Biden’s ‘Very Dangerous’ Race to Avert All-Out War With Iran

Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein

A senior U.S. military commander landed in Israel on Thursday a day after President Joe Biden warned that Iran may soon launch a “significant” attack on the country in retaliation for the assassination of a top commander in Syria.

The trip by Gen. Erik Kurilla, who will help Israel coordinate a military strategy in response to the threat, comes at a “very dangerous” moment for regional security and for the United States, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has served as senior adviser on the Middle East to four U.S. presidents on the National Security Council.

“The Israeli decision to attack, to bomb the Iranian embassy in Damascus was extremely provocative. Attacking a diplomatic facility is a big step up,” Riedel said, referring to the attack on an Iranian mission in Syria last week that killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi and other IRGC officials.

Iran has blamed the attack on Israel and pledged to retaliate. The Israeli government has yet to publicly claim responsibility for the assassination.

U.S. Intel Warns of Imminent Iranian Strike on Israel: Report

The staring contest between Iran and Israel now is the closest we’ve come to an all-out regional war since the beginning of the Gaza war, according to Jonathan Panikoff, a former Defense Intelligence Agency Middle East analyst and former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East at the National Intelligence Council.

“The potential of a very quick spiral up the escalatory ladder is immense,” Panikoff told The Daily Beast. “The Israelis, you have a number of folks in Israel who want to frankly engage in a more fulsome conflict with Hezbollah and some who I think want to take on a conflict with Iran directly. And so, this will be that excuse if Iran responds in a way that would engender such a reaction from Israel.”

Iranian officials have signaled that the purpose of conducting retaliatory strikes against Israel would be to reestablish deterrence and prevent Israel from attacking again.

According to a Bloomberg report, the Biden administration believes an Iranian attack on Israel is imminent and could include a barrage of missile or drone strikes inside Israel proper. Israeli officials have said Israel will attack Iran in return.

“Ultimately, whether the current situation portends of an actual regional war, and a much bigger conflict, is really going to be about how Iran responds. If Iran's response is asymmetric—not in the region, against an Israeli embassy or consulate or a Jewish target somewhere outside of the region… my guess is it'll probably be contained,” Panikoff said. “On the other hand, when you have direct attacks on the Israeli homeland or a direct attack targeting Israeli officials, I think you're going to see a pretty forceful response from Israel.”

Questions remain about just how far Iran is willing to take its avowed response, including whether it would target Israeli officials abroad or within Israel itself. Iran could also lean on proxies to attack inside Israel proper, or to attack U.S. forces in Iraq or Syria. Each of these could be the spark that drags the region—or the United States—into wider war, according to Riedel.

“It’s deeply worrisome. A war with Iran would make our war with Iraq a decade ago look like kindergarten,” Riedel added.

The situation could quickly spiral out of control with Iran’s proxies even if the retaliation itself comes from Iran proper, warned Panikoff.

“If Iran went for something bigger, you could see Hezbollah or some of the militias play a role,” Panikoff said. “If you have a direct attack by Iran, and it's a big attack, and Iran is confident it’s going to lead to a war anyways, then they actually lose the advantage by not having Hezbollah also partake.”

End Game

No matter what attack Iran chooses to launch in the coming hours or days, it could also choose to wreak havoc on the world stage by employing other asymmetric attacks, including hacking operations that could hit civilian or military entities, warned Panikoff.

“I don’t think of any of the options… preclude continuation of what I would call the attacks that have been undertaken during the so-called ‘Shadow War’ between Israel and Iran,” he said, adding that cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure that Iran has carried out in recent years could continue.

While the Pentagon has said that U.S. military officials are closely monitoring the region, President Joe Biden's promise of “iron-clad” support for Israel’s self-defense doesn’t necessarily mean the United States is bound to conduct joint retaliatory strikes on Iran, Riedel said.

The Mystery Hit List in the Showdown Between Israel and Iran

“The United States has a bipartisan commitment to the defense of Israel. That does not mean we have a commitment to supporting an Israeli strike on Iran. I think the last thing Joe Biden needs or wants is another open-ended war in the Middle East,” Riedel said. “He has been trying to end the Forever Wars. Well, war with Iran is the Forever War of forever wars.”

Biden is almost certainly aware that backing Israel in a strike against Iran could be disastrous for his reelection later this year.

“If on the other hand, we do stumble into war with Iran, the question people should ask ourselves is, what is the American end game?” Riedel said. “Are we going to occupy Iran? There would be talks about reinstating the draft, and a forever war with a casualty bill that would be enormous. I think Joe Biden knows that.”

The Biden campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.

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