Biden said Wednesday that he warned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, that if Tehran continues to “move against” U.S. forces in the Middle East, “we will respond.”
The president’s disclosure, delivered while standing beside Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the White House Rose Garden, followed reports that nearly two dozen American troops were hurt within the last eight days after 14 or more aerial assaults on their bases in Iraq and Syria. An additional attack was recorded Wednesday, after three rockets were launched at a U.S. outpost in northeast Syria and one landed inside, a defense official said. No one was reported injured.
A senior administration official, who like some others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. government calculations, said that “nothing has changed about our prerogatives” to protect deployed service members, but “we’re also not blind to the fact that there are other forces at work now, and we want to be informed by what else is going on in the region.”
As the administration has surged combat power and defensive equipment to the Middle East, Republicans in Congress have implored Biden to respond to the attacks. They were joined on Wednesday by retired Gen. Joseph Votel, whose final posting, as the head of U.S. Central Command, afforded him firsthand insight into Iran’s support for militia groups throughout the Middle East. Votel, whose reputation as a nonpartisan military commander earned him admirers in Democratic and GOP administrations, said during an online panel discussion that the United States has “unfortunately” allowed the attacks to become “a little bit of a norm” by not responding to them uniformly.
“We will have to do that,” Votel said. “I think we are at the point where we can probably do that now, and we should.” With the additional military assets dispatched to the region, he added, “we can and should respond more directly to these threats on our troops.”
Iranian proxies have harassed deployed U.S. forces for years, flying self-detonating drones into remote outposts and, at times, provoking an American response. That happened in March, when Biden directed retaliatory airstrikes after an American contractor was killed and other U.S. personnel were wounded by such an attack in Syria. The president said then that Tehran should “be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people.”
The deliberations now are complicated by the Oct. 7 cross-border rampage in Israel by Hamas militants based in Gaza. The assault killed more than 1,400, compelling Israel to declare war. Hamas is part of the broader network receiving training and weapons from Iran, prompting concerns that other heavily armed proxy forces, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, could join the conflict.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq War veteran, said in an interview that the Middle East is a “tinderbox” at the moment, putting at odds the administration’s mandate to protect American troops with its efforts to avoid being drawn into a larger conflict in which U.S. forces also could be at risk. Biden and his top advisers, are “walking a fine line quite well,” he said, but the situation could change at any moment.
“Given the volatility in the region today, I think it’s unwise for any U.S. officials to publicly declare a line in the sand,” he said. “There are clearly entities in the Middle East that want a war, and we don’t want to play into that.”
Senior Pentagon officials this week have warned that they see the prospect for “significant escalation” against U.S. personnel across the Middle East in coming days. The U.S. Embassy in Kuwait underscored that point on Wednesday, issuing an alert that said U.S. officials were aware of threats made on social media by Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq, an Iraq-based militia with ties to Iranian-backed actors that have claimed numerous attacks against U.S. troops. “U.S. citizens,” it stated, “are advised to remain alert.”
Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general who led Central Command from 2019 to 2022, said the infusion of U.S. firepower into the region, including the deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups and additional air-defense units and fighter squadrons, should send a very clear message to Iran.
“Our posture in the region is getting significantly more powerful every day, and they’re going to pay attention to that,” McKenzie said.
Like Votel, McKenzie attributed the rise in attacks on U.S. forces in part to the decision not to routinely address earlier incidents. It’s likely, he added, that Central Command will develop options to do so, and then it will be up to Biden whether and how the United States responds.
“The Iranians tend to push until someone pushes back,” McKenzie said. “I would think that, at some point, you would want to push back — but that’s not a military decision.” He stopped short of echoing Votel’s call to do so now.
With the recent proxy attacks, Iran is testing the United States and looking for vulnerabilities, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. From Tehran’s perspective, he said, “there’s really no downside” to doing so as the United States says that it wants to avoid a broad regional war.
Bowman, an Afghanistan war veteran, said one sensible approach might be to launch airstrikes specifically at militias in Syria, to prevent Iranian officials from stirring up domestic politics against the United States in Iraq. There are about 900 American troops in Syria and another 2,500 in Iraq, with both groups focused on preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group.
“If you have these attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and we don’t respond in some way, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to think that we’re going to get more of the same,” he said. “The goal here is to prevent a smaller problem from becoming larger. We cannot permit cost-free attacks on our troops.”