As the United States prepares to launch retaliatory strikes after three American soldiers were killed in a drone attack by an Iranian-backed militant group, President Joe Biden faces a turning point in the Middle East conflict that carries high risks of escalation and heavy political consequences in an election year. .
The debate inside the White House is tense, according to a US official, as the administration considers options that some believe will send a clear message to Iranian-backed proxy groups to stop attacks, while others fear they could lead to broader fighting in the region. The Biden administration has strived to avoid this.
Meanwhile, Biden is under pressure from many Republicans to act more forcefully — with some even calling on him to strike directly inside Iran.
Biden said earlier this week that he had already decided how to respond to the deadly attack in Jordan. He did not go into detail but blamed Iran for providing weapons to armed groups, many of which the United States classifies as terrorist organizations.
However, Biden made clear what his ultimate considerations were. “I don’t think we need a broader war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for,” he told reporters.
“Politics plays a role, of course.”
Since the beginning of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Iranian-backed groups have launched more than 160 attacks on US military bases and assets in Syria, Iraq and Jordan, and targeted international cargo ships in the Red Sea.
“We have a strategic problem with Iran but we lack a strategic solution,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The choices that any and every administration has faced since the Iranian revolution are fraught with danger,” Miller told ABC News. “It’s not between good and bad policies. It’s between bad and worse policies.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that the administration is preparing a “multi-level response” aimed at weakening the capabilities of these groups. A US official familiar with the plan said the retaliatory strikes would extend over several days and hit multiple countries, including Iraq, Syria and possibly Yemen.
The key question, experts said, is whether the administration is able to calibrate strikes to successfully deter Iran and its proxies without plunging the region into the “broader war” that Biden wants to avoid.
Ali Fayez, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, said: “The pattern in the past few years has shown that Iran always retaliates in kind, and from that point on, there are risks that tensions will spiral out of control despite the fact that neither side wants to retaliate.” “In reality, there is no further escalation.” International Crisis Group’s Iran Project, told ABC News. “But they are in a game of chicken that neither side can ignore first.”
Observers noted that Biden’s decision-making process has become more complicated due to the impending elections, in 2017 More Americans They say foreign policy should be the most important issue.
Former President Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner for his party’s nomination, said last weekend’s deadly attack on US troops is the result of Biden’s “weakness and surrender,” calling into question his role as a world leader and commander-in-chief.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell criticized Biden for an apparent delay in responding to the January 28 attack — which some said may have been due to fear it would interfere with ongoing negotiations for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza. In exchange for the release of the hostages.
“For now, you would be forgiven for wondering whether President Biden might take longer to respond to the Iran-backed strike that killed American soldiers in Jordan than he did to finally approve long-range fires in Ukraine,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. Word speech. He added: “The administration’s public obsession with avoiding escalation at all costs only signals to our adversaries that the authorities can indeed take what they want by force.”
Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a former Defense Department official, told ABC News that Biden is walking a “tightrope” when it comes to how to respond.
He added: “He is in a difficult political position because politics will force him to think about this matter and act with a scalpel.” “But since this is an election this year, and this is probably the main foreign policy issue that Republicans are lining up to press, he can’t let politics be the only consideration here. Politics, of course, plays a role.”
Lord said the repercussions of a president appearing to have not acted forcefully enough could be “incredibly damaging” despite the nuances involved.
“It basically comes down to propaganda posters: Is the president tough enough on Iran? Is he appeasement? Is he doing enough to constrain them or to show them that we can’t be pressured?” The Lord added.
But the White House denied that Biden was taking the policy into account.
White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier, “He does not look at political calculations, ballots, or the electoral calendar while working to protect our troops ashore and our ships at sea, and any suggestion to the contrary is insulting.” week.
“When has war ever been kind to an American president?”
Meanwhile, some Democrats in Congress advise caution. Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a war veteran, said his colleagues who call for direct conflict with Iran are “playing into the enemy’s hands.”
“We must have an effective strategic response according to our terms and timetable. Deterrence is difficult and war is worse,” he said in a statement.
“You have to ask yourself the question: When has war ever been kind to an American president?” said Miller, a former State Department diplomat.
new reconnaissance A large majority of voters (84%) are concerned about the United States being drawn into a broader war after Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel in October and the resulting Israeli bombing of the neighboring Gaza Strip, showed from Quinnipiac University.
During the years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, opinion polls showed that American public opinion was tired of American intervention in the Middle East. Biden said he was a critic of the Iraq war, but despite his insistence on withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, he is still paying a political price for the chaotic US withdrawal.
“Wars don’t help American presidents, certainly not in the polls,” Miller said. “So, I think the administration, from the beginning, has been too cautious — its critics say too cautious — in dealing with Iran.”
Fayez, of the International Crisis Group, noted that the war in which Iran is participating will be different from previous conflicts in the region.
“Iran is a much larger and stronger country compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. A war with Iran will make the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan look like a walk in the park,” he said. “And I think the administration is very aware of all of this, and they’re really not seeking another military involvement in the Middle East. That’s why they’re acting with a high degree of prudence. But the key point is, at the same time, time, they’re stuck in this escalatory cycle.”
ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, Anne Flaherty and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com