And so we’re back at it again. U.S. fighter jets dropped bombs on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. The strike was in response to Iranian-backed militias firing armed drones against U.S. troops in Iraq, which was a response to a U.S. attack in February, which was a response to a militia attack days earlier.
A Pentagon spokesman justified the most recent U.S. airstrikes as “necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation—but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.” This may be true, but similar statements have followed similar strikes for years, even decades; yet counterattacks nonetheless follow (the “deterrent message” doesn’t get through), and so it’s possible that we are heightening the “risk of escalation,” not limiting it.
President Joe Biden finds himself in a jam. Clearly he does not want to deepen U.S. military involvement in the region (hence his order for a total troop withdrawal from Afghanistan). Both in February and now, he selected the smallest attack option that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended in their briefing. After the earlier attack, he sent a message to the leaders in Tehran, telling them that he did not seek a wider conflict with Iran but that they had to bring their militias in Iraq under control. The U.S. troops in Iraq are training and supplying the local army, which is in turn fighting remnants of ISIS and other terrorist groups, an activity that is in our interests. When those U.S. troops come under attack, a president is understandably averse to letting it go; he feels he needs to show that he takes these attacks seriously. Nor do these attacks incline him to pull the troops out, though that may have been the militias’ intent, for doing so would send a message that America runs at the first sight of blood (even when, as in this case, no American troops were killed).
So the very presence of U.S. troops abroad—and there are about 165,000 active-duty troops in more than 150 countries around the world—is a double-edged sword: It may well deter aggression against our allies or client-states; yet in countries where conflict is still raging (or even simmering), the troops may present tempting targets of opportunity, to raise the profile of a militia group, or to apply more pressure than the militias think the Americans can bear, or simply to stir chaos, since orderliness is against the militias’ interest.
In any case, the American president gets drawn in, even when that’s the last thing he wants. This is why these things continue to happen, even under presidents who are otherwise very different. (The sequence of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden covers as wide a spectrum as we’ve experienced across two decades.)
So back to that Pentagon press statement: The airstrikes may have been “necessary, appropriate, and deliberate.” But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that they’ll “limit the risk of escalation” or “send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message” to the Iranians or the militias—who have already threatened “open war” against the United States. Even the Iraqi government, which the U.S. troops are putatively protecting (but which also has to kowtow somewhat to Tehran), denounced Biden’s airstrikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
There’s another lesson to be learned from this latest back-and-forth. The Iranian militias, it seems, now have armed drones. When the CIA invented these new wonder weapons back in 2001 and used them effectively to help oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, many believed that no one else—least of all ragtag militias—would be able to harness the technology to create such devices of remote warfare for a long time, if ever. Yet here we are.
True, the Iranian-backed militia’s drones are not as sophisticated as ours. They can’t receive GPS data from satellites, allowing them to home in on targets with pinpoint precision, guided by “pilots” manning a joystick and watching a video monitor, from halfway around the world. That feat still seems a long ways off. But they (and who knows what other militias and small powers) can launch and remotely guide small drones across shorter distances, at altitudes too low to be spotted by antiaircraft radar, and detonate the explosives, which the drones are carrying, at just the right time and place.
This is another pattern of military history that should have been familiar by now. When the United States exploded the first atom bomb in 1945, it was widely believed that the Russians were too crude to match our grand feat. It took them four years, but they did it. The same illusion took hold when American scientists invented the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental ballistic missile, and many other complex devices, military and civilian.
Again, one could argue that building these things was necessary, appropriate, and deliberate (or not). It was foolish to believe, as some even recognized at the time, that these inventions constituted the final rung on the ladder of escalation—that our adversaries couldn’t, or wouldn’t, call our ante and propel yet another round of escalation.
Finally, the tit-for-tat attacks may bear broader consequences in the coming weeks and months. Biden is trying to restore the Iran nuclear deal, which Obama—along with the leaders of five other nations (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany)—signed in 2015 and which Trump revoked three years later. Meanwhile, earlier this month, as negotiations progressed and floundered in Vienna, Iran elected a hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, to replace the more moderate Hassan Rouhani in October. Will the airstrikes make it more difficult to conclude a new accord? Will they make it more politically palatable at home, convincing Biden’s critics, especially in the U.S. Congress, that his revival of the deal doesn’t mean he’ll tolerate Iran’s aggression in the region? Or will the airstrikes by both sides harden the congressional critics’ insistence that any new deal on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure must also place limits on its ballistic missiles and its support for terrorist groups—an inclusion that Iran’s leaders, even Rouhani, have said they won’t allow?
In the early stages of the U.S.-Iran talks, back in 2013, Obama’s negotiators tried to strike a “grand bargain” that would resolve all of the disputes between the two countries. But they soon realized that this wouldn’t be possible and that it was preferable to make a narrow deal focusing just on Iran’s nuclear program, which was considered most dangerous. Similarly, throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet diplomats negotiated several treaties limiting or reducing nuclear arsenals without affecting either side’s ideology or support for nations and movements that the other side considered hostile.
It isn’t at all clear whether such two-track diplomacy is now possible between the U.S. and Iran. It also isn’t clear whether the militias launched their attacks in part with an aim to dampen diplomacy’s possibilities—to keep tensions with America at a high level, in order to rationalize Tehran’s oppression against domestic critics—or whether the tensions are now spiraling entirely by coincidence. The effects, though, might be the same, regardless of the intent.
In the final months of Trump’s presidency, Iran started exceeding the nuclear deal’s limits on enriching uranium—but only a year after Trump violated the deal entirely by reimposing economic sanctions against Iran. In the first few months of Biden’s presidency, both nations wasted precious time arguing over which side should make the first move in deescalating these tensions—should Iran scale back enrichment before the U.S. lifted sanctions, or vice versa?
Both sides—and the nuclear deal’s European co-signatories, who are now running the talks in Vienna—are running out of time, and the bombings are making a settlement more vital and less likely. The question at this point is whether both sides really want to revive the nuclear deal. If they do, the diplomats have to sharpen their focus and speed up their work.