Republican lawmakers in the United States have amplified their calls for President Joe Biden to take decisive action against Iran, after a drone attack killed three US troops along the Jordan-Syria border.
But foreign policy experts and advocates fear the political pressure may send the US down an increasingly dangerous path towards direct confrontation with Iran.
“I think it’s really scary how far the rhetoric has come and what that means for the decisions that policymakers will make,” said Jamal Abdi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
“It really does feel like the frog being boiled in the water situation,” he said, referring to the allegory of an amphibian unaware it is being cooked in slowly warming water.
For his part, Biden has promised the US will “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner [of] our choosing”. On Tuesday, he told reporters he had decided how to proceed, without providing further information.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, White House National Security spokesman John Kirby maintained the US is not seeking direct confrontation with Iran. He also did not link Iran directly to the attack.
Nevertheless, Kirby said the US would respond appropriately to the “Iran-backed group” responsible for the deaths.
Department of Defense spokesperson Sabrina Singh, meanwhile, told reporters the attack “has the footprints” of the Iran-aligned Kataib Hezbollah group — but that the agency’s assessment remained ongoing.
“We don’t seek a war with Iran. We don’t seek to widen this conflict,” Singh said. “We have said and we will continue to call out the fact that Iran does fund and equip these groups and provide them the capabilities that they use to attack our service members, whether it be Iraq, Syria or Jordan.”
On Tuesday, Kataib Hezbollah released a statement saying it had suspended its attacks against the US.
Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder also reiterated the administration’s stance on Tuesday, saying that the US had repeatedly “called on the Iranian proxy groups to stop their attacks. They have not, and so, we will respond in a time and manner of our choosing.”
‘Devastating military retaliation’
US military bases have faced more than 160 attacks since Israel’s war in Gaza began on October 7, but the drone attack on Sunday marked the first time US personnel have been killed.
That fact has kicked hawkish members of the Republican Party into overdrive, as they appeal for more direct military action against Iran.
Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, called on the Biden administration to “strike targets of significance inside Iran, not only as reprisal for the killing of our forces but as deterrence against future aggression”.
Senator Tom Cotton likewise pushed for “devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East”.
Other right-wing figures have also chimed in, including Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who called for “striking directly against Iranian targets and its leadership”.
Stephen Miles, the president of Win Without War, a group that advocates for progressive US foreign policy, described the reaction as the equivalent of a knee-jerk.
He quipped that some Republicans call for bombing Iran when they “think they lose their keys”.
He considers the latest Republican appeals as adding fuel to an already hazardous situation. The Biden administration, he explained, already pursues a strategy of retaliatory strikes on groups that receive support from Iran in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Houthis in Yemen.
That, in turn, could ratchet tensions over the Gaza conflict into a regional war.
“I think, a lot of times, people think of these situations as big ‘set piece’ wars where the US makes the decision to intervene, and we pre-position all these troops and all these assets and go to war,” Miles told Al Jazeera.
“The far more likely path … is that these kinds of tit-for-tat retaliatory strikes have the potential to really grow far beyond that.”
“It doesn’t matter if folks in Washington or Tehran might not want a broader regional war,” he added. “These things can take on take on a life of their own.”
Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a think tank, said the Republicans calling for direct retaliation against Iran have fallen into two camps: Some “truly want war”, while others are simply attacking Biden’s perceived vulnerability during an election year.
For the latter camp, a hawkish approach can pay dividends regardless of whether Biden acts.
“They can push Biden to take military action, which I think they understand is not going to work out well,” he said. “Or Biden will not strike Iran, and then they will attack him for being weak. So they see this as a win-win from a political standpoint.”
Looming presidential election
The death of US troops has already brought Biden’s Iran policy to the fore of the 2024 presidential race.
Republican presidential frontrunner and former President Donald Trump has seized on the moment, saying the attack “would never have happened” if he were in the White House. He has described his approach as “peace through strength”.
But critics have pointed out that the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq on January 3, 2020, brought the two countries to the brink of war. Since then, US bases in the Middle East have been regularly targeted, sometimes in explicit retaliation for the assassination.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has also called for “surgical strikes” on Iranian assets and officials outside of Iran.
“There is this message being trotted out in an election year that somehow Trump was really tough on Iran, and that was beneficial, and Biden has been weak,” said the National Iranian American Council’s Abdi, whose group has long pushed for diplomatic solutions to the tense relations between the US and Iran.
Abdi added that some Republicans have already sought to connect the attack with Biden’s wider Iran policy, which has largely resembled Trump’s, despite pledges to take a more diplomacy-forward approach.
But there could be a “political imperative” for Biden to “take retaliatory action that would be regarded as stronger than what the United States has done thus far”, according to Brian Finucane, a senior US adviser at Crisis Group, a think tank that seeks to prevent and resolve conflict.
“The emphasis seems to be on avenging the US soldiers who were killed yesterday,” he said.
“It’s notable that the loudest voices in Congress are not those calling for restraint or calling into question the legal authority for the US to be engaged in these conflicts with Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria, saying nothing of the conflict with the Houthis.”
For his part, Parsi at the Quincy Institute called Biden’s predicament — and the risks of further escalation — “predictable”.
Biden’s continued support for Israel and refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza has inflamed tensions in the Middle East and created fodder for those seeking direct confrontation with Iran, he explained.
“Biden should have been more cautious from the outset,” Parsi said. “We would not have this escalation that we have today had there been a ceasefire much earlier.”