Iran-Israel Confrontation and the Biden Administration’s Policy of Restraint

The crisis in the Middle East escalated after Israel’s belligerence that killed 11 people, including senior officials of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in an attack on the Iranian Consulate in Syria on April 1, 2024. Iran executed retaliatory measures by launching a barrage consisting of over 300 unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles, and drones against Israel. Although 99% of drones and missiles were intercepted by Tel Aviv’s air defence system, some caused damage to its Nevatim airbase. The incident worsened the already existing regional tensions. However, the chances of a prolonged regional conflict were reduced immediately after the United States (US) adopted a policy of restraint. The US refused to engage in Israel’s counter-offensive against Iran.

In the past, there have been instances where Israel has sought to involve Americans in confrontations with Iran. In 2021, the Times of Israel reported a proposed meeting in which the Israeli officials were to discuss carrying out attacks on Iran, with the American administration. Similarly, many in the US also tried to take matters to the point of no return with Iran. After the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, Republican Senator Lindsey Olin Graham stated that “it is time to take the war to Ayatollah’s backyard.”

The US has remained an “ironclad” supporter of Israel for the past several decades, also witnessed by its role in facilitating the interception of drones and missiles launched by Iran. However, it did not agree with Israel’s perspective of waging a war against Iran primarily because of the rising trust deficit between the two nations. Over the years, there has been a perception that the US holds significant leverage over Israel. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, successive US administrations, including those of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, extended their influence to stop Israeli aggression, notably during the Sinai occupation and later in the 1973 war with Egypt. However, recent events indicate that this influence seems to be diminishing. Netanyahu’s administration didn’t heed the advice of their American counterparts regarding the attack on Rafah. Similarly, the unilateral action taken by Israel attacking the Iranian Consulate in Syria was not subject to prior discussion with the US. Such kind of policy measures and Israel’s defiance of international law have damaged the US’ reputation, creating a trust deficit between the two countries.

Any distorted conflict with Iran will likely drag the US more into the region, creating potential challenges for the ongoing support to Israel and Ukraine, thus creating instability in the region which is not beneficial for the US.

The escalation of a military conflict also poses a threat to the US forces from Iranian-backed militias operating in the region. These forces are deployed to protect Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and trade routes for the US ships. Although the attacks on the US troops had been stopped since January 2024, they were reinstated again recently as Iraqi-based militia fired a rocket towards a US military base in north-eastern Syria on 21st April. After the Iranian attack on Israel, White House press statement affirmed all necessary actions to protect its troops from the attacks of militias in the region; indicating the seriousness towards the safety and security of its forces for the US government, which it will not risk.

Another important factor is the normalisation and a notable geo-economic shift of the Arab countries in the region. The restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia (KSA) and latter’s commitment to economic advancement through the successful execution of Vision 2030, alongside ongoing diplomatic negotiations with the US and Arab nations concerning relations with Israel, exemplifies a broader trend towards regional stability. Furthermore, initiatives such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) also foster economic interdependence and cooperation among regional stakeholders. In case of any full-scale conflict between the US and Iran, the potential ramifications would likely extend beyond the primary adversaries, implicating all regional actors. Consequently, a collective recognition of this reality among regional stakeholders would constrain the US or international forces against any confrontation with Iran.

Similarly, a war will likely drag Iran to the political declaration of its latent nuclear capability which the country has already achieved. “If the situation escalates further, however, Iran will likely move toward nuclearisation to create a deterrent against future attacks,” said Javed Heiran-Nia, an Iranian security studies expert. This will not be in favour of the US or any of the regional states, as it will shift the balance of power, and increase the security dilemma in the region. Iran’s rising insecurities coupled with the Israeli attack on its air base close to its nuclear facilities impact the already stalled negotiations under Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Meanwhile, the possibilities of future US-Iran rapprochement will likely be minimised.

Despite the strong voices of the US right-wing politicians to attack Iran, the US cannot afford another war. Clausewitz, a military theorist, recommends not to open another front unless the secondary option is widely rewarding. The US is supporting Ukraine and Israel both financially as well as militarily. According to the Council of Foreign Relations report, the US has sent Ukraine about $75 billion in assistance since 2022. Recently, the Congress passed a bill which had previously been delayed for several months. The bill ensured $95 billion of aid to Israel and Ukraine, having a share of $26.38 billion and $60.84 billion, respectively. Therefore, any distorted conflict with Iran will likely drag the US more into the region, creating potential challenges for the ongoing support to Israel and Ukraine, thus creating instability in the region which is not beneficial for the US.

Internally, the Biden administration is also facing severe criticism over its Israel policy. In a poll conducted before the Iranian attacks on Israel, 42% of Americans disapproved of any military role in Israel’s conflict with Iran, and 32% rejected any sort of involvement in the conflict. Additionally, public sentiment does not favour going to war with Iran. A survey poll conducted in 2022 showed 78% of Americans against a war with Iran as a possible option if nuclear negotiations fail. Given the circumstances at home and the economic fallouts of the Ukraine War and the Israel-Hamas Conflict, it is not in favour of the US to engage in another escalation, especially considering that this is election year.

The US has demonstrated a growing recognition of the delicate dynamic within the region, opting to place trust in the diplomatic process to resolve conflict. Throughout the series of events, the role of the US was to ensure strategic restraint from Israel to limit the conflict. Jakub Grygiel, a Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America, called this “West’s guiding strategic principle” to preserve international stability. Following Israel’s attack on the Iranian Consulate in Syria, Secretary of State Antony Blinken telephoned his counterparts in the region, including China, Turkey, and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The White House Press Secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre also said Washington doesn’t want to spread the conflict. Additionally, the Biden administration urged de-escalation after it avoided getting involved in Israel’s ambitions to conduct counter-offensive strikes on Iranian facilities.

Israel perceives Iran as a significant regional adversary and aims to address this perceived threat by US military capabilities. Jamie Shea, a Senior Fellow at Brussels based think tank Friends of Europe, noted that Israel wants Iran to be in the central position of the Middle Eastern conflict so that it can bring the region into a confrontation with the Western democracies. However, the restraint policy of the US has successfully avoided escalation with Iran and instability in the region.

The US under the Biden administration has portrayed a cautious stance concerning military engagement with Iran. Its engagements in multiple wars at the same time impact its economy and divert its attention from key international responsibilities. Given the circumstances, the US needs to prioritise diplomatic solutions, advocating for de-escalatory measures to manage the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Usman Zulfiqar Ali

Usman Zulfiqar Ali is a Communications and Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR). His research focuses mainly on China’s geopolitical and international affairs. He tweets @UsmanZulfiqar and can be reached at usman.z@cscr.pk

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