Hamas’s latest response to the U.S./Qatari mediated ceasefire deal is significant for what it says about Iran’s role in the wider Mideast conflict.
President Biden was not impressed by Hamas’s counteroffer of, essentially, “give me everything I want.” The terror group just keeps asking for a deal that leaves them in power in Gaza and ends the war, requiring an IDF redeployment out of the strip. The negotiations are real but also farcical, in that Hamas has no idea what it’s supposed to do right now. Leader Yahya Sinwar is playing cat and mouse with the IDF, communication lines to other Iranian groups have been limited, and Israel has said that at least 30 and as many as 50 of the hostages Hamas still holds are dead. What’s more, approximately half of Hamas’s army is dead or seriously wounded, according to Israeli estimates.
All of which paints a very bleak picture of Hamas’s leverage. Sinwar knows that his troops have exactly one hope of survival: that America calls the fight before it’s finished. And the only way the U.S. would save Hamas from the dustbin of history is if Team Biden surrenders to Iran’s attacks, the most recent of which killed three U.S. troops at a base in Jordan.
Via various proxies, Iran has been attacking commercial ships traversing the Red Sea. It’s been targeting U.S. troops throughout the Middle East, especially in or from Iraq. It’s firing on Israeli civilians near Lebanon. And of course Iran was instrumental in Hamas’s taking Americans hostage in Gaza. The October 7 attacks were so vicious that there is almost no way to raise the cost to Israel of continued fighting in Gaza. So Iran is raising the cost of American support for Israel, which includes to some degree an increased U.S. military presence in the region.
The Iranian strategy appears to be based on Tehran’s previous ability to run U.S. troops out of the region, most infamously after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans. But the differences between the two situations are more important than their similarities, and one hopes the Biden administration is aware of them.
President Reagan deployed U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982 as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in the wake of the Israeli military campaign to push the PLO out of Lebanon. In September of that year, Lebanon’s newly elected pro-Israel President Bachir Gemayel was assassinated by Syria. Reagan informed Congress he was contributing 1,200 U.S. troops, at Lebanon’s request, and joining French and Italian peacekeepers, “to assure the safety of persons in the area and bring to an end the violence which has tragically recurred.” Chaos persisted, as did the U.S. troop presence, until the barracks bombing. Crucially, the administration removed the troops without hitting back at the Iranians’ chosen vessel for the slaughter, Hezbollah. “It is beneath our dignity to retaliate against the terrorists who blew up the Marine barracks,” claimed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey, one of the most absurdly foolish statements ever given by a high-ranking U.S. security official.
But that strategic timidity was gone by the end of the Reagan presidency, which refashioned its approach to terrorism in a much more serious way once the president’s inner circle was fully rounded out with people who understood the importance of the state sponsorship that was fueling global terrorism.
Biden’s responses so far to the attack in Jordan may be insufficient, but the doctrine of nonresponse itself is fully discredited. The president is under pressure from members of his own party to restore deterrence. Further, while the Iranians may be encouraged by Biden’s catastrophic pullout from Afghanistan (as would be any enemy of the West), they appear to be guilty of projection: Israel is not America’s proxy militia, and it will not end this war simply because the secretary of state wants the war to end.
Nor will Israel shy away from war with Hezbollah if that is what is required to allow its citizens to live safely in the north. “War would not be good for Hezbollah—they know they will pay a heavy price,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Jewish Insider. “But we mean to return our civilians to their homes either with a treaty or with force.”
The Iranians have learned the wrong lesson from 1983, and their best hope is that the Biden administration has done the same. But either way, Israel has agency here, and it intends to use it.