Virtual Media Briefing: the Drone Strike on a U.S. Base in Jordan

Thursday, February 1, 2024
The White House/Handout via Reuters

Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs; Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Deputy Editor, Foreign Affairs

Following the drone strike on a U.S. base in Jordan, panelists discuss the possibility of a U.S. military response as well as the implications of conflict spreading in the region. 

BRANNEN: Thanks so much. Welcome, everybody, and thank you for joining us today to discuss recent events in the Middle East, and to think about where the conflict could be headed next. I’m Kate Brannen. I’m deputy editor at Foreign Affairs. And I’m joined today by an excellent panel of CFR senior fellows who are ready to share their expertise with us.  

On the call we have Steve Biddle, we have Steven Cook, and Ray Takeyh. And before we get started, I’ll just reiterate that the conversation is on the record and a video and transcript will be posted online afterward. And you can check out and for additional analysis and resources. 

So we are here to discuss the January 28 drone strike that killed three U.S. Army Reserve soldiers near the Jordan-Syria border. The U.S. government believes an umbrella group of militants called Islamic Resistance in Iraq carried out the strike. And since the strike occurred, President Joe Biden has said that a decision has been made by the administration about how to respond. But we are still waiting, of course, to see what course of action Biden and his advisers have selected.  

So I wanted to start with Steven Cook. If you could give us the context for this strike. It’s not out of the blue. It’s happening amidst a real simmering regional conflict, with the sort of center of gravity in Gaza. But then also, if you could tell us a little bit about what we know about this group that launched the strike, what it was trying to accomplish, and where do you put it on the spectrum of Iranian-backed groups that are so active right now in terms of its closeness and coordination with Iran? 

COOK: Well, thanks so much, Kate. And it’s a great pleasure to be with everybody. And it’s a particular pleasure to be with my colleagues, Stephen Biddle and Ray Takeyh.  

The attack on Tower 22 comes against the background of a number of moving parts in what you correctly call a regional conflict. I think that it remains—the core of it remains the conflict in the Gaza Strip, but I think that it has become regionalized. And in that core in Gaza there are a number of important things that are happening. The first is that there are abundant rumors that there will be a deal that will lead to a significant pause in the fighting that would lead to the release of those hostages that are living and the return of those hostages who have died in this conflict to the Israelis, in exchange for something—whether it is Palestinian prisoners, or Palestinian prisoners as well as something else. 

We know that Hamas was seeking essentially an end to the conflict, something that Israeli leaders have said that would not happen. But nevertheless, there is enough out there to suggest that in the coming weeks we may see a longer pause than we saw in November and December, that leads to a major release of hostages. One has to wonder whether Hamas is really prepared for this, given that it’s giving up leverage that they have. Or the Israelis, who have a hard time regaining the kind of military momentum that they’ve had all of these months. But that’s really an issue for Stephen Biddle.  

Against the backdrop of—this backdrop, of course, the Israelis are continuing their operations in central and southern Gaza, with very little indication that they’re changing the pace or the tempo of it, which is, of course, putting, you know, millions of Palestinians in jeopardy, as we have all seen in tragic footage and photos from the conflict. Added to this is just a number of weeks after the Israeli defense minister announced that Hamas ceased to be an organized threat in the northern Gaza Strip, the Israelis are actually moving military units into the northern Gaza Strip to fight Hamas, which proves actually to be an organized threat in that part of the Gaza Strip. Which I think lays bare for everybody how challenging an operation this is for the Israelis. And, again, also in Gaza this comes on the heels of reports that the Israelis have really only managed to destroy about 20 percent of the tunnels underneath the Gaza Strip and are now starting to pump seawater into these tunnels in an effort to incapacitate Hamas.  

Again, in conjunction with this, the Houthis are continuing to threaten shipping in the Red Sea. The United States announced just yesterday that it had undertaken strikes that had actually prevented a missile attack on shipping in the Red Sea. This is an ongoing problem. And it will seemingly take a long time to deal with this problem, as the type of military operations the United States has undertaken thus far has failed to deter the Houthis, who have suddenly discovered that they have significant leverage over the global economy. And that is something that they are—they are clearly prepared to use. Which suggests this is something that is actually beyond the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

And then that brings us to what happened recently, which is the drone attack that led to the deaths of three American servicemembers. I should point out that dozens were injured. Those injuries didn’t include Americans. There were also Jordanian soldiers who were injured in the operation. And this was undertaken by an Iranian-backed militia group that has, in the past, taken shots at the—at the United States and U.S. forces. There have been, you know, hundreds of these types of attacks since October. Ray can speak more expertly about their relationship to Tehran and their relationship to other members of the axis of resistance.  

