The death of three US service members in Jordan Sunday, along with more than 40 injured, is just the latest – and deadliest – example of Iranian-backed militias targeting American forces in the Middle East. The Sunday drone attack came just weeks after two Navy SEALS died while trying to disrupt a weapons smuggling operation by Iran-backed Houthi militia members off the coast of Somalia. American targets, meanwhile, have sustained at least 165 different attacks by Iran-backed militias since mid-October.
Slowly but surely, the Islamic Republic of Iran has pulled the United States into the war it is waging across the Middle East. The Houthis have all but shut down international trade in the Red Sea, a major shipping route from Asia to Europe. And it is Iran that helps fund and supply the Hamas and Hezbollah terror organizations now fighting against Israel.
It's clear that President Joe Biden desperately wishes to avoid a wider war in the region. However, the regime in Iran has a vote, and it doesn't appear to be backing down.
Throughout the fall, the Biden administration avoided the language of confrontation. After this weekend, the president said he has decided how he will respond to "radical Iran-backed militant groups" operating in Iraq and Syria, but has not disclosed what that response will be. However, surgical strikes on rockets, drones and warehouses of Iranian proxies — what the US has mostly done until now in response to the attacks on US bases over the past three months — will not be sufficient to end the violence.
America must be prepared to use force directly against Iran, including its expanding nuclear weapons program. The fear of sparking wider conflict is understandable in the wake of failures in our "war on terror." But declining to respond to aggression by proxy is often seen by Tehran as an invitation to escalate. And that is exactly what the regime has done since October.
As retired Gen. Wesley Clark told CNN on Sunday of the anticipated US response, "If you do this strike the right way, the Iranians will understand they can't afford to escalate into war," Clark said. "They can't stand up to the United States," especially given the domestic opposition the regime faces. "This government in Iran is on very shaky grounds, and it's in no position to have a war with the United States," he continued, suggesting that it's time "to go to the source of the trouble in Iran."
Sadly, some of Biden's current challenges with Iran are of his own making. The policy of non-confrontation, interrupted by occasional, limited and proportionate strikes against Iran-backed proxies while giving Tehran itself a free pass, was an approach adopted by the Obama administration and one that emboldened Iran.
President Donald Trump's use of sanctions pressure and American military power saw less Iranian aggression in comparison to what followed under the Biden administration, according to the JINSA Iran Projectile Tracker. The think tank's tracker charts Iranian malign activities such as missile strikes, maritime aggression, cyber intrusions and hacking, kidnappings and wrongful detentions, terrorist attacks, weapons tests and production.
Biden reflexively returned to the previous status quo. His administration's combination of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, in the form of weak sanctions enforcement that led to a spike in Iranian oil sales and revenue for Iran, and relaxed international pressure on Tehran's nuclear program has only served to benefit the Islamic Republic.
Cashing in on this reversion, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) funneled weapons capabilities to its terrorist allies, financed their operations, trained their fighters and provided overall strategic direction. Though the regime also funded its proxies under Trump, his "maximum pressure campaign" denied it tens of billions of dollars that could have otherwise flowed to its proxy armies and its economy. The result: cuts in proxy fundingas the Iranian currency cratered. Today, the regime's proxies — Hezbollah, the Houthis and other militias — are more powerful than ever before.
And all of this could get worse. A widening war in the Middle East may serve as a "weapon of mass distraction" to obscure one of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's most important goals: advancing the nuclear program, which could enable the regime to build a weapon of mass destruction.
The regime is now enriching uranium to levels just shy of 90% weapons-grade, stonewalling UN weapons inspectors and working on another underground facility – one that may be impervious to American and Israeli bombs. All told, Iran is on the cusp of a nuclear weapon, having amassedenough enriched uranium to make weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear device in just 12 days.
Despite repeated White House denials, our organization, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has found that since May 2018, when Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal, the most dangerous steps in the expansion of the nuclear program have occurred since Biden's election, though some of the seeds were planted during Trump's term when Iran began to take preliminary steps towards developing nuclear weapons including enrichment using advanced centrifuges and breaching caps on enrichment and heavy-water levels imposed under the 2015 nuclear deal.
But these were only tentative and incremental steps compared to the massive expansion of Iran's nuclear program under Biden, according to our assessment. As we have charted, the regime remained cautious as it faced Trump, who demonstrated his willingness to use punishing sanctions and military force.
This changed development under Biden is easy to explain: The administration abandoned Trump's campaign of financial pressure – which Biden derided as counterproductive – and gave no indication that it would threaten military force, then allowed Khamenei access to billions of dollars in frozen oil funds while China purchased hundreds of millions of barrels of Iranian oil. Iran thus saw no downside to expanding its nuclear program.
We opposed the Iran nuclear deal that Obama accepted from the start. Those who argue it was a mistake for Trump to exit the 2015 nuclear deal, or that maximum pressure didn't work, are overlooking the fact that the deal itself enabled Iran to legally expand its nuclear program in the next decade, attempt to reach threshold nuclear weapons capability starting in 2030 – though it would have restrained the nuclear program in the current decade – and reap what our organization estimates would be $1 trillion in sanctions relief. Had the US remained in the pact, Biden could be dealing with an even wealthier enemy today.
In the wake of the war Hamas launched on October 7, the bill for America abandoning its pressure on Iran has come due. The White House acknowledged this, at least in part, by redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist organization after delisting the group in 2021 (in a move it described as motivated by humanitarian concerns but may well have been a preemptive concession to Tehran), though the president left many loopholes for the terrorists to exploit per our analysis.
This is not to say that Trump's policy was perfect. Far from it. But the numbers don't lie. Thanks to aggressive sanctions enforcement, Iranian oil sales plummeted to 100,000 to 350,000 barrels per day in June 2020 from 2.5 million barrels per day in January 2017 (they were back to 1.29 million in 2023), and fully accessible Iranian foreign exchange reserves cratered to $4 billion from highs of $122 billion in 2018 (they were back to $21 billion as of 2022).
Trump also struck a military blow by ordering the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the deadly IRGC-Quds Force commander who built Iran's proxy army into a lethal fighting force. And he nurtured the regime's domestic opposition by voicing support for the masses of Iranian people who oppose the regime. As a result, the Islamic Republic's economy sputtered, the regime's aggression appeared to slow, and its nuclear activities even stalled for several months after the death of Soleimani.
The maximum pressure campaign lasted only two years before Trump's electoral defeat in 2020. Shortly thereafter, Biden terminated the policy; it could have borne further fruit if allowed to run its course.
Biden may not want to acknowledge Trump's relative success in an election year. But he should nevertheless revive the policy of maximum pressure and put his own mark on it. He can do that by undertaking things that Trump could have done more to advance, like providing maximum support for the Iranian people.
Support for anti-regime Iranians should include: rolling out technology platforms to help Iranians circumvent regime surveillance; declassifying intelligence about the movement of internal security forces to assist Iranians mounting protests; developing labor funds to finance Iranians who go on strike; isolating the regime in all international forums; and massively expanding security for the brave Iranian dissidents abroad. Biden can also direct American officials to speak out more forcefully against the regime's leadership and security forces who have killed, tortured and sexually abused protesters.
Admittedly, the very possibility of engaging in new conflicts during an election year will be viewed by the president's advisers as risky. But the failure to respond sufficiently to continued aggression from the Islamic Republic is a recipe for a wider war.
Mark Dubowitz is chief executive officer at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow them on X @mdubowitz and @JSchanzer.