Pressure is mounting on U.S. President Joe Biden to attack Iran directly after three U.S. troops were killed and more than 30 others injured in a drone attack on an American outpost in northeastern Jordan.
While hitting Iranian targets is an option, analysts say the U.S. is more likely to strike one or more of Iranian-supported proxy groups based in Iraq and Syria -- but acknowledge it is increasingly difficult for Washington to sidestep direct confrontation with Tehran.
Biden has been reluctant to directly strike Iran, fearing it may plunge the crisis-riddled Middle East into a wider conflict amid the wars in Gaza and Yemen and Huthi rebel attacks on maritime ships in the Red Sea and counterstrikes by U.S. and British forces.
But the deaths and dozens of casualties of U.S. troops in a drone attack on the Tower 22 military outpost in Jordan, near the border with Syria, may compel the United States to deliver a stronger-than-usual response. The attack was claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella organization comprised of Iranian-backed militias.
In a January 28 statement, Biden explicitly blamed “radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq” but did not indicate that Tehran had ordered the strike.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said similarly that the militias were responsible for the attacks and echoed Biden’s vow that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing.”
What A Response Might Look Like
A chorus of voices in the U.S. Congress -- mainly Republicans -- has been urging the U.S. administration to strike a direct blow against Iran.
“Hit Iran now. Hit them hard,” demanded Senator Lindsay Graham (Republican-South Carolina).
Senator Tom Cotton (Republican-Arkansas), a staunch critic of the Biden administration’s Iran policy, insisted that the deaths of the three U.S. troops warranted a “devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East.”
However, analysts say targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), especially in Iranian territory, would be seen as a major escalation by Tehran.
“The idea of targeting IRGC positions within Iran would seem rational only if the United States was pursuing a full-scale war with Iran, a scenario not currently apparent,” Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told RFE/RL.
Instead, Washington is more likely to target Tehran-backed militias in Iraq or Syria in a manner that satisfies the concerned voices at home.
“Consequently, the United States may opt to target high-ranking leaders of the Iraqi militias,” said Azizi. “I remain skeptical that such a measure will serve as an effective deterrent, but American officials might deem the risk of this approach more acceptable than a direct strike on Iran.”
Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda: “We have finally arrived at the point where the U.S. can no longer sidestep escalation against Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
She predicted that Washington would likely respond with strikes in those two countries rather than hitting Iran directly but warned that it was becoming more difficult for the U.S. government to avoid direct conflict with Tehran.
“If further attacks on U.S. forces and international shipping don’t come to an end, it’s going to get harder and harder for the Biden administration to resist the pressure to take the fight to Iran,” Vakil said.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad, director of the Center for Middle East and Global Order in Berlin, told RFE/RL that Washington and Tehran have a “comparable level of antipathy” toward starting a direct war.
He added that the United States would rather strike IRGC positions in the region rather than inside Iran.
Iranian officials have sought to distance Tehran from the drone attack in Jordan without condemning it.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani insisted on January 29 that “resistance groups…do not take orders from Iran.”
Separately, Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib maintained that the Iran-backed militias operate “at their own discretion” against “American aggressors.”
Fathollah-Nejad said that, while Iranian proxies “may indeed enjoy some level of independence,” the Islamic republic would not risk allowing them complete autonomy in the “dangerous” context of the war in Gaza “to avoid being dragged into any direct confrontation” with the United States and Israel.
Region In Turmoil
Many have for months feared a region-wide conflict after the October eruption of the war between Israel and Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Israel launched an offensive in Gaza that has killed many thousands of people in the Palestinian enclave in retaliation to a Hamas-led attack on October 7 that killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
Members of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” -- Iran’s network of regional allies and proxies -- have joined the fray in support of the Palestinians.
Hizballah in Lebanon has been sporadically launching rockets at northern Israel while Iran-backed militias have targeted American forces in Syria and Iraq more than 150 times. No U.S. soldier was killed in the attacks until the drone strike in Jordan on January 28.
The U.S. has responded to the attacks, even killing the leader of an Iran-aligned militia in Iraq earlier this month in a precision air strike.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels have for months sought to disrupt shipping in the Red Sea by targeting commercial vessels with alleged ties to Israel or bound for Israeli ports. They have since expanded their targets to include American and British-linked vessels in response to U.S. and U.K. air strikes on Huthi positions in Yemen.
The drone attack on U.S. forces in Jordan and the Huthis’ continued targeting of commercial ships, including tankers, caused an oil price hike on January 29, according to Reuters.
Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee said on January 28 that the “violence [in the Middle East] is spiraling out of control,” and insisted that a cease-fire in Gaza was necessary to reduce tensions.
Vakil agreed that a cease-fire is “more urgent than ever to prevent a broader regional escalation” but cautioned that a cessation of hostilities in Gaza would not necessarily stop attacks by Iran-backed groups.
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