But it seems clear that IRGC, the Quds Force is engaged in a region-wide conflict, using various proxies to sow chaos, in a way, to suck the United States into the region, in order to convince us that we need to leave the region, which is ultimately Iran’s goal here. And as Ray, I’m sure, will say, that this is perfectly consistent with an overall Iranian strategy of using different groups to advance its interests around the region, while shielding Iran itself from retaliatory measures. As you pointed out in your opening remarks, that may, in fact, be changing. And we’re all waiting to see what the Department of Defense has in store, because they have promised retaliation. 

I’ll stop there and give Ray and Stephen an opportunity as well. Thank you. 

BRANNEN: Let’s go to Ray next, just to follow up on the question of this group itself, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. I don’t think many people are familiar with that exact title. Who are they? And, again, when they strike the United States, how appropriate is it to think that’s Iran striking the United States? If you could flesh out that relationship for us. 

TAKEYH: Well, it’s an umbrella organization that comprises of five different militias that have come into existence in recent years. In terms of the operational linkages between the two, as far as I can tell there are certain things we know for sure—that Iran trains, arms them. We know that there has been efforts to have a greater degree of coordination between these different pillars of axis of resistance. Hezbollah in Lebanon has been cooperating with the Iraqi groups, and Hamas has also been part of the operational conversation. This actually really took off after the death of—killing of Gen Soleimani, where his successor, General Qaani, actually began to have a great—put together an auxiliary force that’s more connected to each other, as opposed to operating individually and separately. The idea being that there’s a greater force and cohesion if they all come together. 

The organization put out a statement saying the Iranians didn’t tell us to do that, which is—which is kind of a way of saying the Iranians told us to do that. These attacks have come about, I would say, because of the regional strategy that the Iranian regime has pursued since October 7, namely inflamed the region in order to provoke the international community to impose some kind of a restraint on Israel. Which, in fact, may happen. The proxy strategy was always successful because it’s sort of presumed immunization of Iranian territory from attack. Now that may be breached. May not be. I don’t know. 

But if it’s breached, it comes at a particularly difficult time for the Iranian regime, because it has a lot of domestic challenges, that we can unpack as you go through. And if it is breached, and if the Iranian territory is attacked, then there’s going to be retaliation. There has to be some form of retaliation. And then you get into a situation, Steve can talk about this—Biddle—an escalatory dynamic where things can sort of get out of hand, unless somebody exercises restraint. 

So we’re in—we’re on the precipice of potentially a much more expanded regional conflict than we have seen before, where you have—you move beyond sort of Israel versus a non-state actor and the United States being attacked by nonstate actors to more of an interstate conflict. And that actually means a lot of different things as we move forward. So this potentially is a kind of a dangerous inflection point in the three months or so, four months, however long it’s been, since the October 7 war began. 

BRANNEN: Mmm hmm. We’ll get to that sort of tit-for-tat dynamic, which might be upon us. But I wanted to stay on the January 28 attack for one more minute. Steve Biddle, I wanted to ask you, one question that the strike prompted, I think, for many people who haven’t been following the region as closely the past few years are, what are U.S. troops doing in Iraq, and Syria, and this outpost in Jordan? What’s their mission? And has it made sense for that deployment to continue? And now that the situation has changed, what are the options for withdrawing them, if there are any? 

BIDDLE: Yeah. All U.S. troops in Iraq were withdrawn in 2011. But then when the Islamic State burst upon the scene in 2014 and took the city of Mosul, and started marching south towards the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, U.S. troops were reintroduced into Iraq to assist the Iraqi government in dealing with the Islamic State threat. And to this day, the primary announced mission of U.S. forces in Iraq and in Syria. for that matter the largely unannounced part of the role of U.S. force in Jordan that just got struck, was to facilitate the Iraqi government’s efforts to initially defeat, but now prevent, the reemergence of the Islamic State. 

So most of them are providing some combination of training, and intelligence information and airstrike coordination, you know, for various efforts by ourselves and regional allies against Islamic State. The war against the Islamic State has sucked in other actors, including Iraqi Kurds, including Turkey, including Syria. And there is now a U.S. military presence in Syria that’s a second-order consequence of all that, that’s there in an attempt to stabilize what had become a regional war in Syria by reassuring our Kurdish allies that they will not be overwhelmed by their regional our enemies, the Turks, or by the Syrian government.  

So there’s a smallish U.S. deployment in Syria whose nominal purpose is, helped the Kurds to keep the Islamic State down. Its secondary, less announced, purpose is reassure the Kurds that they won’t get wiped out by their enemies. And then it’s got a third less widely announced mission of making it harder for the Iranians to move supplies through this real estate to ultimate destinations in Syria and southern Lebanon. So the primary road that links, as a land line of communication, Iran to its Hezbollah proxy in southern Lebanon, and its various allies in Syria, runs right through the part of Iraq and eastern Syria and close proximity to Northern Jordan, where this attack occurred and where most of these malicious strikes on U.S. bases had been happening. 

