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Time for President Biden to follow 'The Gipper' and invoke the Reagan Doctrine against Iran

Iran is aiming to set the Middle East on fire and destabilize the world economy. To disrupt the ayatollahs’ plans, Biden must establish escalation dominance over Tehran as Reagan had done.

Iran is already at war with America and threatens to destabilize the world. U.S. forces and bases are under fire in Iraq and Syria, having endured more than a hundred strikes by Iranian-backed militias in the past three months. Tehran-supported Houthi rebels have turned the Red Sea into a battlefield, having launched some 25 attacks on commercial vessels transiting the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, according to the head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. 

The disruption of traffic in the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes in global trade, is sending shipping costs surging, threatening the world economy. And that is after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 and Hezbollah fired more than 1,000 rocket strikes on northern Israel.

President Biden’s response? A "final warning," issued by his administration on Wednesday, to cease attacks or face unspecified "consequences." Biden’s strongly worded missive followed Iran’s deployment of a warship in the Red Sea, after the U.S. military sunk three Houthi boats and killed 10 militants.


Ultimatums and a mini-strike here and there will not deter Iran and its terrorist gangs. To prevent the crisis in the Middle East from reaching the boiling point and consuming the region, it is time for President Biden to switch strategy – from escalation control to escalation dominance. 

Fear of escalation and of angering Iranian leaders has shaped Biden’s policy toward Tehran, with whom his administration is still hoping to renew a nuclear deal that had been broken by the Trump administration. As recently as August, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that the administration would "welcome any steps that Iran takes to actually deescalate the growing nuclear threat that it has posed since the United States got out of the Iran nuclear deal." 

Controlling escalation, as many analysts and pundits advocate – while it has worked in the Russia-Ukraine conflict – is a wrong strategy for Iran. Biden’s escalation management approach – i.e. restricting the quantity and type of weaponry supplied to Ukraine to fight the Russians – while having resulted in the destruction of Ukraine, has, so far, steered Russian President Vladimir Putin clear of targeting Kyiv and Europe with nuclear weapons or bringing war to the U.S. homeland. 

Iran is an entirely different kind of adversary. While Russia is capable of destroying the United States, Iran has no such capability. In contrast to Moscow’s nuclear arsenal of almost 6,000 warheads, the world’s largest, Iran, officially, is yet to have a viable nuclear weapon. 


Iran is not afraid of Biden’s pinprick strategy because it is confident in its ability to outplay the United States in the asymmetric warfare domain. Tehran has been seeking to unbalance Washington by waging a protracted low-intensity military confrontation against our forces through the so-called "Axis of Resistance" – an informal network of more than a dozen militant partners across the Middle East. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and the elite Qods Force, which supplies these proxies with weapons, has demonstrated a level of technical sophistication, having enabled proxy strikes with missiles, UAVs and, most recently, an armed unmanned surface drone, which Houthis launched to attack commercial vessels in the Red Sea just hours after the White House and several U.S. Allies issued a "final" warning. 

As Iran modernizes its own military hardware, IRGC trains and equips its proxies with upgraded weaponry. On Sunday, the Israeli Defense Forces revealed that they had uncovered evidence that Hamas terrorists were learning, under Iranian guidance, "how to operate and build precision missile production components and strategic weapons." President Biden cannot afford to wait until Iranian proxies have mastered precision-strike warfare, threatening US forces and civilians with more accurate targeting and increased lethality. He must act now.

To strike the U.S. where it hurts, Iran has been deepening its expertise in cyberwarfare – including the targeting of U.S. critical infrastructure – and developing "surrogate networks inside the United States" for more than a decade in order to conduct proxy attacks on U.S. citizens, according to the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment issued in March by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Iran’s regime and its proxies already have attempted assassinations on our soil, including that of a U.S. citizen.

The only way to deter Iran is to demonstrate to the arrogant ayatollahs a credible threat of direct head-to-head kinetic confrontation with the overwhelmingly superior U.S. military. Biden can do this by employing "escalation dominance," a concept that underpinned the U.S. nuclear doctrine during the Cold War, but has since been applied to non-nuclear warfare. Originally developed to deter the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear strike on the United States, escalation dominance aims to shatter the adversary’s confidence in its ability to win. 


It is achieved by demonstrating our own superiority at every level of conflict, by making every countermove to the adversary’s move so powerful that it would leave him asking himself a question: will the opponent stand down, if I ratchet up hostilities? Or will he climb the escalation ladder? The strength of every subsequent counter-move must intensify, until the adversary’s hope for victory is completely erased, compelling him to abandon the fight.

Fortunately, Biden doesn’t have to re-invent the deterrence framework for Iran. Former President Ronald Reagan did it for him more than three decades ago. 

Reagan employed the "escalate-to-de-escalate" doctrine against Iran on April 18, 1988, when he authorized Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian targets in the Arabian Gulf. In retaliation for an Iranian attack on USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) four days earlier, which was ripped by a mine explosion, causing an enormous hole in the ship’s hull and leaving 10 sailors severely injured, the U.S. Navy launched a combined air and naval day-long operation, striking Iranian targets in the gulf. 

According to the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, U.S. forces destroyed two Iranian ships, damaging another one, dismantled two oil platforms, shut down our adversary’s fire-control radars and communications, and caused other damage to the Iranian navy, making Praying Mantis the largest of five major U.S. Navy surface actions since World War II. Tehran got the message loud and clear, ending hostilities by August.

Reagan acted forcefully within four days of Iranian provocation. Biden has been wringing his hands for months now, only emboldening Tehran to expand hostilities.

Iran has all but out-escalated Washington, threatening to set the Middle East on fire. To prevent Iran from terrorizing the world, President Biden must invoke the Reagan Doctrine. Pronto.


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