Biden faces dueling pressure to go tough on Iran but soft on war in Gaza

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP) Miriam Alster/AP

Biden faces dueling pressure to go tough on Iran but soft on war in Gaza

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President Joe Biden is facing pressure from all sides and staring at difficult choices regarding the Middle East.

As Israel prepares for a ground invasion of Gaza, the Biden White House is focused on preventing the situation from escalating into a wider conflict that could involve Hezbollah, Iran, and the United States.


Iran is believed to have supported the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, though to what extent is not known, and Iran also supports Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Keeping all those groups in check without provoking them is the Biden administration’s challenge.

“Biden is trying to prevent the escalation of this thing into a major regional war,” said Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think he has a limited ability to deter anybody.”

The U.S. has dispatched major military forces to the region, including two aircraft carriers, as a warning to Iran and Hezbollah against further action. One positive sign is the simple fact that no escalation has taken place so far, with the U.S. and Israel now on high alert for future strikes.

The White House has made clear it holds Iran responsible one way or the other for what has transpired.

“Iran is certainly complicit here,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said Tuesday. “Without them, there is no Hamas. Without them, there is no Hezbollah. Without them, there are no militia groups firing rockets at our troops in Iraq and Syria. And as I said yesterday out here, we recognize Iran is monitoring all of these events, and in some cases, they’re encouraging some of these attacks. No question about it.”

The U.S. engaged in a prisoner swap with Iran just weeks before the attacks, which included unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian funds. The move was heavily criticized before and after the Oct. 7 attacks, and the administration now says it will not release those funds.

But there have also been reports that Biden administration officials are urging Israel to delay a ground invasion of Gaza, potentially to prevent escalation. Kirby confirmed that U.S. officials are in “active conversation” with the Israelis but did not confirm the reports.

“The Israeli plan appears to still be a large-scale ground invasion to wipe out the leadership of the Hamas organization in Gaza. That has serious escalatory potential on its own,” Logan said. “Biden is trying to limit escalatory potential there and deter other actors from jumping into the fray.”

Biden and his press team have been steadfast in declaring their support for Israel. That position itself has drawn some measure of controversy from the Democratic Party’s far-left wing, which is calling for a ceasefire, and from figures such as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has said that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”

The president has mostly ignored those voices to date and has not wavered in backing Israel, sharing impassioned stories about his trips to the country and his long relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden says there will be no ceasefire until Hamas releases all its hostages.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is issuing direct warnings to Iran against further escalation in the Middle East.

“To all the members of this council: If you, like the United States, want to prevent this conflict from spreading, tell Iran, tell its proxies in public, in private, through every means, ‘Do not open another front against Israel in this conflict. Do not attack Israel’s partners,’” Blinken said in a Tuesday address to the U.N.


But Council on Foreign Relations Middle Scholar Ray Takeyh argues that with the U.S. bringing in aircraft carriers and warning against further action on the part of Iran and its proxies, it is already becoming involved in a way that could force it to take action should escalation ensue.

“If you want them to stop, you have to say so, but then if they go forward, you have to do something,” Takeyh said. “Otherwise, you’re drawing a red line that you’re not enforcing, which is the worst thing you could possibly do.”

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