So the nominal purpose is keep the Islamic State from coming back. Clear, but less prominently announced purposes, include reassure the Kurds and include make it harder for the Iranians to supply their proxies elsewhere in the region. 

BRANNEN: Yeah. It’s worth noting too, less congressionally authorized as well, those second maybe, at least the third mission for sure. While we have you, Steve Biddle, on the line, I wanted to be sure to get a few questions into you especially about a potential U.S. response to this attack. And I know you can’t predict what the administration is going to do, but what are the types of targets they would be considering? And what are the factors they’d be weighing as they decide what might trip a red line, what can keep the escalatory risks low while sending the message you want? What are the kind of things that they’re thinking about as they decide what to do? 

BIDDLE: Yeah. I mean, there’s a rich menu of things we could attack. And we’ve been conducting retaliatory attacks in response to the 150-plus malicious strikes that have, you know, been directed at U.S. bases in the region since the October 7 crisis started. They include things like munitions stockpiles, training areas, various fixed installations that the militias use to prosecute their military activities. That’s the kind of thing we’ve been hitting heretofore.  

Probably the administration is going to try to strike something Iranian rather than just the militias, because so far retaliatory attacks against the militias haven’t been effective. This has gradually been escalating in its violence level. I think the administration is going to be concerned that if the steady state continues, this escalatory process will eventually end up somewhere we definitely don’t want it to be. So they’re going to have to do something that they haven’t yet done. That prominently includes a range of things, from striking individual IRGC targets in Syria or elsewhere, single officers, facilities, bases, up to things like striking Iranian targets elsewhere. 

The Iranians have had a warship in the Red Sea that most people believe they have been using to help the Houthis target their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. We could strike that. That would have the advantage of not being on Iranian soil, but clearly being Iranian. Or, as Ray was suggesting earlier, we could escalate into attacks on Iranian soil, either specific military facilities, specific individual leaders. The IRGC headquarters in Tehran. There’s quite a menu of possibilities from which to choose. 

What the administration is probably going to be trying to do is to calibrate this carefully. They know they need to be more forceful than they’ve been heretofore, right? Continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, right, is the definition of insanity. They’re probably not going to do that. By the same token, they don’t want a war—they don’t want a full-scale war with the state of Iran. Happily, the state of Iran doesn’t want a full-scale war with the United States either. 

So there’s some hope that, given that neither side wants this escalatory process to run ad infinitum, there are ways to moderate this so that we do more than we’ve done in the past to suggest that we are not just going to tolerate this, but not do so much that we box Tehran into a situation where their response then has to be way more escalatory than ours. All of these escalatory actions operate in the context of deterrence theory, in which there are at least two audiences for all of these actions and threats. One of them is the opponent. The other is your own domestic population. 

And you want to convince the opponent that you’re not going to destroy them if they behave themselves, but if they don’t behave themselves you’re going to inflict more pain on them than their mischief is worth to them. And that leads to these kinds of middle-ish, medium, in-between actions. And the trouble with that is they tend to be very unpopular with publics, who want more forceful action because they don’t like what they’re seeing and they think we need to hammer these people to get them to stop doing this stuff that we don’t like. And that works for the U.S. population. The Biden administration is under intense pressure to escalate.  

But it will also operate on Iranian public opinion. In the event that the United States uses a lot of force, then you run the risk of creating enough of a backlash in Iran that Iran feels hemmed in and has to walk up the ladder. It’s because there are multiple audiences you’re communicating with, partly through words and partly through actions, it gets very complicated to get the balance just right. And clearly, it isn’t just right yet. Whether it will be just right the next time is yet to be determined. 

One last word on this, which is the Pentagon spokesman just came out today with a statement that the first action you see won’t be the last action you see. Now, I’m reading tea leaves here, right, just like everybody else, but I think what that means is that probably the initial U.S. retaliatory response is not going to be a massive air raid on Tehran. (Laughs.) It’s going to be fairly limited, perhaps mostly in Syria—who knows? And so the Pentagon is trying to signal Republicans—(laughs)—and others: We are not being wimpy, because there will be more to come, right? Don’t misread the initial strike as being all that we’re going to do. That might suggest that the next military action will not be massive, and something that might be called militarily decisive, if there is such a thing. 

BRANNEN: Ray, I want to go to you next. As you hear about that sort of menu of options, where you think Iran’s red line is tripped for it to take a further escalatory move in a counterstrike? And I’d also love to hear which side do you think is more persuasive right now about its willingness to use force, the United States or Iran, as they jockeying back and forth? 

