March 2, 2024

(Bloomberg) — US President Joe Biden faces intensifying pressure to confront Iran directly after the country’s proxies killed three American soldiers in a drone strike in Jordan over the weekend, risking precisely the wider regional conflict that he’s trying to avoid.

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A person familiar with the US position, who asked not to be identified discussing private discussions, said it was clear that a strike — which also wounded at least 34 — would force a stronger response than what the US has done so far in the weeks since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and touched off a new conflagration in the Middle East.

Iran said it had “no connection and had nothing to do” with the attack, according to Iranian media on Monday, citing Tehran’s representative at the United Nations.

Brent oil prices jumped as much as 1.5% in early trading, before paring gains to around $84 a barrel. They rose more than 6% last week as regional tensions deepened and the Houthis, an Iran-backed militant group in Yemen, struck a tanker carrying Russian fuel on Friday.

One possibility is covert action that would see the US strike Iran without claiming credit for it but sending a clear message regardless. The Biden administration could also target Iranian officials, as former President Donald Trump did when he ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020.

The attack presents Biden with a decision that will be one of the most consequential of his presidency. He wants to punish the perpetrators of the attack and deter Iran from its actions in the region. But doing so could put the US into direct confrontation with the leadership in Tehran, which has already been emboldened in the region since the Hamas attack, launching attacks in Iraq and Pakistan.

He must also weigh the potential for further economic upheaval as the US contends with Houthi militants – another Iranian proxy – that has roiled global shipping and sparked fears of fresh economic turmoil by targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea, which accounts for 12% of global trade.

“The Biden administration is going to have to tread a very delicate line in trying to respond forcefully enough to restore some modicum of deterrence so this doesn’t happen again, while not undertaking a response that escalates the conflict,” said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former deputy national intelligence officer at the National Intelligence Council. “The broader challenge, however, is how to address an Iranian threat.”

Biden is already vowing retaliation after the attack on a base called Tower 22, located in north-east Jordan close to the borders of Iraq and Syria.

“We will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing,” he said in a statement.

US bases in Iraq and Syria have come under fire multiple times from Iran-supported groups since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. While many troops have been injured in those two countries, none have died.

The attack in Jordan marked the first American deaths under enemy attack since Israel and Hamas went to war. Two Navy SEALs were presumed to be dead last week after they went missing during a seizure of Iranian weapons intended for Houthis on Jan. 11.

Read more: Iran Redraws the Battlefield of Israel Proxy War With New Fronts

Any escalation also risks scuttling US efforts to forge a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that could help stem their conflict in Gaza, which has inflamed tensions across the Middle East. Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns was headed to Paris for talks aimed at halting the violence for at least two months in exchange for Hamas releasing most of the remaining hostages seized in its Oct. 7 attack against Israel.

Those talks have no guarantee of success given the need to persuade not only Hamas, but also Israel, which has resisted pressure to ease its military campaign despite growing US alarm about the civilian toll and increasing international condemnation. In a statement Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “significant gaps” remain, though he called the talks productive.

Pressure was already mounting back home on Biden to take direct action against Iran, with Republicans in Congress blaming Biden for what they called timid responses to action by Iranian proxies so far.

“The Biden administration’s responses thus far have only invited more attacks,” Senator Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It is time to act swiftly and decisively for the whole world to see.”

Either way, analysts argue that the US is on the cusp of being pulled even further into the regional conflict. The US has launched dozens of strikes against Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria, and has also launched a wave of strikes against the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran Emboldened

None of it has worked so far. In fact, Republicans like Wicker argue, Iran has only been emboldened.

One thing that seems least likely at this stage is that the US would consider pulling back troops from Jordan, Syria and Iraq, where they had been stationed as part of efforts to defeat the Islamic State in recent years. With that threat receding, some critics have argued the US was only exposing its service members to threats for no good reason.

Jordan has asked the US and other friendly states to supply it with the necessary weapons to boost security on its borders with Iraq and Syria, state-run Petra news agency reported, citing the government’s spokesperson.

“Jordan is a longtime security partner, but we are going to have to ask ourselves whether the US troop presence in Iraq and Syria is worth it,” said Gil Barndollar, a fellow at Defense Priorities and a former US Marine Corps infantry officer.

Doing that may be seen as a gift to Iran, which has wide influence over the Iraqi government and militant forces in Syria.

“We’re going to need to think more about what we do for the Iranians to understand that there’s a risk here, and it’s not a risk they want to take,” said Dennis Ross, who served as the White House Middle East envoy under President Bill Clinton and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If the character of our response is the same that it’s been up to now, the message is they can continue to do this and it won’t cost them anything.”

–With assistance from Dana Khraiche.

(Updates from fourth paragraph with Iranian statement.)

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