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Biden is running out of time on taming Iran as failure to do so could prove catastrophic

OpinionBiden is running out of time on taming Iran as failure to do so could prove catastrophic

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Iran has crossed the rubicon, when its proxies launched a drone attack that killed three of our soldiers in Jordan on Sunday. The strike marks a clear escalation in the de facto war launched by Iran on the United States, in response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Tehran-backed Hamas on Israel. 

Iran will almost certainly ratchet up hostilities in the coming days, weeks and probably months. The window of opportunity for President Biden to tame Iran with decisive action is closing rapidly. Here’s why.

First, Tehran highly likely views the Biden administration as extremely risk-averse and unlikely to engage with it in a direct large-scale kinetic confrontation. Despite the steady escalation of the scope and scale of Tehran-backed attacks on U.S. forces and bases in the Middle East in the past 100 days, Washington’s response has been focused on proportionality and escalation control. Rather than establishing escalation dominance by bringing war home to Iran, the White House authorized only periodic individual strikes on proxy targets. 

TIME FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN TO FOLLOW ‘THE GIPPER’ AND INVOKE THE REAGAN DOCTRINE AGAINST IRAN

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reviews a group of armed forces cadets during their graduation ceremony, in Tehran on Oct. 10. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The number of attacks by Iranian militias targeting U.S. military personnel from Oct. 17 to Jan. 29 has reached 165 and the number of injured Americans has climbed to 34, most involving traumatic brain damage. And yet, the key message coming out of the administration has been “We do not seek war with Iran.” 

Everyone, from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, to the National Security Council’s John Kirby, to the commander in chief himself has rushed to telegraph to Tehran that the president’s primary goal is to avoid escalation and a wider conflict, rather than to protect U.S. troops and end hostilities. A key tenet of the Western conception of warfare, proportionality, is culturally alien to Iranians. Consequently, they interpret Biden’s measured response as a sign of weakness and acquiescence to aggression. 

Second, Iran’s aggression is almost certainly underpinned by its increasing confidence in the imminent viability of its nuclear deterrent. In early January, nuclear expert David Albright, who served as a weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq, issued a shocking new report, assessing that Iran needs as little as one week to construct its first nuclear weapon, once the leadership issues the order to do so. According to Albright, Iran has sufficient weapons-grade uranium to build six weapons in one month, and 12 weapons in five months. 

The Iranian regime, therefore, probably calculates that its new status of a de facto nuclear power is a sufficient deterrent that will prevent Washington from launching a mass devastating retaliatory strike on Iran proper. 

IS THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION PREPARING FOR THE WRONG KIND OF WAR WITH IRAN?

President Joe Biden

President Biden speaks at the University of Tampa on Feb. 9, 2023. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Tehran likely watched closely the Biden administration’s reluctance to fully back Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. It is because of the threat – likely real, in my assessment – of Putin’s launching a tactical nuclear strike on the battlefield in Ukraine that President Biden ruled out the deployment of forces into the theater soon after Russia attacked Ukraine. The ayatollahs probably believe that Biden’s fear of nuclear Armageddon and of Iran’s strategic partnership with Russia will further influence the White House’s decision calculus regarding the kind of retaliatory measures it is willing to take against Iran.

Third, Iran probably believes it has a sufficient missile and drone arsenal to keep U.S. forces in the region at risk. Iran’s target list includes some 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, 900 in Syria and an embassy in Baghdad. 

Iran has the largest and most diverse missile force in the Middle East, according to the 2019 assessment by Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) titled “Iran Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance.”  Designed to “overwhelm U.S. forces and our partners in the region,” Tehran’s “substantial” arsenal includes close-range, short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles that can strike targets throughout the region as far as 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders, as far as Israel and southeastern Europe.

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Iranian flag, missiles

Missiles and an Iran flag are displayed at Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) National Aerospace Park in western Tehran, Oct. 11, 2023. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Moreover, the Iranian state has prioritized its missile modernization, focusing on improvements in range, accuracy, mobility, warhead design and survivability. The employment of improved guidance technology and maneuverability has resulted in increased lethality and precision of Iranian missiles, almost certainly emboldening the regime to act more provocatively.

In its most recent effort to further augment its ballistic missile arsenal, on Jan. 20, Iran launched an advanced satellite, named Soraya, into the highest orbit yet. Carrying a 110-pound payload, Soraya was placed in orbit 460 miles above the Earth’s surface, using a three-stage Qaem 100 rocket. The launch, which was condemned by the U.K., France and Germany in a joint statement, very likely allowed Iran to test an increased lift capacity of its space launch vehicle (SLV) technology – needed to place an object in a higher orbit in space – that is essential for the development of an indigenous long-range strike capability. 

Progress in its space program could shorten Iran’s pathway to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) because SLVs use very similar technologies. If Iran develops a booster capable of ICBM ranges, it can reach the continental United States, if configured for that purpose, warned the DIA. The fact that Iran is deepening ties, including in “the field of military-technical cooperation,” with Russia, which is the world’s leader in space launch and nuclear know-how, makes Tehran’s progress in ICBM development even more alarming.

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Iranian flag

The flag of Iran in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria. (Michael Gruber/Getty Images)

On Monday, Austin vowed that the U.S. will respond to Iran-backed lethal attack “at a time and place of our choosing.” But the president doesn’t have much time to deliberate. Iran clearly doesn’t feel threatened by Biden’s “Don’t. Don’t” counter-strategy and is postured to climb the escalation ladder. 

Once Iran achieves an operational capability to deliver a nuclear strike on Israel and Europe – and then, eventually, on the U.S. homeland – it will be nearly impossible to re-establish deterrence without accepting the risk of a broader war. The time to act is now. 

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