This Hand and That Hand: The Biden Administration on Iran | Opinion

The media is full of news about American airstrikes on Iranian-supported militias in Syria. Yes—it is a big deal and an appropriate measure—but if that's the left hand of the Biden administration, watch out for the right. This is becoming a theme.

In early January, though little remarked upon in the Western press, Iran seized the South Korean oil tanker MT Hankuk Chemi in international waters in the Persian Gulf. Coincidentally (Tehran says), Iran demanded the release of funds frozen by the South Korean government under the U.S.-led sanctions regime. Most of the crew was released in February, but the ship and its captain remain in Iranian waters. South Korea has now agreed to release $1 billion out of an estimated $7–9 billion held by Seoul. According to a Korean Foreign Ministry source, "The actual unfreezing of the assets will be carried out through consultations with related countries, including the United States."

South Korea, an American ally, wanted its ship and captain back while not breaking sanctions. It appears that the Biden administration offered Seoul a bit of a sleight of hand, suggesting that some of the funds either go directly to pay Iran's dues in arrears to the UN or go toward humanitarian activity controlled by outside organizations. The Iranian government says Tehran will determine where the money is spent.

If the money ends up in Iranian banks, you will know how that negotiation went.

So on the one hand, the U.S. bombs Iranian-sponsored militias ("don't mess with us"), while on the other hand it frees up at least a billion dollars for the regime ("see what we can do for you"). Sort of like denouncing the terrorist-like behavior of Iran's Houthi proxy in Yemen while removing its "terror organization" designation. Iran benefited nicely from both—but what did it pay in return? In the case of the Houthis—who have since been attacking civilians and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia—nothing. In the case of Syria, a few buildings and some militia members who weren't Iranian in any event.

That is not to say the air strikes had no value—they did, and those are worth contemplating.

According to the Pentagon, the strikes "destroy(ed) multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada." Kataib Hezbollah is said to have been responsible for attacks against American forces and contractors in Iraq, including a deadly strike that hit a U.S.-led coalition base in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

President Joe Biden at the White House
President Joe Biden at the White House Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

According to one report, the strikes were inside Syria to avoid diplomatic blowback from the Iraqi government. The Pentagon offered up larger groups of targets, but Mr. Biden approved a less aggressive option, American officials said. "This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners. The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel."

A limited and defined response to attacks on U.S. forces and allies is a reminder that the U.S. gets to choose the time and manner of its responses. And it extends the policy of the Trump administration into the current one, indicating to our adversaries that they can expect continuity at least on this.

So far, so good. But during the previous administration, the old and very valuable political axiom that "politics stop at the water's edge" was replaced with blind opposition.

  • In 2017, after Syria used chemical weapons against civilians, the U.S. struck Syrian Air Force facilities because certain international standards—among them the banning of chemical weapon use—had to be upheld, even if the U.S. was not the target of the attack. Democrats on the Hill blasted the president for not seeking prior approval, and one senator called the strike a "war crime." And Jen Psaki, who is now White House press secretary, tweeted at the time: "Also what is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country."
  • In June 2019, the Trump administration considered its response to the shooting down of an American drone by Iranian forces over the Strait of Hormuz. Democrats demanded a new congressional authorization for the use of military force before retaliating. After consulting with members of Congress, the president first authorized a strike before then calling it off—because the loss of life would not be "proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone."
  • When the Trump administration removed Qassem Soleimani—a general with an army at war with the United States and our allies, and responsible for the deaths of more than 600 American soldiers—then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had "tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox" with his order.

There is no evidence President Biden consulted with Congress before the most recent air strikes. But that's OK. The president is the commander-in-chief, and as President Trump had that authority, so does Biden. As there should not have been blanket, lockstep opposition to Mr. Trump's policies, neither should there now be such lockstep opposition for Mr. Biden's policies.

But it is possible to believe that the strike was a reasonable response to acts of war while also questioning Mr. Biden's "this way/that way" machinations on the South Korea deal. And it is reasonable at the same time to be skeptical of the administration's payoffs to the criminal Iranian regime.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.