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How Biden May Respond to the Drone Strike That Killed Three U.S. Soldiers

WorldHow Biden May Respond to the Drone Strike That Killed Three U.S. Soldiers

Even before the drone strike that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan on Sunday, the Biden administration was planning for a moment just like this, debating how it might strike back in ways that would deter Iran’s proxy forces and send a message that Tehran would not miss.

But the options range from the unsatisfying to the highly risky.

Mr. Biden could order strikes on the proxy forces, a major escalation of the whack-a-mole attacks it has conducted in recent weeks in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. So far, those attacks have put a dent into the abilities of the Iranian-backed groups that have mounted more than 160 attacks. But they have failed, as Mr. Biden himself noted 10 days ago, to deter those groups.

Mr. Biden could decide to go after the Iranian suppliers of drones and missiles, perhaps including inside Iranian territory, which poses a much higher risk. His first targets could well be members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, many of whom are based in Syria and Iraq. Depending on how these strikes are conducted, it could open another front in the war, with a far more powerful adversary, and trigger Tehran to accelerate its nuclear program.

In short, it would force Mr. Biden to do everything he has been trying so far to avoid.

There are options in between, officials say, and strikes could be combined with back-channel messaging to the Iranians that they should absorb the hit and not escalate. Such signaling has been successful before, including after the American-ordered killing of Qassim Suleimani, the head of its powerful Quds Force, in 2020. Then, as now, there were fears of an all-out war in the Middle East that would pit the United States and its allies against Iran and its proxies. Both sides backed away.

But the brew of political pressures, military calculations and regional fragility is quite different today from four years ago, even though evidence suggests that Iran does not want to engage directly in war either, especially when its own economy is weak.

“There are no good choices, but the deaths and wounds of so many U.S. troops and SEALs demand a strong response,” said James G. Stavridis, the retired Navy admiral who now works for the Carlyle Group, a global investment firm.

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