Between January 2021 and March 2023, U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria were subject to 80 attacks from rockets, drones, and similar weaponry. In the past month, there were at least 61 such attacks. Iranian proxies, officials say, are the culprits.
That count comes from the Washington Post, which also reveals that the attacks have targeted ten different U.S. bases. Like Defense Department leaks in the early days and weeks of the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s defensive war in Gaza, the anonymous officials’ gripe is the belief that no one in the White House has a strategy: “Are we trying to deter future Iranian attacks like this? Well, that’s clearly not working.”
The earlier leaks were, almost without question, intended to pressure President Biden to restrict Israel’s military options in its response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre. It’s unclear whether the leakers this time round want Biden to be tougher on Iran or to redeploy forces away from the region in a bid to pacify Tehran and isolate Israel. But either way, the officials talking out of school are right about one thing: The current approach isn’t working.
That approach consists of U.S. airstrikes on select targets, a buildup of U.S. air defense systems, and warnings to Iran to knock it off or else.
No one is exactly sure what “or else” means, though: “Carrying out strikes in Iraq, for instance, has the potential to exacerbate anti-American sentiment there, where U.S. troops are deployed at the invitation of the government in Baghdad. Direct strikes on Iran would amount to a massive escalation.”
Administration officials argue that the fact that the Israel-Hamas war hasn’t spread proves the White House has found the right balance.
The problem with that line of thinking isn’t that it’s wrong exactly—containing the conflict is absolutely a goal shared by the U.S. and Israel, as it should be. The problem is that it telegraphs the administration’s biggest concern, which drains the credibility of the retaliatory threats. It tells Iran that there might not be an “or else,” at all.
But there’s another problem here that becomes clearer when you zoom out to the Biden administration’s overall Mideast strategy: there is a desire to minimize Iran’s involvement when there is really no denying Tehran’s central role.
The most recent example of this is the hostage negotiation. Qatar, a major financial patron of Hamas and host of the terrorist group’s offices abroad, has mediated the talks. But so far there isn’t much to show for Qatar’s influence, and the Qataris may in fact be simply milking their influence over Western analysts and media figures rather than over Hamas by controlling the narrative in the press. Meanwhile, when the Red Cross wanted to be seen as furthering a hostage release, the agency went straight to the top: Tehran. “The Iranian regime held a meeting with the committee’s president, according to Iran’s own regime media: Press TV and Fars News,” reports the Jerusalem Post. “Press TV also said that ‘the Israeli regime has, throughout the war, been stonewalling Hamas… concerning the issue of the prisoners of war.’”
The Thai government took the same approach. About 25 Thai citizens were abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7. Haaretz reports that “Iran has been trying to consolidate its influence over any future deals. The Thai government was apparently the first to make use of the Iranian axis to try to secure the release of its hostages.” Tehran has already obtained photos of the Thai nationals in Hamas’s clutches, according to the report.
The Iranians simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bigfoot the U.S. and especially Israel. Reuters reports that Hamas has agreed to include all the Thai captives if a major deal is struck.
The administration’s attempts to downplay the attacks on U.S. troops can be seen in this context as well, as the Washington Post story points out: “In their public statements, Defense Department officials have sought to downplay the attacks in Iraq and Syria, describing them as often inaccurate and causing little damage to U.S. infrastructure. The troops who have been hurt all have returned to duty, they’ve said, classifying the reported brain injuries and other collateral as ‘minor.’ The United States has also added more air defense systems into the region, which have shot down several of the drones, according to the Pentagon data.”
And what happens if and when an American is killed by these Iranian proxy strikes?
The lesson of recent history is that you can only ignore Iran’s culpability for so long before Tehran makes it impossible to do so. And in the meantime, it chips away at the great superpower’s deterrence. The Biden administration might not want to admit to a weary public that our troops are increasingly in harm’s way. But they’ll find out anyway, either when Biden takes sufficient measures to protect U.S. troops or when the Iranians show the world that he hasn’t. Surely that choice isn’t as difficult as administration officials are making it seem.