In the days since the lethal attack launched by Iranian proxy groups against American military forces serving in Jordan, some Members of Congress have demanded that President Biden retaliate by launching military strikes against Iran directly. Nothing could be more irresponsible.
Let’s be clear: While the war between Israel and Hamas has created a chaotic environment in the region, it is Iran’s proxies who are choosing to exploit this difficult moment with military aggression. They are not calling for a diplomatic path forward with Israel that ends in peace. They are choosing to make the region more explosive, not less.
That’s why it’s right for President Biden to take a measured approach in responding to these attacks. He must ensure that our troops in the Middle East know that he, their commander-in-chief, has their back when they are under fire and that those who fired the shots will pay for their sins. He must also take action with an eye toward its impact on broader American goals in the region, such as conducting counterterrorism operations, securing global energy trade routes, and maintaining strong alliances, to name but a few.
Yet once the retaliation is done, the uncomfortable truth is that the threat will likely continue to exist. It may be cauterized to a certain extent by military action, but that will only be temporary if we don’t find a way to extract ourselves from this vicious cycle. We have to flip this dynamic, where our forces are targeted by Iranian proxies, and then we have to respond militarily. We must find a way to get ahead of the next potential hostile action against us and our forces.
Therefore, we must attempt to establish a direct diplomatic channel for deconfliction with Iran.
I served as a national security official under both Presidents Bush and Obama throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan war periods. What both of those wars taught us, and particularly the Iraq war, is that no diplomatic stone should be left unturned when it comes to dealing with our nation’s adversaries. There is no shame in directly talking to those with conflict. In fact, it’s the opposite, as the less you engage, the less you know and the less influence you potentially have over your adversaries’ actions.
This idea is not as radical as it seems. In fact, presidents from both parties have recognized as much, from Nixon going to China and Reagan meeting with the Soviets during the height of the Cold War to more recent times, when President Obama opened up channels with Cuba. Even President Trump made his mark when he went to North Korea and met with Kim.
While the results of these encounters were mixed, they cost us little. And just imagine if President Bush had done the same with Iraq. Perhaps we never would have made that disastrous mistake that cost tens of thousands of lives, hundreds of billions of dollars, and massive American prestige. But we’ll never know because he chose not to.
Of course, this could all be for naught. Tehran has not shown a great willingness to engage the Biden Administration directly, even rejecting such conversations during multilateral discussions over a renewal of the now-dead Iran nuclear deal. But just because Tehran is hostile to talking doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be pressing for it. Especially now, as the direct kinetic dangers are clearer to both countries, who are more than well aware of how quickly this could descend into war. Now is the perfect time to test Tehran’s willingness to directly engage.
Ultimately, the fever dreams of those who wish for regime change in Iran must be kept at bay, just as the Iranian desire to eject the United States from the Middle East must be jettisoned, and calls for Israel to stop defending itself should be ignored. What we have before us is a direct problem with Tehran and its proxies. We should be direct in how we deal with it.
Joel Rubin is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama Administration. He’s now a Democratic Candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.