January 31, 2024
IntelBrief: The U.S. Readies its Response to the Jordan Attack, Leaving the Region on Edge
The Biden administration has convened top officials across the U.S. government to craft a menu of options that will determine how Washington responds to the recent drone attack in Jordan that killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens more. While Iran has denied any role in the attack, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has claimed responsibility. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq is an umbrella term for the various Iran-backed militias that operate across Iraq and Syria, including Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. With the recent attack, some believe that Iran is attempting to send a message to the United States that if the conflict continues to escalate, Tehran and its so-called “axis of resistance” are prepared to go on the offensive, including targeting U.S. troops wherever they are throughout the region. President Biden recently met with his secretaries of State and Defense, as well as the U.S. National Security Advisor, Director of National Intelligence, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. Biden has pledged that the U.S. “shall respond,” and the question now is not if but rather when, where, and what shape a U.S. response ultimately takes. The Biden administration finds itself in a difficult position, under pressure from domestic political opponents, while also tasked with the immediate objective of settling on a response that can deter future attacks from Iranian proxies without escalating the war any further.
The situation between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah remains tense along the border, and if an all-out conflict ensues between the two, Iran is demonstrating that it has both the will and the capability to wreak havoc in the Middle East, a scenario intended to give both Israel and the United States pause as the war in Gaza expands and Iran shifts its red lines. During a forty-eight-hour period in mid-January, Iran fired missiles at targets in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Pakistan. The strike in Aleppo, Syria, ostensibly against Islamic State targets, was conducted using one of Tehran’s most advanced and longest-range missiles, the Kheibar Shekan, likely as proof of concept to Iranian missile capabilities to both Israel and the United States. Iranian proxies have launched more than 160 attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria since October. While the attack in Jordan has raised alarm bells in Washington, the view from Tehran could be quite different — the Iranian regime may merely view it as the latest tit-for-tat that far predates the Hamas attacks against Israel on October 7, the trigger point that catalyzed the current turmoil in the region. Israel has targeted high-ranking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) as well as prominent figures in Iran’s axis of resistance, killing IRGC-QF adviser Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Damascus in late December and Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut in early January. The United States has killed high-ranking Shia militia commanders in Iraq, while also targeting the Houthis in Yemen with airstrikes in an effort to dissuade the Houthis from attacking commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, to no avail. The Biden administration recently designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, though stopped short of redesignating the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
The U.S. response to the attack in Jordan could unfold along several lines of effort. One response could be to target Iranian-backed militia infrastructure and personnel in western Iraq and eastern Syria, sites where IRGC personnel could be co-located. The U.S. intelligence community maintains high-level intelligence on Iranian targets and has a long list of sites to choose from. The goal will be to respond directly to the perpetrators of the attack in Jordan, which is the most justifiable politically for the Biden administration. Unlike previous U.S. efforts, the response to the Jordan attack could be a tiered approach, occurring on multiple levels and in various stages, an extended campaign sustained over days at different sites. The U.S. military could also target Iranian naval assets in the Persian Gulf, an option favored by those in Washington calling for the Biden administration to exact a higher price on Iran, although this remains to be determined, especially considering the administration's risk tolerance and stated desire to avoid further escalation. The U.S. did take military action against Iranian naval assets in April 1988 with Operation Praying Mantis, in connection with the Iran-Iraq War, but in the current context of proxy battles, Washington has eschewed overt military strikes on Iran's territory. There could also be an offensive cyber operation launched in tandem with kinetic strikes, an attempt to cripple Iranian military and intelligence networks and a reminder of Washington’s superior cyber capabilities. Finally, the United States could target weapons and missile production facilities on Iranian soil, the most severe option, as the Administration attempts to respond forcefully but without escalating the conflict further. Most agree that sanctions are moot at this point, leading to diminishing returns and amounting to little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist.
Each of the various options the U.S. could pursue comes with its own individual consequences and potential second-order effects. An aggressive and sustained military campaign against Kataib Hezbollah and the constellation of militias that comprise the Islamic Resistance in Iraq will inevitably lead to growing pressure on the Iraqi government to evict U.S. troops from the country. A withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. troops from Iraq would be seen as a major victory while simultaneously enabling a potential resurgence of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. IS has recently launched attacks in both Iran and Türkiye and could be biding its time to make a more concerted revival. Yesterday afternoon, Kataib Hezbollah announced that it was planning to suspend all military operations against U.S. troops in the region in order to prevent the “embarrassment” of the Iraqi government. When asked about this announcement, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder replied by saying, “actions speak louder than words.”
The U.S. response should be driven by concerns related to force protection, deterrence, and controlling escalation but it will also inevitably be influenced by domestic politics. If the Biden administration’s response is seen as too weak, not only could it invite further attacks from Iran, but it will also expose the Administration to growing criticism from prominent Republicans calling on President Biden to do more. A response that is seen to be overly aggressive could alienate members of the electorate across parties, including anti-war activists and isolationists who view extracting U.S. troops from the region as more important than standing up to Tehran. Furthermore, significant escalation or widening of the conflict is expected to have negative impacts on the global economy. A U.S. military response against targets within Iran could cause Tehran to attempt to close off the Strait of Hormuz, causing massive economic disruptions and a subsequent political backlash against the Administration ahead of the November U.S. elections. Given the extant volatility in the region and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, President Biden may prioritize avoiding escalation over pursuing a policy aimed at truly effective deterrence. There will be political consequences for this choice, but they may ultimately be lower than the humanitarian and economic costs associated with a potential widening of the conflict.