TAKEYH: Well, I’m sure you know there’s no precise answer to those questions, because this is a volatile situation where everybody is sort of making it up as they go along. This is like improvised theater, except highly dangerous. Steve Biddle made a very important point—very important point. These particular strikes are designed for—there’s how your adversary considers them and there’s how your population considers them. And the domestic population of Iran presents a paradoxical problem for the regime in Iran. Because on the one hand they don’t wish for this conflict to escalate and be part of a direct war with the United States. Yet, on the other hand, the Iranian regime, which distrusts its population, has to appear robust as a means of convincing the population that it still maintains control. It cannot be seen as being defeated, because that will reduce the aura of authority and control and power that it has at home. It will damage that. 

So their imperative to respond would be not to satisfy the population but to deter the population from essentially seeking to take advantage of the regime’s perceived weakness. Now, in terms of the menu of options that were offered by Steve Biddle, I think the—being attacked in Syria and Iraq are absorbable propositions, because they have happened before. The Israelis have been doing him so often, and they’ve been part of the shadow war that Iran and Israel have played. It’ll be similar to that. There will be some degree of Iranian bellicosity and promise of retaliation. And they may even procure the American phrase, and the time and choosing of the time of their own. 

Blowing up the ship, that would kind of—because it’s such an—such a symbolic and ostentatious target, may require a greater degree of retaliation. And anything in Iranian territory itself would present a very serious challenge for the regime, for the simple reason that the regime has told itself—and has told its constituents—that this would not happen. It has assured itself that it can wage proxy war against its adversaries without measurable retaliatory consequences. And it has signaled to its population that you may be tired of the forever wars that we are engaging in, but you’re not going to be directly a victim of those in a palpable kinetic way.  

The shattering of those presumptions is likely to produce some measure of paralysis in the system, and then pressure for retaliation in some kind of a way that’s tangible. Even if it’s symbolic, it has to be—they would have to come out of this conflict with a narrative of success, as they did from January 2020 assassination of General Soleimani. Their version is we had the last shot, and the Americans were the ones who backed down. Now, that may not be convincing to a lot of people, but it was symbolically a satisfactory narrative of success from their perspective. They had the last call. 

BRANNEN: OK. I want to turn—I want to go back, Steven Cook, to what you discussed at the beginning, this percolating deal that could end the war in Gaza, perhaps temporarily with an exchange of hostages or prisoners. If there is this kind of deal brokered, what do you think the impact will be on these strikes, whether in Iraq, Syria, or in Yemen with the Houthis? They’ve said, that’s what the goal is of these strikes. Do you think that they’ll stop when that happens? Or has it gotten bigger than that? 

COOK: Well, I think this goes to the question that Steve Biddle and Ray have been tackling, which is this question of whether the Iranians want escalation or not. And Steve Biddle suggested that they don’t. Ray had a somewhat more nuanced view of it. It strikes me that it’s not self-evident at all that the Iranians do not want escalation. If they did not want escalation, we wouldn’t see some of the things—recognizing, of course, the relative autonomy of different groups within the axis of resistance—but it strikes me that what we’re seeing is the transformation of the conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas into something larger, into an actual confrontation between the axis of resistance in this loosely aligned group of status quo powers, some of whom are more interested in joining the fight than others. 

It is tantalizing to believe that if there is some sort of long pause in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, that these attacks would come to an end. The Houthis had attack shipping in the Gulf—in the in the Red Sea even before this conflict. And they’re not attacking just Israeli-linked shipping any longer. American forces have come under attack by members of the axis of resistance for far longer than the war in the Gaza Strip has been going on. So there’s reason to believe that as the United States engages in a kind of self-deterrence here, that the Iranians believe that they have an upper hand. That this is, in fact, the conflict that the IRGC has long wanted. 

I think your initial question is, you know, what’s going to happen with this hostage deal. As I said, there’s a possibility that it can happen. The Israeli government has indicated that its minimum requirements for a deal are the release of all of these people, which—including the remains of those who have been killed, and all of the accounting for them. It seems hard after all of this time to believe that Hamas is going to give up this kind of leverage, because if you bring home all of the Israeli hostages, including the remains of those who have been killed, then it really is open season. Then the Israelis can, you know, believe it or not, loosen the rules of engagement in ways that they have not up until this point. 

