Jason M. Brodsky

Why is President Biden scared of Iran?

(Photo: Getty)

The Biden administration often appears more afraid of Iran than Iran is of the Biden administration. That is a very dangerous dynamic for the United States. While the military action President Joe Biden has ordered this week to counter the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its axis of resistance is degrading Iran’s capacity, it is not deterring its will.

President Biden often appears uncomfortable speaking about Iran. Throughout his presidency, he has never delivered substantive, formal remarks outlining his Iran policy. This is unusual for a regime that poses a significant threat to American interests and values. On January 30, when the president was asked about his response to Iran’s axis of resistance’s killing three American service members in a drone attack in Jordan, he gave short answers as Marine One was noisily waiting in the background for his departure from the White House. He has relied on short, written statements on all things Iran – including when announcing the deaths of the US troops on January 28 and when the United States began its retaliation.

The president has reportedly hesitated to even deliver a formal address to the nation on the subject – something his predecessors did as they authorised military action. He feels a major speech ‘could escalate tensions with Iran and spark a larger regional conflict,’ according to Politico. In recent days, his administration leaked intelligence assessments which portrayed Iran as not being in full control of its proxies. This leak appeared to be political in nature to justify solely targeting the tentacles of the Octopus, Iran’s proxies, rather than the head in Tehran.

An unnamed senior official even went as far as to publicly rule out a US strike on Iran—something the US national security advisor had to walk back in a later television interview because the remark was so damaging. When America finally responded to the Jordan attack, with missile strikes on Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria this week, there was a days-long build up. Coupled with an unusual transparency about the timing and tenor of the military response, this allowed key Iranian commanders to flee Iraq and Syria to Iran for safety.

After making a short trip to Iraq – which was tellingly publicised – ahead of the February 2nd US military strikes, the IRGC’s Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani quickly returned to Iran, evidently confident he would not be an American target and could get away with a brief visit. Ghaani was safely ensconced in Tehran with his deputy Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh as the US precision strikes started.

The fact that America clearly does not want conflict with Iran has also telegraphed weakness. Iranian decision-makers are well-aware of this. If the president appears frightened to give a speech, it raises questions as to whether the supreme leader in Tehran fears a credible military threat to his nuclear programme.

Despite this American appeasement, the Islamic Republic has not reciprocated. It has picked up on the president’s trepidation. Iranian media has portrayed Biden as bruised and bloodied on the frontpages of newspapers like Hamshahri, calling him the ‘region’s punching bag’.

In its response to the Iranian backed drone attack on Tower 22 in Jordan, which killed three US soldiers, the Biden administration has focused its response on: ‘command and control centres, headquarters buildings and intelligence centres; rocket, missile, and drone storage facilities; and logistics ammunition supply chain facilities.’ While the number of targets hit by the US may have increased compared to previous retaliations, the quality has remained the same. The focus is on the regional architecture of the IRGC’s Quds Force and its proxies. The United States has also been trying to avoid Iranian deaths in its attacks. This is playing by Iran’s rules. Iran is more than happy to fight to the last Iraqi.

Even in Yemen, the Biden administration has focused solely on Houthi targets and avoided IRGC targets like its Behshad spy ship, which provides intelligence to the Houthis enabling the militants to target international shipping. The president has also likely authorised cyberoperations, but their details have not been made public.

The history of the Islamic Republic’s responses to American and Israeli attacks on Iranian targets does not suggest that President Biden should show this kind of restraint. In 1988 when the United States launched Operation Praying Mantis, which sank half of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s navy, Iranian maritime provocations subsided and the episode contributed to the end of the Iran-Iraq war. When a mysterious blast in 2011 at Bidganeh killed 17 members of Iran’s Armed Forces, including the father of the IRGC’s missile programme, Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, numerous press reports surfaced suggesting Israel was behind the episode. But it did not lead to war. After Israel killed in 2022 an IRGC Quds Force officer, Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, a senior leader of its extraterritorial covert terror Unit 840 in the heart of Tehran, war did not breakout either. The United States should learn from these Israeli experiences.

Even after the United States openly killed the IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020, it did not bring about war. Iran did retaliate with a significant missile attack against Ain al-Asad Airbase, which did not take any US lives. But Ali Shamkhani, then-secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, later said that Iran gave advanced warning to Iraq, who, according to some accounts, gave Washington the heads up (although some US officials maintained afterwards that Iran had every intention to kill Americans in the retaliation and it was good intelligence which saved lives).

Since 1979, Iran has successfully deterred the United States from launching military strikes on its soil despite four decades of its own anti-American aggression, including IRGC and Iranian Intelligence ministry organised assassination plots on US soil. But the United States has hesitated, self-deterred, and offered an unwarranted degree of deference to Iran. The only way to change Iranian perceptions about lack of American resolve is to shock the Islamic Republic out of its complacency by directly striking strategic targets of value to the supreme leader.