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Andreas Kluth: Biden must again prevent a wider Middle East war

Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, as Mahatma Gandhi allegedly said. After Iran’s massive retaliation for the Israeli strike against Iran’s diplomatic compound in Damascus, it now falls to President Joe Biden to prevent subsequent rounds of escalation from blinding the entire Middle East, or even the world. Biden must punish Iran diplomatically but also restrain Israel.

This will be unfathomably hard. Since the sadistic terrorist attack by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7, Biden has had to balance objectives that are often in conflict. He has to show his support for Israel, which he again reaffirmed as “ironclad” after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles against Israel this weekend. Simultaneously, he has to minimize the death and suffering of civilians in Gaza, a goal at which he has so far failed. And third, he has to stop the war from becoming regional or even global, a prospect that is possible because the militias attacking Israel are backed by Iran, which is aligned with Russia and China.

So far, Biden seemed to be successful in deterring Iran from escalating and expanding the war. When Iran-backed militias killed three American service members in Jordan, the US retaliated with force but also restraint, hitting only Iranian assets outside of Iran. Tehran, for its part, signaled that it would also discipline itself — although the extent of its control over its proxies remains an open question.

It was instead Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who initiated this month’s round of escalation. Without informing Biden, he sent warplanes to destroy part of the Iranian diplomatic mission in Syria, killing several top commanders. This attack on the consulate breached the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which deems diplomatic missions “inviolable.”

The mullahs had to answer this strike or look weak to Tehran’s proxy militias and Iranians, many of whom already loathe their regime. The only question was how. The retaliation had to be large enough to allow Iran to pose as decisive, but limited enough not to invite an even larger response from Netanyahu, who often seems to view a wider war as one scenario for him to stay in power.

How, then, did the actual Iranian retaliation stack up? The barrage of drones and missiles was huge, and the first direct attack from the Iranian homeland (as opposed to proxy forces in Lebanon, say) against Israeli soil. But Tehran knew that its airborne swarm would travel for hours before crashing into one of the world’s most sophisticated air-defense systems — Israel’s Iron Dome, Arrow and David’s Sling. Moreover, Israel wouldn’t be alone; its American and even Arab allies would help defend it, as they did.

The final tally, therefore, was as limited as Tehran had probably predicted: minor damage and about a dozen injuries from falling shrapnel, with one girl in critical condition but nobody (as of this writing) dead. The Israeli, American, Jordanian and other air defenses had shot down 99% of the incoming ordnance.

So you can call the Iranian retaliation for the preceding Israeli strike massive or limited. But the mullahs signaled that they intended the latter. Invoking the United Nations Charter, Iran’s mission to the UN tweeted that “the matter can be deemed concluded” and practically pleaded (in all-caps) with Biden that “the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!”

 

Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners may now be tempted to escalate further. Before the Iranian retaliation, he had warned that Israel would answer any hit on Israeli soil with strikes against the Iranian homeland. That in turn would force an Iranian response, while strengthening the hand of those in the regime pushing for Iran to sprint toward turning its enriched uranium into nuclear warheads.

It’s therefore up to Biden to prevent the worst. He must restrain “Bibi” Netanyahu vis-a-vis Iran as he has so far failed to moderate him vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip. This means that any Israeli counterstrike, unlike the consular hit, has to be cleared with Washington and be limited enough so that both Iran and Israel can claim victory. Meanwhile, Biden must punish Iran in every way short of the military option. This he seems to be preparing to do, by calling emergency meetings of the Group of Seven and the UN Security Council.

Since Oct. 7, the Middle East, and by extension the globe, has teetered on the edge between various terrible but localized wars and a wider conflagration that may set the whole world ablaze. If anybody can prevent that nightmare, it’s Biden.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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