JONATHAN SWEET AND MARK TOTH | The Hill
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have already launched a war against the United States. But no one in the Biden administration wants to admit it.
This became even more painfully obvious on Sunday, when dozens of Americans paid the price for the White House’s dithering in holding Iran to account.
Three U.S. service members were killed and more than 34 injured during a drone attack close to the Jordanian-Syrian border. President Biden was quick to condemn the attack and noted, “While we are still gathering the facts of this attack, we know it was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq.”
Sunday’s loss of life has been a Biden administration trainwreck long in the making. Biden’s staff clearly do not understand Iran. This is the second major underestimation of Iranian intentions and capabilities.
The first came in September, when Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security advisor, fatefully asserted that “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” Eight days later, Hamas struck Israel, using Iranian resources and an Iranian-approved attack plan.
Sullivan has failed to acknowledge, let alone counter, the clear and present danger Iran represents to U.S. national security interests across the Middle East. He is evidently living in a fantasy land when it comes to proactively addressing the kinetic threats posed by the IRGC and is setting the president up for failure in the Middle East.
For his own part, Biden provided the second underestimation two weeks ago, when he foolishly boasted after the Joint U.S.-United Kingdom strike on Houthi targets in Yemen, “I’ve already delivered a message to Iran. They know not to do anything.”
Except they did, and Americans died as a result. Iran once again leveraged its proxies to attack an American base — the 159th such attack on U.S. forces in the region since Oct. 17. It is unconscionable that this base could have been struck by an unmanned aerial drone attack, given the defensive weapons available to protect the base from just such an attack.
Whatever strategy the White House is pursuing with Iran is failing. Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken top the list of advisers to blame. Iran has taken advantage of their gullibility.
It is time for the White House to act decisively. The IRGC must be given a severe bloody nose. It is well and good to strike the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, but the IRGC must be on the target list as well. Biden’s timidity over escalation against an extremely aggressive enemy has led to the very escalation that Sullivan keeps saying his policy is designed to prevent.
While it is encouraging that Biden announced the U.S. “will hold all those responsible to account at a time and manner of our choosing,” it was disconcerting to hear Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin characterizing it once again as “[taking] all necessary actions to defend the United States, our troops, and our interests.
More defense is not what is needed, unless there are any bases still without the weapons systems needed to protect against drone attacks. What is needed is to take the fight to Iran and the IRGC. They need a direct message that Washington is playing to win, because playing for a tie is only resulting in U.S. troops being killed and wounded.
Tens of thousands more of America’s finest women and men are presently in harm’s way across the eastern Mediterranean, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Red Sea and nearby Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It is time for Biden to take the targets off their backs and to put them instead on Khamenei and the IRGC.
For Biden, hitting empty buildings should no longer be an option. As Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has frequently noted, such a toothless response would be “feckless” and is not going to get the job done.
Congress needs to be doing more as well. Iran’s accelerating pursuit of nuclear weapons is already sufficient basis for bipartisan action. Iran needs to be hit kinetically, legislatively and asymmetrically. Iran’s ability to generate revenue must be crippled as well.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) must make the first move. For now, he has been blocking the MAHSA Act that would “impose maximum sanctions” on Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” president and others “for their human rights abuses and support of terrorism.” Named after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian who died after being arrested for incorrectly wearing a compulsory hajib, this measure passed the House last September with 410 ayes.
The primary onus, however, is on the White House and Pentagon. Biden needs to turn to his advisers for kinetic options, and pull the trigger.
Yet for now, Gen. C.Q. Brown, new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears unwilling to counsel the president to go down that path — or perhaps he is being hemmed in by Sullivan. In a Sunday morning interview with Martha Raddatz on ABC News, Brown stated that it is the administration’s policy not “to have the conflict broaden.”
The chairman also said, incredibly, that he does not believe Iran wants a war with the U.S., in spite of every indication to the contrary. Consider that Iranian-backed militias have now attacked U.S. military forces 159 times in Iraq and Syria. IRGC-sponsored Houthi rebels operating from northern Yemen have carried out over three dozen attacks against civilian and naval vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The disconnect is astounding.
And the inability of Biden’s national security team to see that its fear of escalation has already led to escalation is deeply troubling. It is as if the U.S. is watching a replay of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, only in slow-motion, with the White House professing an unwillingness to escalate the situation any further. The Biden administration is struggling to keep its head above water.
When will Biden, his national security team and Capitol Hill wake up to the reality that Khamenei is already at war with the U.S., whether they want to admit it or not?
Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy.