QF [Islamic Revolutionary Guard-Quds Force] leaders, key facilitators as well as command and control and logistic nodes,” according to Votel.

“The targeting analysis is probably also at least considering targets that are more directly related to Iran—like perhaps some of their maritime assets or possibly coastal targets,” Votel, now a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute, said. “The decision to strike in Iran is a very big one, but I would expect that they are looking at a wide variety of options.”

The IRGC operates its own navy and fleet in parallel to Iran’s conventional naval force. The IRGC’s Alborz destroyer was reportedly deployed earlier this month to the Red Sea region where a U.S.-led coalition is engaged in clashes with another Iran-aligned militia, Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement, also known as the Houthis, which has launched a campaign of attacks against commercial vessels in response to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Iran’s Behshad cargo vessel, alleged by U.S. officials to be serving as an IRGC spy ship, has also been spotted in the area.

Both at sea and on land, Iran possesses the largest missile arsenal in the region, with extensive stockpiles of weapons hidden in sprawling underground complexes said to be capable of withstanding any major attack. Iranian officials have often warned that any such attack would be responded to with force, especially during periods of heightened tensions.

Votel’s tenure as CENTCOM commander coincided with a drastic flux in the course of U.S.-Iran relations that nearly erupted into a major confrontation. The dynamic between the two longtime rivals improved significantly with the advent of a multilateral nuclear deal that went into action months before Votel’s appointment in March 2016 under then-President Barack Obama, only for tensions to boil over after then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

By 2019, Washington and Tehran were openly exchanging threats with one another. Just months after Vogel’s retirement that March, and just as U.S. and Iran’s shared foe, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), was declared defeated, the Trump administration put into place a plan to strike Iran directly after the IRGC shot down an unmanned RQ-4A spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz in July.

While the plans were called off within the final hour of preparations, targets included air defense systems, as Newsweek reported at the time.

When Trump did order a high-profile strike against Iran amid worsening clashes between U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in January 2020, he chose to take out IRGC-QF commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, alongside Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitary coalition deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, at Baghdad International Airport. Iran responded with a barrage of missile strikes against U.S. positions in Iraq, injuring more than 100.

Soleimani is widely credited as the architect of the “Axis of Resistance” coalition that counts partner militias across the Middle East and beyond, to include Afghanistan and Pakistan. The IRGC reportedly continues to maintain regional positions established during the fight against ISIS, especially in Syria, where frequent airstrikes and assassinations of senior Iranian personnel have been widely blamed on Israel.

While Soleimani’s successor and current IRGC-QF leader, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, vowed to enact further revenge for the famed general’s killing, the path toward U.S.-Iran escalation largely subsided, even as tensions continued to fester. But the surprise attack launched last October by the Palestinian Hamas movement against Israel and the subsequent, ongoing Israeli offensive has once again inflamed the region, this time on multiple fronts, each with the growing capacity to ignite a wider conflict.

Iran has denied any direct involvement in militia attacks, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani telling reporters Monday that any claims to the contrary were “baseless.”

“The Islamic Republic of Iran does not welcome the expansion of clashes in the region,” Kanaani said, “nor does it intervene in the decisions made by the resistance groups on how to support the Palestinian nation or fend off themselves and the people of their countries against any act of aggression and occupation.”

Newsweek has reached out to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations and the Nujaba Movement for comment.

Votel, for his part, said that whichever targets may be chosen by the Biden administration in response to the recent drone attack “must convey an unambiguous appreciation that we hold Iran directly responsible for this attack and the actions of their so-called ‘axis of resistance.'”

“This is done by striking something that Iran values and the loss of which causes significant effects and impact,” Votel said. “The selection of the target(s) must also convey that Iran and its proxies have crossed a significant red line with the United States—the killing of American service members—which carries more strategic consequences.”

But he also asserted that such action should take into consideration the potential for escalation as “we don’t want an open war with Iran,” which “would not be in any nation’s interest.”

“What is important is that our strikes are also accompanied by a synchronized information campaign as well as economic and diplomatic actions that collectively put the greatest amount of punishment and pressure on Iran,” Votel said.

“Deterrence is never solely a product of military action or capability—the best deterrence is always a combination of all the elements of national power, not solely relying on military options is the best way to control escalation,” he added. “Iran will be more effectively deterred when they know we are willing to pull ‘all’ the levers available to us.”

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