And Hamas’ demand is for, you know, something moving towards if not an actual sustained cessation of violence, then an end to the conflict. Which would be essentially a victory for them, given the Israelis’ declaration that the intention—their strategic goal was to destroy Hamas. So I’m—I believe that there are negotiations going on. I believe that there are, you know, papers being passed, and things are coming into view. And if anybody in the bureaucracy can do it, it’s Bill Burns. And if he does bring this home, he gets to put an S on his chest. But I think that there are a lot of—a lot of reasons to be skeptical that even as they believe that they’re getting closer, that the parties themselves ultimately will not want to pay that particular price. So in some sense, it’s a—it’s a theoretical conversation. But to your larger question, do I think conflict continues? Absolutely, I think the conflict continues. 

BRANNEN: Steve Biddle, I know we have you for barely another minute, but I’m going to sneak in one last giant question to you. And it’s about deterrence. This word is being thrown around so much. We need to restore deterrence against Iran, we need to send a message of deterrence. I’d love to hear from you, is deterrence through military force going to work in this case? And what does it take to make deterrence effective? 

BIDDLE: Well, you have to remember deterrence is deterrence of something specific, right? Deterrence isn’t just some general thing that you get, right? The Israelis are guilty of some horribly sloppy usage on this issue. So deterrence is all about preventing the enemy from taking some specific action by threatening to do something you have not yet done, but will do if they do it. So deterrence is working right now in the Persian Gulf, right? The Iranians are not charging across the border and invading their neighbors with Iranian armored divisions, right? That’s because they’re deterred—in part, right—that’s because they’re deterred from doing so. The Iranian-backed militias could be expending more ammunition at the United States than they are now. They’re not doing that because they’re deterred from doing that, right? 

So there are all sorts of things that are being deterred, because people expect that if they do them the consequences will be negative enough that they’d rather not. The problem is we’re not deterring as many things as we want, right? What everybody involved, but especially Iranian-backed militias, right, for the current conversation, are doing is they’re constantly pushing against the limit to see, if I do a little bit more what will happen? A little bit more, what will happen, right? But a lot more is being deterred. And the problem with this strategy of do a little bit more, test the waters, see what the retaliatory action is, and then go further, is you get these eventual escalatory spirals rather than a single escalatory leap. 

So, A, deterrence isn’t hopeless. It’s going on right now. It’s just not deterring as much as what we want it to deter. B, the problem with deterrence is that it operates in the eye of the other side. We can talk about deterrence until we’re blue in the face. We can talk in the floor of the House of Representatives about all the horrible things that will prevent the Iranians from doing X as opposed to doing Y. But what really matters is what the Iranians think. The purpose of deterrence is to persuade the other side that the consequences—what we will do to you if you do what we’re trying to deter is so nasty that you will choose not to do the thing we’re trying to deter. 

And the problem is, that communication is operating through all sorts of filters. It’s operating through a cultural filter, where what we’re trying to do is act on the decision calculus of people we’ve usually never met, we know very little about, who’ve grown up in a very different society, a completely different culture, and look at the world very differently than we do. Thank heavens we have Ray Takeyh to interpret for us, but nonetheless, right, we’re operating through a tremendous amount of fog in understanding what the—how the Iranians are going to perceive what we do. 

Secondly, it’s all about, implicitly or explicitly, promising to do something you haven’t done yet. What deters is not what you already done. What deters is the thing you haven’t done and are threatening to do if Iran allows its militias to keep killing Americans, right? And that notion that it’s a threat of a future action you haven’t done yet means the credibility of these threats is central to their success, and very hard to establish. Because there are always going to be conflicting signals about the credibility of what you’re doing. It’s impossible for human behavior to be utterly consistent. I cannot be utterly consistent in my behavior toward my daughter or my cat, right? Somehow or another, I’m going to do something that isn’t quite consistent with the deterrent framework that I have in mind to keep my cat from meowing when I don’t want it to meow, right?  

So in the international relations sphere, there are always going to be behaviors of the United States that will suggest that we are tough hombres, and will inflict a lot of pain on you if you do things we’re trying to prevent, but also that we’re, you know, wimpy and unreliable, and won’t act. And so what the Iranians are doing, or what anybody who’s subject to a deterrent threat is doing, is they’re looking through this dim, foggy glass at this complex mix of behaviors on the other side, and trying to say: How do I evaluate the relative importance of American forcefulness—we keep blowing up Iranian-supported militia ammunition supplies—and American wimpyness—we don’t just go blow up the IRGC headquarters in Tehran. And it’s inevitably a mixed menu of stuff. And that makes the credibility of threats hard to establish.  

And the problem the Biden administration has got right now is they believe that the credibility of American threats to act forcefully against Iran if it doesn’t restrain its allies isn’t sufficient, and they need to do more to establish that future threats will be credible. The airstrikes that we do are deterrent only in the sense that they establish the credibility of doing something more in the future that we haven’t done yet, right?  

