Biden’s Iran Strategy Faces Scrutiny After Drone Strike

Before a deadly strike by an Iranian drone against a US base in Syria, the Biden administration sent repeated back-channel communications to Tehran with one message: We don’t want a war, but we’ll respond swiftly if attacked.

(Bloomberg) — Before a deadly strike by an Iranian drone against a US base in Syria, the Biden administration sent repeated back-channel communications to Tehran with one message: We don’t want a war, but we’ll respond swiftly if attacked.

President Joe Biden made good on that warning, sending F-15 fighter jets to strike Iran-backed targets hours after a US contractor was killed in the Thursday drone attack. Biden made the decision “very, very quickly,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The messages to Iran, described by people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations, fits a broader approach to Iran that relied on avoiding a crisis while also maintaining steady economic pressure to push Iran toward diplomacy over its nuclear program. Biden made that publicly explicit at a briefing with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday.

“The United States does not — does not, emphasize — seek conflict with Iran,” he said. “But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people.”

The drone strike was followed on Friday by 10 Iranian-made rockets that groups backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired against coalition forces, but no injuries to the forces resulted, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

The litany of new Iranian actions, capped by the drone strike, have drawn new scrutiny to the US’s soft-touch approach and added new urgency to calls for Biden to overhaul a policy that’s essentially been in limbo since talks stalled over the summer on reviving the 2015 deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. 

The Iran challenge has only become more daunting since the nuclear talks stalled. An increasingly hard-line regime in Tehran stepped up a crackdown on human-rights protesters and deepened its economic ties with China, selling it millions of barrels of sanctioned oil. It’s now openly supplying Russia with weaponized drones to press ahead with its invasion of Ukraine. 

Adding to the urgency most of all, Iran has made swift advances in its nuclear program, enriching uranium to just below the 90% threshold that could be needed to produce a nuclear weapon. On the other side there’s Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government is pressing the Biden administration to mull broader military action in the event of further nuclear progress.

“The administration has very little incentive to do anything that would undermine the status quo of ‘no deal, no crisis,’ because any alternative to the status quo is going to be costly for the administration,” said Ali Vaez, project director for Iran at the International Crisis Group. “Otherwise, it will be faced with those two unpalatable choices of either leaving Iran with a bomb or bombing Iran.”

The Iran problem has metastasized into one of the most complicated, fast-moving and potentially threatening that the US faces, so complex and difficult that it has essentially left the administration frozen. Back in the day, the administration’s approach was simple: Address the nuclear problem and let the rest take care of itself.

A senior State Department official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the administration is pursuing a consistent plan: maintaining pressure on Iran and deterring further nuclear advances, while leaving open the door to diplomacy.

But that may no longer be tenable. Senator Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, called on the US and Europe to hold Iran accountable for its increased enrichment of uranium, saying in a statement that the “boiling-frog approach toward becoming a threshold nuclear state will not work.”

The panel’s senior Republican, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, said in a statement, “The ever-changing U.S. approach to Iran across administrations calls into question our willingness to confront the regime.”

Complicating matters even further, the administration must address opposite demands from its partners in the region. Among Arab states, there’s a desire for normalization. Conflict-weary nations such as Saudi Arabia want to focus on economic growth. That means ending a ruinous and destabilizing war in Yemen and deepening ties — as was shown two weeks ago when Riyadh agreed to normalize diplomatic ties with Tehran in an agreement for which China took a share of the credit.

“The takeaway of the Saudis is that this regime is not going anywhere any time soon,” said Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Hence, you need to deal with it.”

In addition, Syria’s Iran-backed president, Bashar al-Assad, long an international pariah, isn’t going anywhere, so normalizing relations with him has become a priority too for an increasing number of nations.

Within Months

At a congressional hearing on Thursday, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran “could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.”

“The United States remains committed as a matter of policy that Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon,” Milley said.“And we, the United States military, have developed multiple options for our national leadership to consider if or when Iran ever decides to develop an actual nuclear weapon.”

Milley held a call with his Israeli counterpart, General Herzi Halevi, on Friday, discussing ways to cooperate more “to defend against a wide range of threats posed by Iran across the region.”

For the time being, at least, that’s a possibility that administration still doesn’t want to contemplate.

“There’s rarely a time when you wouldn’t rather kick the can down the road than be forced to deal with this decisively,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But that approach can’t last, he said: “We’re at the point where time is very short and where finding a way to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold becomes quite urgent.”

–With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Roxana Tiron and Jordan Fabian.

(Updates with Biden remarks in 4th paragraph.)

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