Iran could withhold its militia partners until the end of the Trump administration, but maybe not much beyond that. In inner US government threat assessment circles, the January 20 transition is viewed as a dangerous (and overlooked) escalation window. One of Joe Biden’s first jobs could be to respond to a deadly attack on Americans in Iraq, Syria, or the Gulf region.
Iraq has a habit of challenging new presidents early on: Bill Clinton’s first use of force was in Iraq, the rocket attacks of June 1993, which avenged Saddam Hussein’s efforts to assassinate former President George Herbert Walker Bush two months earlier. President George W. Bush’s first use of force was in Iraq – a flood of Air raids in February 2001 that annoyed Bush when they disrupted his first trip abroad (to Mexico).
A new president’s first military crisis can be a fundamental moment, especially as great power rivals and rogue states alike take over the new leader’s measure. Biden would have to weigh the consequences of action or inaction: part of his political base would want to differentiate the new government from the old and give Iran an open hand, while foreign policy traditionalists would underscore the need to demonstrate determination, especially when an American is killed.
The best outcome for all is that Iran and its proxies recognize that it is in no way safer or less momentous to put US interests on Biden’s watch than risk such a move under Trump. The president-elect should make it clear before January 20 that he will be ready to respond decisively to any threat to the Americans from the first minute of the first day.
On January 20, the new administration was also supposed to quietly signal to Iran that its hand was out, but that revenge on Trump is still revenge on America and would pose additional obstacles on the path to sanctions relief.
The incoming Biden team to have Access problems about the information normally provided during a transition. A very early priority should be a review of prepared military options to familiarize the team and allow them to quickly request additions and make deletions. Biden’s veteran national security team, particularly the candidate for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a former US Forces Commander in the Middle East, knows this The difficult moments after an attack are not the time to play catch-up or to realize that you don’t have military options to pass the drafting.
If Iran or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq attack American interests too late for Trump to react, or at the beginning of the Biden presidency, there is a tension between a quick deterrent and the establishment of US credibility against a careful weighing of the interests Facts and options.
If the attack is strong enough to kill Americans – who are usually well protected – it may have received clearance from Iran, but the incoming government can wait to determine that link. Clinton waited 72 days before beating Iraqi intelligence for their role in trying to improve Bush’s life in 1993.
When evidence of an Iranian role emerges, a Biden government – like the Clintons before, but hopefully sooner – must not shy away from doing what is right to deter future attacks on Americans. Only if Iran deems this right will they initially hesitate to strike US personnel.
What the US could and should do right now is to signal the cost of any attack on Americans, fall back on the expanded Iranian network, and keep the option of further, more expansive strikes. Whenever there have been rocket and bombing attacks against US forces in Iraq this year, the network of the US intelligence community responsible for the attacks was clear within hours or days: a combination of the three vanguard groups of the Iraqi networks – Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. These groups are vulnerable to strikes and are already attacking the US.
Iranian militia partners work hard every day to cover up the attribution of attacks on US targets in Iraq by launching a bewildering number of new brands such as: Ashab al-Kahf (“Companions of the Cave”) and Sarayat Qassem al-Jabbarin (“Destroyers of the Oppressor Society”). On March 13, this tactic successfully prevented Great Britain from joining a US strike in Iraq to avenge the militia killing of two Americans and a British. British jets sat on the runway with a tank of gas and armed, while government lawyers argued over who was actually to blame and who should be targeted. In the end, the Trump administration failed to convince the British that Kata’ib Hezbollah was the right target, and British officials refused to allow their jets to take off. The Biden administration will increase deterrence if potential attackers are unable to play this shell game.
While the January 20th inauguration will be an exciting moment for Joe Biden and his team, it is also a moment when his skills could be put to the test. History has shown that Iran can test the determination of US governments while eyeing an American president and sitting at a negotiating table. Iran is trying to prevent its proxies from taking revenge, but it may consider the opening of a Biden government to be the first safe moment to do so. Every other potential attacker in the world will watch and take note.