One last point on deterrence, which is: There’s a two-way deterrent problem here, in that we have Iranian proxies that are doing most of the nasty stuff that we’re trying to stop. Iran has a relationship with its proxies that Ray is vastly better qualified than I am to talk about in its particular details, right, but as a general matter patrons and proxies have an imperfect degree of influence on each other. Because their interests are never the same. There has never been a patron and a proxy in the history of patrons and proxies whose interests are exactly the same. They always diverge to some greater or lesser degree. And often the way they diverge is the proxy has an incentive to use more violence, because it’s useful for recruiting and it’s useful for establishing your bona fides with your local constituency, than the patron wants. Because they think the patron is going to bail them out if they get into trouble, right? 

You see this with the U.S. and Taiwan, right? Taiwan has a tendency to get out over its skis by signaling greater degrees of independence, because they’re relying on the United States to bail them out if they get in trouble. A common interest misalignment between patron and proxy is the degree to which the proxy thinks that the patron will bail them out and the patron is trying to control what they do but it has some—but varying—degree of influence over what they do. So who are we—who is the recipient of our deterrent signal? Is the recipient of our deterrence signal going to be the head of the Iranian militia? Or is it going to be the IRGC? Or is it going to be the mullahs in Tehran, right? 

They will tend to perceive the signals differently because it’s a complicated communication process that’s inherent in the nature of deterrence. And we’re trying to deter the—we are—in this instance we’re trying to compel the Iranians, a different version of coercion theory, to restrain somebody else. So that there are all sorts of moving parts here.  

TAKEYH: But, Steve, when Kataib Hezbollah issues a statement saying they’re not going to attack American forces again, in this case the proxy is more temperate than the patron. 

BIDDLE: It can work both ways. 

TAKEYH: Yeah. 

BIDDLE: It’s not uncommon that patron wants more violence—that the proxy wants more violence than the patrons. The main point is that their interests are never aligned. 

TAKEYH: Right, but is the American deterrence—American deterrence, without even acting, has already worked. 

TAKEYH: Well, it’s working all the time as we speak, right? This is the point I was making earlier, right? We’re deterring all—we’re successfully deterring all sorts of things. It’s just we’re not successfully deterring some things we really care about. And that’s a problem, right? But there’s all sorts of deterrence. Hezbollah has not crossed the border in force because the Israelis, with our assistance, are deterring them from doing that. That’s great, right? So, again, the problem with coercion theory—deterrence is one subvariant of coercion theory, compellence is another, for you academics in the audience. And it’s a complicated picture, because there’s a bunch of different things you’re trying to deter, some of what you’re doing successfully, others which not so much. 

It’s all about future action that hasn’t happened yet. So there are all sorts of credibility issues going on through all these cloudy filters. I don’t envy the Biden administration having to try to engineer all this, because in many ways the communication challenges make it a blunt instrument. And it’s a dangerous blunt instrument because misinterpretation of future intention, or misreading of somebody’s domestic audience, can lead to a different reaction from the opponent than the one you’re trying to bring about. 

BRANNEN: Well, Steve Biddle, don’t be surprised when I tried to come commission a piece from you for Foreign Affairs about patrons and proxies and deterrence theory, because I think we— 

BIDDLE: Happy to help. 

BRANNEN: (Laughs.) OK, I’m going to hand it over to the operator to take questions from the audience now. 

BIDDLE: Yeah, and I’m afraid I’m—I regret that I’m going to have to drop off. 

BRANNEN: Thank you so much for joining us. 

BIDDLE: I successfully talked so long as to deter questions. (Laughter.) So Steven Cook and Ray Takeyh will have to do them. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

We’ll take the first question from Nick Wadhams. 

Q: Hey there. It’s Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg. 

I had a question about the fact that the Pentagon and the administration basically seems to be leaving no surprises about the fact that these attacks are coming down the pike imminently. Do you think that there is a deliberate strategy in essentially telegraphing the fact that the strikes are coming? Secretary Austin was asked about this in a press conference today. You know, the notion that this was giving Iranian officials a chance to skedaddle ahead of the strikes. But is this all part of the sort of delicate balancing act? Or do you think there’s other factors at play? I mean, we’ve all been on pins and needles for the last couple of days thinking that these strikes were going to come, and it just feels like it’s sort of the worst-kept secret in Washington that it’s imminent. And I’m just wondering if you see that as a deliberate strategy, or just happenstance based on weather conditions, timing for the strikes, targets of opportunity, whatever it might be. Thank you. 

COOK: Ray, you want to take that first? 

TAKEYH: I’m not sure if I can add much light to this question regarding the administration’s calculations. It seemed to me when the president went out and said the United States will retaliate, then that sets the parameters and pretext for everybody to say that. Maybe the president was premature in saying that. I think everybody understood that with American fatalities there has to be some kind of retaliation, but also the pledge of retaliation to come, I think, to some extent, coexists with the diplomacy to try to release the hostages and have some kind of ceasefire, or some armistice, or something in the Gaza front. So that probably did have some kind of an effect on how you talk about retaliation and conduct retaliation. But I yield to Steve on this. 

COOK: My own view is—and, again, somebody who hasn’t, you know, served in the military and has a guns and trucks military analyst, is that it’s quite odd that the administration have been so open about, you know, saying, what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it, what types of targets they’re going to use. It seems to me that it violates kind of all of the things that we all know about successful military operations. And so it suggests to me that, despite the president’s saying we’re going to retaliate, that there is going to be some retaliation but the effect of that retaliation is intended to be minimal. 

And to pick up the theme that we were just talking about, is essentially the United States is self-deterring in order to communicate to the Iranians that it doesn’t want an escalation. To my mind, it’s not self-evident that that’s what the Iranians—that the Iranians share that restraint up at this point. And I should add, before we get to the next question, I think that that’s a common problem in our relationship with the Iranians, that we often believe certain things about the Iranians that just aren’t exactly true. And that because we don’t want escalation, we therefore have concluded that the Iranians don’t want escalation. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jim Zirin. 

Q: I congratulate you all on an excellent discussion. 

And one of the aspects that I think Stephen Biddle mentioned was the domestic impact of a strike. And here we are in an election year. And you have certainly the voices of the right saying that of Trump were in charge here, you’d have a different story. And that Biden is weak. And a kind of mushy response, which might be appropriate, might not be enough to satisfy the wolves. And I wondered what your impression was of the domestic impact, and what weight the decision makers might want to give it in determining what we’ll do and when we’ll do it. 

COOK: Well, Jim, as you know, I do policy not politics. But I would just point out to those critics that both Republican and Democratic administrations have at times pursued policies—had been restrained, when their critics had called for more forceful responses to provocations from the Iranians and from other ones. You know, President Trump did not respond to Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2019, did not respond to the downing of an American drone over the gulf in the summer of 2019, essentially tossing out forty years of declared American policy. I don’t think anybody is suggesting these things are easy. 

The difference here, of course, is that American soldiers were killed in this attack, and the president has publicly vowed to retaliate. So now all eyes are watching to see how robust this retaliation will be. Of course, because we are already in the 2024 election season, no matter what happens the president’s opponents are likely to take advantage of it. But, hey, that’s the nature of politics, which I’m not going to touch with a ten-foot pole. 

TAKEYH: I would just add one thing to what Steven said. The Iranian use of proxy war goes back forty-five years. Hezbollah in 1983, that attacked the American Marine barracks, the Khobar Towers bombing. So this has been a longstanding Iranian practice, much—profoundly more accelerated in the aftermath of the 9/11 wars, simply because it was greater degree of opportunity, recruitment, and chaos. But this has been a longstanding sort of this aspect of their statecraft. 

OPERATOR: As a reminder, please state your name and affiliation after you are called on. 

We’ll take the next question from Garrett Mitchell (sp). 

BRANNEN: Go ahead, Garrett (sp). You’re on mute. 

Q: Thanks very much. Garrett Mitchell (sp). 

Thank you, first of all, for a really thoughtful and helpful discussion. Stephen Biddle made mention that he certainly is glad he’s not Joe Biden, who has to figure out the balancing act on all of this. And one of the things that I’m curious about is how he is doing and how he is doing it. Which is to say, how is Joe Biden—how is Joe—how do we measure Joe Biden’s management of these sort of collected issues that we’re talking about? And in particular, I’m interested in the sort of dynamics between the sort of obvious players, which would be State, Defense, and, of course, Bill Burns. I’m interested to know whether you sense that there is a cohesion here, whether Biden is—whether Biden—is Burns emerging as a more significant player in all of this? So rather than trying to lay out a variety of scenarios, I’m curious to know what your perspective is on how the president is managing this. 

TAKEYH: I don’t think I can offer a sort of an insight on this beyond what I read in the papers. So I’m not quite sure, Garrett (sp), if I can be much of an assistant in this. How the president’s management of this, I mean, it’s—I say, how is a movie going when you haven’t seen the ending? (Laughs.) So we’re still in the middle of this. And it can go wrong in many different ways, or right in some ways. But in terms of who’s up, who’s down within the northwest corner of Washington, I’m probably not the right guy to ask about that. 

COOK: I think the only thing that I’d add is that, you know, Bill Burns, of all the principals in the—in the administration, given his experience in the past being an old Middle East hand, the ambassador to Jordan, ambassador to, you know, Russia, he knows all of these players extremely well, and is well respected by all of them. So he’s an obvious person to be dispatched to try to help hammer out a long pause. or ceasefire, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that this is a function of, you know, who’s up, who’s down, you know, the kind of games, you know, the people—I just think Burns is the appropriate person for the moment, especially since the interlocutors here are all the intel people. 

