The killing of three U.S. troops in Jordan by a drone strike carried out by Iranian-backed militant groups has added kindling to what is already a volatile situation in the Middle East, increasing pressure on President Biden to send a message to leaders in Tehran.
It has left the White House facing the difficult balancing act of responding to Iran in ways that will deter future attacks but without triggering a wider conflict — something the Biden administration has been adamant about avoiding since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
But the attack in Jordan marked the first time that U.S. service members have been killed in the Middle East since the war in Gaza began in October, adding a new layer of complexity for the White House.
“We do not seek another war. We do not seek to escalate. But we will absolutely do what is required to protect ourselves … and to respond appropriately to these attacks,” national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday.
Biden has pledged to respond to the latest attacks in a “time and manner of our choosing.”
The president met Monday with members of his national security team, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who returned to the Pentagon for the first time since undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.
Kirby emphasized that the U.S. is not looking for a war with Iran, but when asked if Biden is considering a strike inside the country, he would not say whether it was on the table.
“This attack over the weekend was escalatory, make no mistake about it. And it requires a response, make no mistake about that,” he said. “I will not get ahead of the president’s decisionmaking.”
American troops have come under fire from Iranian-backed groups more than 160 times since late October.
The White House has in recent weeks launched precision strikes targeting Iranian-backed militia targets and struck back against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen after the rebel group targeted commercial shipping in the Red Sea.
But the death of U.S. troops will increase the stakes for Biden, particularly among Republican defense hawks in Congress who are already calling for retaliation, including inside Iran.
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, said if the U.S. wants to hold Iran responsible, it may target sites or facilities in Iraq or Syria used by the Iranian military wing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But the U.S. will likely refrain from targeting Iranian soil, he added.
“The dilemma here for the Biden administration is how to bloody Iran’s nose, which is something that this attack serves and calls for, but to do so without actually touching Iran’s nose,” Vaez said. “They don’t want to have to strike Iran on its own territory. And that’s a very difficult needle to thread.”
The deaths sparked outrage in Washington and calls from some in the GOP for a more forceful response to Iran, the sponsor of the militia groups.
Former President Trump, Biden’s likely GOP rival in November’s general election, blamed the attack on Biden’s “weakness” and claimed the U.S. was “on the brink of “World War 3.”
Republican lawmakers similarly piled on, ripping the White House for failing to hold Iran accountable and urging Biden to take swift and decisive action in response.
“Real leadership requires real action,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Attacks on our servicemembers, allies, and interests will continue until this president shows strong leadership and strikes fear in our enemies.”
Iran has denied involvement in the Jordan attack, claiming it does not issue direct orders to militia groups. The U.S. says Iran is broadly complicit for attacks from its proxies.
Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Monday the attack has the “footprints” of an Iranian-backed group in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, but didn’t make a final determination. She said the U.S. holds Iran responsible for the attack but avoided a question on how Tehran would be held responsible.
Any U.S. response to Iran will likely be met with further retaliation from Iranian-backed groups in a continuous cycle until the Israeli war in Gaza ends. The Iranian-linked groups say they are fighting against American troops in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and an expert on the Middle East, said the Jordan attacks are a “dangerous escalation” and predicted a heavy response from the U.S. on whichever group was responsible.
But she said the U.S. already assassinated an Iranian-backed leader in Iraq earlier this month and carried out several destructive strikes, none of which has deterred more attacks.
“I don’t know what more the U.S. can do that will somehow deter these strikes,” she said. “The only thing … that can deter the strikes is a cease-fire in Gaza, because these groups all claim that they’re acting in solidarity with the Palestinians.”
Singh said the Pentagon does not plan to shift the strategy against Iranian-backed militants despite concerns that deterrence was failing to stop the attacks.
“We are committed to responding, and we will do so at a time and place of our choosing,” Singh told reporters.
With Iran expected to respond to any U.S. strike, the fighting could get deadlier for American troops, who have largely suffered traumatic brain injuries or minor wounds in the attacks.
Some attacks have had close calls, including one on Christmas Day in Iraq that severely wounded an American service member.
And a drone crashed into an American base in Erbil, Iraq, in late October but didn’t explode. If it had, the U.S. likely would have suffered fatalities.
Slavin said the sheer number of attacks of Iranian-backed militia groups on the U.S. meant a fatal strike was only a matter of time.
“This was a tragedy that in hindsight, looks to have been inevitable,” she said. “Whenever you’re engaged in this kind of activity, the risk that you’re going to actually kill someone is always there.”