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How will Biden respond if Iran attacks Israel?

“Be certain that Iran’s response to the targeting of its Damascus consulate is inevitable,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on Friday. Israel appears to be taking the Iranian proxy’s warning seriously.

Nasrallah’s warnings mirror the rhetoric broadcast by the Iranian regime in response to an Israeli strike on an informal Iranian diplomatic consulate in Syria on Monday, in which two Quds Force operatives — Brigadier Generals Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, were killed. Israeli media has reported on speculation that Iranian retaliation could take the form of a missile attack on Israel launched directly from Iranian territory, but it could just as easily involve a volley of any number of the thousands of missiles in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. Israel has called up reservists in anticipation of an Iranian reprisal, warned the Biden administration of its intent to respond to an Iranian attack, evacuated diplomatic personnel from a number of embassies and consulates worldwide, and warned Israeli officials to lay low for the time being.

How Israel would respond to an Iranian attack depends on the form it takes, but there should be little doubt that it would respond. The Biden administration is another matter.

“You can’t act with impunity,” the president warned Iran within weeks of his inauguration. “Be careful.” That wasn’t just talk. The comments came after Biden approved a missile strike on a Syrian site used by Iranian proxy militias to execute attacks on American forces in the region. Shortly after the October 7 attacks, Biden dispatched a variety of U.S. Naval assets to the region in an effort to deter Iran and Hezbollah from engaging Israel directly. Biden’s message to Iran, the president said, was “don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” But Iran’s puppets in the region most certainly did.

What followed was a monthslong campaign in which Iran-aligned militia groups — from Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria to the Houthis in Yemen — executed attack after attack on American service personnel, naval and commercial assets, and those of its allies (one of which killed three U.S. troops and wounded scores more). Biden’s occasional and often belated counterstrikes have had varying degrees of success in restoring deterrence, but a direct Iranian attack on Israel would change everything. Or, at least, it should.

If the U.S. forces tasked with deterring Iran fail to sufficiently intimidate the Islamic Republic and its proxies, America’s mission must shift to one designed to restore stability to the region. The United States cannot accept a direct challenge to its deterrent posture unless it is willing to face similar challenges from potential adversaries all over the globe. Biden cannot make America into a paper tiger. He will have to act on the threat implicit in the position of its forces.

That would be no small undertaking. The risk to American interests that would be imperiled by a direct conflict with Iran or Hezbollah would be substantial. Indeed, substantial enough to possibly convince the president that he should do nothing — at least not directly. But the precedent set by Biden’s inaction in the face of such a brazen challenge to American reliability would haunt not just this administration but the next.

Hopefully, the response Iran and its allies execute will be a face-saving maneuver that the administration and Israel alike can absorb without committing themselves to further escalation. But if Iran miscalculates, Israel will have to respond in kind, and the United States shouldn’t be far behind. Such an attack would represent a challenge to American credibility. Biden’s failure to remind its adversaries all over the world that they “can’t act with impunity” would beget similar challenges. Here’s to hoping that the president understands the threat he may soon be forced to confront.

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