OPERATOR: At this time, we have no more questions in the queue. 

BRANNEN: I will sneak in one more then, which I’m happy to do. I wanted to ask about what was in the news today, Steven Cook, about the Biden plans to sanction Israeli settlers who have engaged in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. And just put that move into context. Is it part of some bigger strategy that you think is emerging about how to resolve this conflict? What did you make of that? 

COOK: Well, I thought it was an important step, especially since the settlers, even before October 7, had been engaged in violence and seeking to push Palestinians from their own homes and land, and engaged in all kinds of violence, and have injured and killed. Palestinians. These are people who are also, you know, egged on by Israeli ministers. So I think the United States—it was a long time coming that the United States puts—makes its views clear, not just in words but also in deed. It’s really only for settlers. We know that this is a larger problem. It’s been a larger problem for a long time.  

I think it does suggest that overall that President Biden, after having, you know, placed the United States shoulder to shoulder with Israel and its goals in the Gaza Strip, is now thinking more broadly about the day after. And that, you know, to return to some sort of status quo—which I should add is probably more likely than anything else—but that afterwards the United States is going to make a very significant diplomatic push to try to find ways to resolve the conflict once and for all, so we don’t return to a—to, you know, a horrible, horrible conflict. And then it’s a recognition that—small as it is—that the Palestinians are under threat by the settlers, who have been encouraged and enabled by Israeli ministers.  

So I think it was an important step. I think, to my—to my memory, it is the first time that the United States has directly taken action against settlers themselves, of which there is a strong American contingent. So it is, I think, important in the end. 

TAKEYH: Can I just make—can I make one point that that is—nobody has—in this conversation—has talked about the Iranian nuclear program, which actually, in some ways, is acting as a restraint on the Iranian government. Because one of the concerns that they would have to have is if there is an escalatory dynamic with the United States, and things start expanding the—as you go up this escalatory chain, it’s inconceivable to me that at some stage the Iranian nuclear apparatus would not be at least considered a legitimate target. And actually, the preservation of this nuclear apparatus, to some extent, paradoxically, is acting as a restraint on Iran, in terms of getting the regional balance correct with his domestic imperatives. And one of his domestic imperatives, as a legacy project for the leader, is to expand, preserve this nuclear infrastructure. So he cannot—they cannot sacrifice his infrastructure as the conflict potentially veers out of control. 

BRANNEN: That’s interesting. You wouldn’t expect it to be functioning in that capacity. But— 

TAKEYH: That’s right, yeah. Yeah. 

BRANNEN: Just checking if there are any more questions from the audience before we wrap up. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Hamdam Mostafavi. 

Q: Hi. I’m Hamdam Mostafavi from a French newspaper, L’Express, in France. 

I was going to ask about the nuclear program. There was actually some talks of détente, of more—there was—before the attack of the 7th of October. It seems that the U.S. and Iran could find maybe some way of talking together. Do you think now all talks, all diplomacy is gone? Or is there maybe some behind the door talks going on between Iran and the U.S.? 

TAKEYH: Well, as far as I know, it’s hard to see how the nuclear diplomacy can be generated at this particular point, when the two sides are talking about engaging in direct military confrontation with each other, and so forth. So whatever walls of mistrust existed before, substantially more so. There was, as you mentioned, a sort of an understanding, as everybody called it, whereby the United States would transfer some of Iran’s frozen assets back to Iran, and Iranians would exercise some degree of restraint in expansion of the nuclear program. And there was some evidence that that bargain was taking place, in the sense that rate of growth of Iranian production of highly enriched uranium seemed to have lessened. Not that they weren’t doing it, but they were doing it less. 

That bargains seems to have faded now, particularly because the $6 billion that were transferred to the Iranian government, with under—the agency of Qatari government—seem to have been frozen and inaccessible to them. So this sort of bargaining that needs to happen between two sides that is engaged in nuclear exchange—nuclear negotiations and diplomatic exchange requires a modicum of trust that, at this point, is absent in that relationship. There was never that much in it, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. And it’d be very difficult, I would suspect, for the Biden administration to relieve sanctions on Iran at this point for modest nuclear restraints. 

BRANNEN: OK, well, I think at that, we’re going to wrap it up. I want to thank everybody for joining us. And just a reminder that the conversation was on the record, and a video and transcript will be posted at And you can also visit the CFR page and Foreign Affairs for additional resources. Thank you, Steven and Ray, for your time. And thank you, everybody, for joining us. 

TAKEYH: Thank you. 


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